A Vivid Guide to Colors in French

A Vivid Guide to Colors in French

Is your French vocab feeling a little drab?

Do you wish you could jazz it up with some dazzling colors?

If you’d like to add splashes of color to your French conversation, but you’re still a little hesitant about moving on from monochrome, we’ve got all the tools you need.

Grab your paint palette and brush or your big box of crayons, and let’s get to coloring!

Colors as French Adjectives

When you were little and learned color names in your native language, you almost certainly didn’t think of them as a part of speech.

Technically speaking, though, colors are adjectives, since they describe nouns.

In general, French adjectives follow a few grammatical rules. Unsurprisingly, French colors also are governed by their own sets of rules.

Here are four tips to remember when talking about colors in French.

Tip #1: Color names follow nouns

Like most French adjectives, the names of colors in French follow the nouns they modify. So, you’d drink un café noir (a black coffee) or eat une pomme rouge (a red apple).

Tip #2: Most color names agree with the nouns they modify

“Agreement” means that the gender and number of the color will match the gender and number of the noun it follows.

For example: In the phrase la chemise verte (the green shirt), vert (green) will end in an –e, because chemise is feminine.

In the case of a plural, like les livres bleus (the blue books), you’d add an -s to the end of bleu (blue), because you’re describing more than one book.

There are a few notable exceptions: Some colors don’t have feminine forms. Some colors only change in the plural.

Some colors are complete rebels, and refuse to make either gender or number agreement.

We’ll look at these exceptional colors more specifically in a little while.

Tip #3: Color agreement depends on meaning.

In some cases, a lack of agreement can indicate a difference in meaning.

Des crayons jaunes et violets would mean “yellow pencils and purple pencils.” In other words, some of the pencils would be yellow, and some would be purple.

Des crayons jaune et violet would mean “yellow-and-purple pencils.” In this case, you have multiple pencils, and each one of them is both purple and yellow. (Whether the pencils’ colors are patterned in stripes, polka dots, or chevrons is left to the imagination.)

Tip #4: Clair and foncé can easily lighten or darken colors.

Two very handy words for modifying the color words themselves are clair (light) and foncé (dark).

When you add these magic modifiers after the color words, you are absolved from making any kind of agreement with the noun. The same holds true for many other color modifiers, as we’ll see later — words like nuit (night) and pâle (pale).

Here are a few examples of how clair or foncé would be used, contrasted with the plain colors:

les chaussettes grises (the gray socks) versus les chaussettes gris foncé (the dark gray socks)

la boîte bleue (the blue box) versus la boîte bleu clair (the light blue box)

les plantes vertes (the green plants) versus les plantes vert foncé (the dark green plants)

des manteaux rouges (the red coats) versus les manteaux rouge clair (the light red coats)

Practicing French Colors

To use your spiffy new colors fluently, you’ll need to internalize these rules about where they belong in a phrase, and what kind of agreement — if any — you’ll need to make between the colors and the nouns they modify.

Repeated exposure and active practice are the best ways to understand and remember French rules about using color. Here are a few resources to practice French color names.

Educational videos

Stimulating for both visual and auditory learners, educational videos can be a dynamic way to learn new concepts. They’re usually short, sweet, and to the point, so you can review them when you have a few minutes to spare.

Videos like “French Colors” from Français Immersion, “Learn French || Les Couleurs” from C’estJackie, and “Colors in French with Pascal” from Learn French with Pascal help you learn and practice French colors — with humor, personality, and flair. These qualities make the content memorable.

Poetry and music

When it comes to memory, the melody and rhyme of music and poetry weave their own special magic in the brain.

Music is particularly stimulating to the brain, activating several different parts of your brain simultaneously.

The parts of the brain that process pitch, rhythm, and other components of music are also involved in language acquisition. If you can still remember advertising jingles from your childhood, you know how well snappy beats and repetitive melodies can cement lyrics in your memory.

