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Worldbuilding: Pigments and Dyes

Pigments were used pre-written history. From charcoal created by fires, to colored clay, to mashed insects, people fell in love with color.  The first recorded mention was in 2600 BCE.

In the rules of magic, can things simply switch from one color to another or are there rules of physics behind it? In a Fantasy or Science Fiction world you can utilize existing items or create your own.

In your historical time frame, did people trade and have access to distant sources of pigment?

It is important to know when and where people had access to colors. Natural dyes were being replaced by synthetics in the 1870s. 

Natural pigments from bark, clay, berries, fungi, leaves, lichens, nuts such as walnuts, roots, wood, and other biological sources mixed with oils, water, mud, even feces decorated everything from walls to skin.

Carmine comes from an insect, cochineal, and is native to tropical and subtropical South America, Mexico, and Arizona. It was recorded in the 1400s.

Henna is a plant that grows in the Arabian Peninsula, South and Southeast Asia, parts of North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. It produces oranges to reds and when mixed with Indigo produces browns. Henna dates back to pre-recorded history.

Indigo is a plant found in the tropics, east Asia, and Central America and produces a blue-black that can be watered down into a pale blue and mixed with other colors to create greens, browns, and purples. It was also used in ancient cultures.

Kermes derives from insects native to the Mediterranean region and was used as a red dye by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Madder contains two organic red dyes, alizarin and purpurin, and is found in Central Asia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It produces reds and purples. It made its way to Europe through trade routes then the Americas by ship.

Ochre is an iron oxide pigment derived from clay and comes in a variety of color variations: yellow ochre, red ochre, purple ochre, sienna, and umber. It is found from Africa to Europe.

Royal purple is derived from a mollusk found in the Mediterranean.

Saffron, found in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, results in yellow-orange to rich red.

Woad is a flowering plant that produces blues. It is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia, Western Asia, and spread to southeastern and Central Europe, and western North America. Woad was used in Ancient Egypt.

What do people use for dyes in your Fantasy or Science Fiction world? Are they based on reality or invented? When you invent colors, it is difficult to describe them without referencing known colors or sources of color (peacock, sky, grass etc.).

Colors can be bright, dull, iridescent, neon, shocking, boring, muted, variegated. While your prose doesn't need excessive raptures about color, some times you need to emphasize a visual feast or a depressing vista.

For historical accuracy, you need to know when and how dyes and pigments were available. Educating the reader on unique methods or sources can be a little bit of trivia that will stay with them. I will never forget people using urine to set dyes or crushed insects for cosmetics.

Color can denote royalty, reinforce religious rituals, or bring decades into technicolor life.

Suggested references:

1. Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes by Jenny Deanand
2. Colors from Nature: Growing, Collecting and Using Natural Dyes by Bobbi A. McRae

Next week, we take a look at common fabrics.

For advanced world-building, the SBB Build A World Workbook is available in print and e-book.

Other titles in the series:

Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book takes you from story seed to conflict outline. The fourteen companion Build A Plot Workbooks, in print and e-book, offer -step by step development prompts: ComedyCon, Heist & Prison BreakFantasyGothicHistoricalHorrorLiterary (Drama),  MysteryRoad TripRomanceScience FictionTeam VictoryThriller & SuspenseWestern.

SBB II Crafting Believable Conflict in print and e-book and the Build A Cast Workbook in print and e-book help you build a believable cast and add conflict based on the sixteen personality types.

SBB III The Revision Layers in print and e-book helps you self-edit your manuscript.

Free story building tools are available at  

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