Before Colors: Where Pigments and Dyes Come From

Image of Before Colors: Where Pigments and Dyes Come From
Release Date: 
June 6, 2023
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: 

Before Colors is a wide ranging, effectively organized look into the origins of colors offering a satisfying dive into answering some of those nagging (or better said, wonderful) questions stirring up in every child’s mind.”

Questions, questions, and questions galore. It’s almost as if Pimentel had a curious and inquisitive five year old standing next to her when coming up with the outline for Before Colors. One can imagine said five year old standing at her side tugging on her shirt, pestering every 30 seconds by asking:

“How does color work?” “How does your eye see color?” How do you mix new colors?” “When does green look red?” “How do we talk about color?” “How do you make white?” “How does paint work?” “How does dye work?” “How do you add color without paint or dye?”

Because, because, because, because, because. Thankfully there are plenty of science-driven answers and not just because an exhausted parent “says so.” Before Colors is jam packed full of interesting facts about color, where color comes from, how it is manipulated, and what it is used for. It’s such a potent resource that the adults will find themselves armed and ready for any variety of off-beat answer their inquisitor might request.

With so much information to sift through, organization and presentation is critical. Luckily, Safer’s skillful design style is put to good use in this regard. There is balance between her artistic flare and the amount of text on the page, which is quite a bit for a picture book. The oversized book can be cumbersome at times, but it’s a trade off with the design and delivery of material.

Each color is allocated a section which is laid out with three consistent organizational features. The sections kick off with a “Before Colors” statement and a full-page image of an activity that might have been common practice long before humans lived in houses with electricity.

For example: “Before colors, a yellow sea snail tumbles in the tide.” (This illustration is set in a tide pool with Young Girl examining a snail next to a basket of snails already collected.) “Someone plucks it out of the water and rubs it on fabric.” (Two pop out images accompany this text. One shows Young Girl holding a snail in hand and one shows snails set upon a piece of cloth.) “She is making . . .”  Turn Page. “Purple.” (Young Girl is flying a purple hand-made kite out across the sea.)

A purple watercolor swatch at the bottom of the page is a backdrop to some facts about the glands in sea snails. Here we learn that the liquid in the glands has a particular colorful chemical reaction to sunlight: yellow to green to purple. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Romans would crush the snails to get the liquid out of the glands, but in the Americas they used a type of sea snail that could be milked instead of crushed. 

Also on this page is a launching point for a Q&A. This section’s question is, “How do you mix new colors from primary colors?” Hint: it’s not what you think it is. There are different variations from the traditional red, yellow, blue answer. 

The purple section continues with a “Colorful Characters” page (the second of the three standard features in each section) that highlights a person associated with a discovery, or an event related in some way to the section color. Purple’s person is Karen Casselman who noticed how collecting pigments from natural sources led to its devastation and in many cases extinction. Casselman wrote books about how to dye with natural materials but also how keep the ecosystem in balance with a code of conduct. She focused on lichen collecting, but the concept applies to anything harvested from nature.

Purple concludes with an information-heavy page spread indicating the variety of sources for color pigments (the third of the three standard section features). For purple pigments there are animal sources: murexide (a deposit in bird droppings from a certain bird in Peru). There are plant sources: sappan (the heartwood of a tree in Southeast Asia), tziz (Mexican honeysuckle), turnsole violet (green fruit of the dyer’s croton plant), murasaki (purple dye ground from the roots of the Japanese gromwell plant), and sunflowers (Hopi of North America used seeds to make purple for textiles and blankets). There are also mineral sources: mauve (extracted from coal tar). Some colors can even come from other sources or mixtures either natural or chemically derived.

In this fashion, section by section in a nicely structured format, the reader marches through each color being entertained as well as educated. People around the world and throughout history have always been involved with sourcing and making colors. The international and cultural aspects of paint and color is refreshing to see in Before Colors. Color is a great equalizer for humanity, for bonding communities and connecting families. The uses for color are infinite. Before Colors is a wide ranging, effectively organized look into the origins of colors offering a satisfying dive into answering some of those nagging (or better said, wonderful) questions stirring up in every child’s mind.