With all these powerful tools built into music, using songs to help you learn French colors is a natural fit.

The “Rainbow Song in French” from Learn French With Alexa is a sweet and charming way to learn basic colors. Alain Le Lait’s “Couleurs – Arc en ciel” and “J’aime les voitures” are two catchy tunes with silly lyrics — and lots of good learning packed into them.

J’aime les voitures,” in particular, will help you learn color agreement. Pay close attention to the color words when Alain switches from the feminine voitures (cars) to the masculine camions (trucks).

Poetry is a quiet, contemplative way to use the music of words to learn French colors.

In this slow, careful recitation of Victor Hugo’s poem “Demain, dès l’aube” (“Tomorrow, at Dawn”), read and listen along as the sunlight strikes the earth and brings forth its vivid colors.

Le Dormeur du val(“The Sleeper in the Valley”), by Arthur Rimbaud, paints a peaceful picture filled with verdant flora and golden sun — with a startling final verse.

Playing with color

Like music, games are stimulating and fun, and they make your mind more receptive to learning. There are a few online games that are purpose-built for teaching and reinforcing French color words.

Digital Dialects’ French Color Game uses a Simon-Says-like interface to test your knowledge of French colors. You’ll start with a single color, then be asked to select colors in a sequence. You can choose from a text version, which displays the name of the target color(s), or an audio version, where you’ll hear the color names you need to match.

French-Games.net has a color tutorial and variety of simple French color games. Some of the most entertaining and effective are Sow Grow, Hangman, Four in a Row, and Mix and Match.

Painting pictures with words

Try writing basic descriptions of yourself, a family member, a room in your home, or an outdoor scene. Emphasize qualities such as eye color, hair (or fur) color, the colors of floors and walls, or the colors of flowers in your garden.

You can check your grammar and spelling with an online tool like Reverso or Bon Patron. Bear in mind, though, that these automated tools have their limitations. If possible, ask a French conversation partner to look at your work.

Coloring Your World: Color Words in French

We’ve laid the foundation with French color rules. We’ve explored a few powerful, practical, and pleasant ways to practice French colors.

Now, it’s time for the fun part: unleashing the panoply of pigmentation, the kaleidoscope of couleurs (colors) that you can use in French for description, conversation, and appreciation of the world around you.

Colors with Feminine and Plural Forms

Individual French color names are masculine and singular, by default. Several French colors also have a feminine form, which you must choose whenever you use these words with feminine nouns.

Be careful to make agreement with both masculine and feminine plural nouns, as well.

Bleu – Blue 

  • Feminine: bleue (singular); bleues (plural)
  • Masculine plural: bleus 
  • bleuâtre(s) / bleuté(e)(s) – bluish

 Violet – Purple

  • Feminine: violette (singular); violettes (plural)
  • Masculine plural: violets
  • violacé(e)(s) – purplish

Noir Black

  • Feminine: noire (singular); noires (plural)
  • Masculine plural: noirs 
  • noirâtre(s) – blackish

Vert – Green

  • Feminine: verte (singular); vertes (plural)
  • Masculine plural: verts 
  • verdâtre(s) – greenish

Blanc – White

  • Feminine: blanche (singular); blanches (plural)
  • Masculine plural: blancs
  • blanchâtre(s) – whitish

Gris  – Gray

  • Feminine: grise (singular); grises (plural)
  • Masculine plural: gris
  • grisâtre(s) – grayish

Brun (brune) – Brown [Used mostly for eyes, hair, and skin]

  • Feminine: brune (singular); brunes (plural)
  • Masculine plural: bruns 
  • brunâtre(s) – brownish

Blond – Blond [Used mostly for hair]

  • Feminine: blonde (singular); blondes (plural)
  • Masculine plural: blonds

D’oré – Golden 

  • Feminine: d’orée (singular); d’orées (plural)
  • Masculine plural: d’orés

Colors that Change in the Plural Only

Since these color words already end in an -e, which is the normal feminine ending, you don’t need to do anything to make them agree with feminine nouns.

