Unpacking Orange

Fire and Pepper

“There is no orange without blue,” said Vincent van Gogh. Arches National Park has stacked orange rocks against a sky so deeply blue it seems the color has been pasted on. These rocks make sweet-potato gateways that flicker from peach-pit orange to the inside of a summer-sunburst tomato. A stripe of steamed mussel gives way to mums in a flowerpot, and then to the terra cotta pot itself. As orange as the sky makes the arches, the arches make the sky blue. The bigness of these colors give me the confidence to pocket a tiny pebble, but when I unpack it at home, it is brown.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude filled Central Park with The Gates. They made up a silken glowing orange tunnel in the black and white branch and snow winter. I walked through the gates, tiny with wonder, pale with black home-cut bangs sticking to my forehead underneath my bundled winter hat. Jeanne-Claude’s hair is orange, too, although her shade would get called red in conversation. In a Google image search, her hair’s outer perimeter ignites when any light shines through. She and Christo stand in front of The Gates, holding each other’s hands. Her hair’s fire matches her bold lipstick and art installation.

Some old Indian men use henna to color their beards against inevitable greys. Practically bald and clean shaven, my grandpa, Bapa, would have never. With henna applied, instead of salt and pepper, it’s fire and pepper. This natural dye does not look very natural. But orange and pink together feels very Indian to me. I can enjoy my heritage through a color scheme, wear it on scarves and clothes, and indulge in it through turmeric spiced foods that stain my lips.

Orange has a wavelength of 585-620 nanometers. The traditional pigments used to make orange are orpiment, which is found in arsenic mines, or realgar, a highly toxic arsenic sulfate. So far, orange is poison. Then there are crocoite crystals, which make chrome orange. Saffron threads, a natural option, are the stigmas of crocus sativus and taste good. Turmeric, also a natural pigment, is derived from the curcuma longa plant. It’s a root, but we often see it as a powder. This yellow-orange dust discourages inflammation, while other oranges depict it. Cadmium orange, a favorite, takes pigment back to toxicity with cadmium sulfide that stains the tips of oil painters’ fingers. Original orange oil paint consisted of minium and massicot, two toxic tints made by heating lead oxide. Chrome and cad orange replaced these when the 20th century painters replaced those of the 19th. Still toxic, but less toxic. Even less toxic, quinacridone orange is supposed to be as good as cad orange. My painting teacher last summer would disagree. Self-mixed tube of lead white paint in hand, he would point out that we worry about toxic paints, but eat Doritos, which get their colors from pigments named after numbers: Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Red 40. So, as Annie Dillard might conclude: so.

Ear crest, nose bridge, cheeks, fingertips, and knuckles in “Antoinette’s Caress” are all orange. The color comes up in the thin parts of skin of Mary Cassatt’s impressionist portrait of a mother and child. The child’s teeny fingers glow toward mother’s face. Tucked in a different gallery, Sherrie Levine’s “Check #5” pitches brown mahogany against green rectangles. The wax makes it flat and matte. This color combination makes for a natural green and dangerously glowing brown-orange. RISD’s red Rothko has a white square atop a smaller orange one. It may just be thinly removed red that seems orange, but with the stripe of yellow at the top of the square lets it feel like a warm body. At the tip of the tulip-inspired Trots Zynsky glass vase, the floral orange gives the appearance of a flash-fried fiori di zucca. My grandmother knows how to make these, and the rest of my family knows how to eat them.

Rubbery, plastic-wrapped American cheese squares actually earn their shade of orange from nature. Annatto, “a natural food colour made from the seeds of the achiote tree” gets credit for the hue, according to a British Wikipedia user. Wikipedia’s “orange (colour)” page has a wonderfully bizarre list of foods, spanning from “khrenovina sauce, a traditional Siberian sauce made of tomatoes, garlic and horseradish,” to “orange coloured pumpkin pie is the traditional dessert at a U.S. Thanksgiving dinner.”

The best orange in winter, however, is a clementine, each one a tiny bright gift. There are also two weeks of sumo oranges, little mottled freckled fruits that look lemony, but pack a flavor intensely orange. I stick my thumbnail into the rind of one and slide it between the taut orange slices and the fuzzy pith. The skin peels away in one piece, swirling around and down and falling like a snow-laden coat. They are in season so quickly that it might be over by the time you remember they exist.

In the RISD Museum, a schoolteacher sits behind a field trip of little kids clustered on an orange cork floor. An orange #2 pencil wiggles behind the teacher’s ear while he sketches something with a pen. There are no centrally orange pieces in the museum, and yet the color finds its way everywhere. It functions more as an accessory. One orange house in Cézanne’s “On the Banks of a River” is two orange squares reflected in water. On my way out of the gallery, a man swings a big iron bar with an ember on the tip in a video installation that I think is about dance.