Back to Natural: How We Got Started on True Colors

Colorist, artisan activist, and author Keith Recker drops by this week and takes us back to the beginning of his new book True Colors. Thanks, Keith!

True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments came into focus two years ago in a conversation with Thrums Books founder Linda Ligon. As I told her about my syncretic career (aka wilderness wandering) in the deep forests of big retail, non-profit artisan advocacy, branding, and trend and color forecasting, she nudged me along with the question, “Is there a book in there somewhere?”

back to natural
Rupa Trivedi’s group of urban artisans recycles the petals of wilted marigolds left as offerings at Hindu temples into heavenly natural colors. Photo by Joe Coca.

I knew I wanted to tell the stories of both traditional and innovative makers of color. Delving into the heritage that gives their work depth and meaning—usually under-known and under-discussed in North America and Europe—was part of my motivation. Exploring individual innovation and invention is also important to me because this is what keeps culture fresh and alive. Delivering these stories as much as possible on their own terms, and in the words of their practitioners, was important, too: how else can we come to know people and cultures that, while rich with heritage in their own right, are “new” to many of us? The colors themselves had to be beautiful, of course. But that was the easy part.

It became clear that in addition to bringing a sense of biography and history to the book, the story of natural color itself needed telling. In the almost two centuries since William Henry Perkin stumbled into inventing the first synthetic dye, even passing knowledge of natural color is rare. Cochineal and logwood, once mighty presences in transoceanic trade, are all but unknown outside textile circles. Madder and woad, whose beautiful color secrets were once so fiercely protected by European trade guilds, have passed out of favor and usage in our consumer society. Only indigo has a presence in  current tastes, thanks mostly to blue jeans. But even that echo of the great pre-mauveine culture of textile-making is often just synthetic blue dye finished with toxic chemicals to satisfy a vogue for new things that look old.

back to natural
Indigo artist Han Shan’s hands are perennially blue. From True Colors, photo by Joe Coca.

Linda and I seemed to agree pretty quickly that the meeting point of makers, their natural colors, history, and current tastes, could make a pretty exciting book, and an interesting challenge to all of us to get reacquainted with what our ancestors used to know quite a lot about. 

Discover more in this True Colors Video.

—Keith Recker

Order your copy today.

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