To make agreement with plural nouns, simply add an -s to the end of these color words.

Rouge(s)Red

  • rougeâtrereddish

Jaune(s) – Yellow

  •  jaunâtreyellowish

Châtain(s) – Brown

 This color is primarily used to describe brown hair.

Turquoise(s) – Turquoise

 This color is greenish blue or bluish green, like the stone.

“Natural” Colors That Change in the Plural

Most colors that derive from names of flowers, fruits, vegetables, animals, metals, or gemstones don’t take any agreement, for either feminine or plural nouns.

The following colors had their origins in nature, but they don’t follow the normal pattern when it comes to agreement. 

These already have a built-in feminine ending, but require a final s when used with plural nouns.

Rose(s) – Rose

Light pink, just like several varieties of the thorny flower.    

Pourpre(s) – Crimson

This sounds a bit like “purple” in English, and comes from the same linguistic roots. In French, it refers to a profoundly red color with the barest bluish hints of purple.

Mauve(s) – Mauve

This pastel purple color is reminiscent of the pinkish-bluish purple of the mallow flower.

The Invariables: Colors without Any Agreement

These unchanging colors are known as invariable. You use them as-is, with no modifications, regardless of the gender or number of the nouns they modify.

Invariable “Natural” Colors

These colors came from flora, fauna, minerals, and other natural sources, and they do follow the normal pattern of not making agreement with their nouns.

Orange – Orange

This juicy color couldn’t be easier to use or remember.

Chocolat – Chocolate brown

A bittersweet, creamy-dreamy color that melts in your mouth.

Citron – Lemon

This is a bright, sunshiny shade of jaune (yellow).

Lavande – Lavender

From the fields of Provence, this fragrant flower gives its name to a soothing, bluish purple color.

Indigo – Indigo

Now made synthetically, this was originally a dye extracted from the Indigofera family of plants.

The same color word is used in English, where it features in blues classics such as “Mood Indigo.”

Champagne – Champagne/pale gold

Effervescent, pale, and golden, just like famous French sparkling wine.

Bordeaux – Burgundy/maroon

A deep red color, like the wine produced from Merlot, Malbec, Carménère, and other grapes grown in the Bordeaux wine region.

CeriseCherry

A sweet, shiny, cheery red color.

Aubergine – Eggplant

This is a familiar color name for fashionistas in English-speaking countries. It’s a slightly reddish purple color, like the food from which it comes.

Aubergine is also the name used in France, the UK, Québec, and Ireland for edible eggplant.

Brique – Brick red

Quite similar to its English counterpart, this is also the French word for “brick” (the building material).

Crème – Cream

This off-white, milky French color is pretty easy for English speakers, especially since crème has been adopted in so many cosmetic products and foods as a fancy substitute for the word “cream.”

Think of moisturizing face crèmes and crème conditioner for your hair. Not to mention hazelnut crème for your coffee, into which you can dunk your double-stuffed vanilla crème-filled sandwich cookies.

Marine – Navy

Also known as bleu marine in French, this color takes its name from the deep, intense blue of Great Britain’s Royal Navy uniforms that were first worn in 1748.

This color symbolizes the fathomless blue oceans in which the Royal Navy sails.

Kaki – Khahi

Like marine, kaki is a color used in military uniforms. It’s a light brown with a hint of murky cream or yellow.

It derives from nature through a complex etymology, rooted in a Persian word for “soil” that became “soil-colored” in Urdu, and then was transplanted to Europe by the British Indian Army.

Pervenche Periwinkle

This color is named after a flower called the lesser periwinkle or dwarf periwinkle, also known as Vinca minor. It’s a bluish lavender color.

PrunePlum-colored

Just like raisin in French means “fresh grape,” rather than the dried fruit, la prune in French means “plum” in English.

