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1,999,949 colors ... and counting

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Some years ago I read that the human eye can see more than 2 million different colors. I didn't believe it. It wasn't the capacity of the eye to carry out such a task that I doubted. Rather, it was the existence of more than 2 million different colors that left me skeptical. Even if I counted all those colors that ordinary people can't quickly identify - like puce or chartreuse - I could come up with only 51 or so. That left about 1,999,949 unaccounted for. Where were they all?

Since then, I've been on a quest to locate the missing colors.

I started counting with my very first color experience, the Crayola"big box" - 64 marvelous shades of writable wax. The folks at Binney & Smith, who make Crayola crayons, have since discovered new hues and now sell a massive 96-crayon set. Coupled with the eight colors they retired a few years ago, that brought my total to 104. I'm willing to be generous and count blue-green and green-blue as separate colors, even though I'm convinced they are identical.

A home remodeling project substantially bumped up the number. A trip to the paint store revealed hundreds of different colors. Now I was on to something. The salesclerk proudly proclaimed that they carried more than 1,400 distinct hues.

If I'm again generous and round that up to 1,500 and multiply by the 20 paint vendors I find in the Yellow Pages, I come up with 30,000 shades of paint.

Adding the Crayola colors, I have reached 30,104.

After a few months of exhaustive effort, I managed to bring the total to nearly 50,000 - three colors of Heinz ketchup here, 19 shades of bubble gum there. Tint by tint I crept closer to the goal.

That fish tie from the back of my closet produced 53 neon colors that would have been lost forever if my wife had succeeded in throwing it away years ago. Despite this progress, I wasn't even a tenth of the way to 2 million.


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