Saumon – Salmon Pink

Named after the flesh of the fish, this orangy-pink color is also found in some rose cultivars.

Ivoire – Ivory

This is a gleaming, slightly off-white color, just like the elephant’s tusks after which it was named.

Écru – Ecru

Familiar to fans of cross-stitch embroidery, this is the color of unbleached cotton or linen.

Marron Chestnut

Named after the nut, it’s a brown color used to describe objects, but not for describing characteristics of living beings.

Ébène Ebony

A color mirroring the dense, dark wood that is polished up to create guitar picks, black piano keys, stringed instrument parts, and fine furniture.

In the middle of the 17th century, craftsmen called ébénistes (ebony cabinet-makers) created furniture masterpieces with this wood that lends its name to this shade of noir (black).

Invariable “Compound” Colors

Also part of this invariable group are what you might call “compound” colors — hues, tints, and shades of everyday colors like rouge (red), modified by an additional adjective like clair (light) or foncé (dark).

noir bleutébluish black

violet pâlepale purple, violet

brun roux – auburn

blanc cassé – “cracked” white, a color that’s not quite bis (grayish brown), not quite crème (cream)

Types of bleu (blue):

  • bleu horizon – sky blue
  • bleu pâle – pale blue
  • bleu outremer – ultramarine
  • bleu pétrole – dark greenish-blue, like an oil slick
  • bleu vert – blue-green
  • bleu canardpeacock blue (literally, “duck blue”)
  • bleu roi – royal blue (literally, “king blue”)
  • bleu marinenavy blue
  • bleu nuitmidnight blue (literally, “night blue”)
  • bleu lavande – lavender blue

Types of vert (green):

  • vert amande almond green
  • vert sapin – pine green
  • vert pistache – pistachio green
  • vert mousse – moss green
  • vert bouteille – bottle green
  • vert-de-grisgrayish green
  • vert olive – olive green
  • vert pomme – apple green
  • vert émeraude – emerald green
  • vert d’eau – sea green

Types of blond (blond):

  • blond cendré ash blond or golden blond
  • blond vénitien – strawberry blond (literally, “Venetian blond”)
  • blond miel – honey blond
  • blond foncé – dirty blond

Types of jaune (yellow):

  • jaune serincanary yellow (also, jaune canari)
  • jaune citron – lemon yellow
  • jaune paille – straw-colored
  • jaune d’or – golden yellow

Types of rouge (red):

  • rouge sang – blood red
  • rouge cerise – cherry red
  • rouge vif / rouge brillant – bright red
  • rouge pompier – fire-engine red

Types of gris (gray):

  • gris ardoise – slate gray
  • gris acier – steel gray
  • gris fer iron gray
  • gris souris – mouse (or squirrel) gray
  • gris perle – pearl gray
  • gris-vert – gray-green
  • gris-bleugray-blue
  • gris métallisé – silvery gray

An Extra Splash of Color: French Color Idioms and Expressions

Color words and their variations are often woven into idiomatic expressions, slang, and French metaphors.

After all — we call this “colorful language” with good reason!

To keep your true French colors shining through, remember to make gender and number agreement, as warranted.

Gris (Gray)

faire grise mineto look grumpy or surly (la mine in French is like mien in English)

faire grise mine à quelqu’un – to give someone a cold shoulder

il fait gris – the weather is overcast/cloudy/gray

avoir les cheveux grisonnants – to have grayish or graying hair

Noir (Black)

être écrit noir sur blanc – to be written in black and white (to be clear/indisputable)

avoir peur du noir – to be afraid of the dark

dans la nuit noire – in the dead of night

le marché noir – the black market

vendre au noir – to sell on the black market

noir comme de l’encre – as black as ink

noir comme du jais – jet black

le travail au noir – moonlighting

le roman noir – detective (or crime) novel

l’or noir – oil (literally, “black gold”)

habillé de noir – dressed in black

le café noir – black coffee

Bleu (Blue)

le bleu, blanc, rouge a name for the French flag; similar to “the Red, White, and Blue” as an allusion to the flag of the United States

être un bleu – to be a rookie, a newbie, a greenhorn, a raw recruit; also used with se prendre (to be taken for):

Tu me prends pour un bleu ? Are you taking me for a newbie?

porter des bleus – to wear work clothes, such as denim overalls

être couvert de bleus – to be black-and-blue; to be covered in bruises

être bleu de froid – to be blue with cold

Blanc (White)

être blanc de peur/de colère – to be white with fear/anger

être blanc comme un linge – to be white as a sheet 

être blanc comme un cachet d’asprine – to be “white as an aspirin tablet”; used like “white as a sheet”/“white as a ghost”

comme la blanche hermine – pure as the driven snow

blanchi – whitened

blanchi à la chaux whitewashed (literally, “whitened with lime”)

l’argent blanchi – laundered money

être blanchi – to be cleared of charges, rumors, etc.

Rouge et Rose (Red and Pink)

être rouge de honte – to be red with shame

être rouge de colère – to be red with anger

être rouge comme une pivoine – to be red as a beetroot (literally, “red as a peony”)

passer au rouge – to go through a red light

boire un coup de rouge – to drink a glass of red wine

le rouge à lèvres – lipstick

être rougeaud – to be red-faced

voir la vie en rose – to see life through rose-colored glasses; to be optimistic; part of a famous French song

Jaune (Yellow)

avoir le teint jaune – to have a sallow complexion

le jaune d’œuf – the yolk of an egg

jaunir – to become yellow or yellowish, as in, Elle lit les pages jaunies de l’ancien livre (She reads the yellowed pages of the old book)

un jaunet – a gold coin

faire la jaune – to refuse to participate in a workers’ strike

jaune comme un coing – a deep yellow complexion; jaundiced (literally, “yellow like a quince,” a bright yellow, pear-like fruit)

Vert (Green)

être vert de peur – to be green with fear

dire des vertes – to speak in a spicy, saucy, or provocative manner

se mettre à vert – to go on holiday in a natural setting; to be refreshed by time spent in nature

la verte jeunesse – the early bloom of one’s youth

Brun et Châtains (Brown)

à la bruneat dusk/at twilight; this would be à la brunante in Canadian French

un brun – a dark-haired man

une brune – a brunette (a dark-haired woman) 

une bière brunea stout/dark beer/brown ale; often, just une brune:

J’ai bu une brune au bar. (I drank a stout at the bar)

la cigarette brune the type of cigarette made with dark tobacco; frequently shortened to une brune:

Fumer, c’est mauvais pour la santé — même fumer la brune. (Smoking is bad for your health — even smoking a cigarette made with dark tobacco.)

un homme châtain – a brown-haired man

avoir les cheveux châtains – to have brown hair

Blond (Blond)

faire blondir les oignons – to lightly fry onions until they become translucent

être blond comme les blés – to have golden blond hair (the color of wheat)

une blonde – a blond-haired woman; a word for “girlfriend” — as in the Louis XIV-era song, Auprès de ma blonde(“Near My Sweetheart”) — that’s now archaic in Metropolitan French, but still used in Canada

la bière blonde – light beer/lager/light ale (also, simply, la blonde)

une blonde incendaire – blond bombshell, à la Marilyn Monroe

blondir les cheveux – to lighten hair; to bleach hair blond

la blonde oxygée – bleach/peroxide blond; bottle blond

le blondin/la blondine – fair-haired child or youth

So, now you have a whole spectrum of French color words and expressions for every tone, tint, and shade of meaning you can imagine.

Make this Technicolor tapestry a part of your French learning journey. Leave the monochrome monotony behind, and revel in the rich profusion of les couleurs françaises (the French colors).

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