From plant to pigment

Yesterday, a friend and I had a lovely day near Manchester using plants and fungi to make dye and pigments.

The day was run by James Wood who is a young materials artist, and in collaboration with a wild food forager, Fergus Drennan, they are part of ‘The Foraged Book Project’.  This is a project to make a single 500 page, unique book made entirely from wild and forage materials.
Here is their link:
James showed us round the plants and trees in the field, before we went indoors to start cooking up a storm!  I never knew you could add young birch leaves to salad, or make dandelion root ‘coffee’ (which I had…’acquired taste’ is the best description).
After a quick chat about all the different dyestuffs he had for us to try, we each chose our chemistry experiment and began our alchemy!
I chose to use oak galls – I wanted to use something I could collect again, and I quite like brown.  They were crushed (smacked with a rolling pin in a bag) and placed into my cauldron with water that I let boil gently.  James was keen for us to experiment so didn’t give us all the answers as to what would work best.  We had polypores (bracket fungi), seeds, mushrooms, plants such as weld, birch leaves and ceanothus flowers to try.  One of the best surprises was the ceanothus flowers which turned quite different colours when modifiers were added.
I got brown.  As expected.
The process of dyeing is quite complex and you can get a huge variety of colours from just one plant by varying the other stuff that goes in with it.  Having had no experience of all this, it was rather a lot to get my head round but I have some notes, and a book I purchased a while ago now seems a little less like it was written in Klingon.  I actually understand what a mordant is now!
Basically, it’s like this.  You get the dye out of the plant.  This is extraction, and water is used mostly, but sometimes vodka is much better :).
You strain your dye, and then you can make it more alkaline or acidic by adding bicarbonate or soda or vinegar.  These modifiers change the colour a bit which is like magic quite frankly.  Alkali solution gives you darker colours on the whole, acid produces the lighter ones (but not always, which is also magic).

Then, you can mordant fabric and yarn and get other colours again.  This is where I nearly lost it… James then gave us the technical information us ladies needed.  He explained that a mordant was like a crab with three hooky pincers, one grabs the colour, and two grab onto the fabric, thus ensuring that the colour doesn’t wash out.  Bless him.  Perfect.  Fabric can be pre-mordanted, or pre-pincered and dried ready to grab that dye at the appropriate moment.   We played around with three.
By this time, we had cups and bits of fabric and notes everywhere but it was amazing to see how many colours were all over the floor from about seven original materials.  Our experiments were paler than they might be as we were doing things with relatively little time but even so, we had a good array of samples to help us remember what happened.
Now, as if that wasn’t enough, we then moved into making pigments and paint.  St James had the better of us by now, so he explained that pigment was just something solid that you dye.  Got it.  So we chucked some chalk or gypsum into the dye and filtered it through coffee filter papers.  As if by magic, chalky pigmenty stuff started to form.  But one more lesson was to be had.  Deep, deep in the recess of my mind, when James said you could use an acid and alkali to make a solid, something went ‘You have heard this before in a grim chemistry lesson when you were fifteen’.
Well, some almost forty years later, who knew I would see this actually happen in a useful-to-life context!   Happiness.  So we slung together some alum (acid) and potassium carbonate (alkali) with the dye and ‘Lo!’ another way to get a pigment to form without the white of the chalk or gypsum.
My friend and I were close to needing a lie down in a darkened room or a frontal lobotomy by now, but one last process.  Making ink or paint.
Basically the ink is dye with a binder in it such as seaweed extract or gum arabic, and paint has something gluey added to make it stick to paper or walls such as oil, or honey.
Our pigments weren’t dry but we used some of James’ to sieve through a mesh and mix into a paint which was placed into a very aesthetically pleasing oyster shell to take home.  Apparently these were used to hold paint in bygone years and I might just have to use a few as my palettes now.
Well that’s it.  I have emptied my head and imparted my wisdom from the day.  It was good fun, and makes you think about the environmental issues etc but the biggest thrill was following a process from scratch and realising the potential of the natural world on our doorstep.  Something about creating from a basic source is deeply satisfying and personal. I know many artists are turning to natural dyes in their textile work as environmental issues increase but if I’m honest I’m not sure how much of this I can (or want) to take forward in the limited time I have to create at the moment.  Knowing how to do it now has confronted me with the question a bit more, and has certainly added to my knowledge and possibilities for using natural dye.
One book really caught my eye and I have it on order to read on holiday.  It looks lovely.  Bye for now!

7 thoughts on “From plant to pigment

  1. How fabulous !! I am attracted to natural sources for my work – but like you time is an issue at the moment – Thanks for sharing your acquired knowledge – it all helps to keep me in the zone!! x

    1. It was great. I’d like to do some more with a bit more time but will have to see. Maybe just do something small and incorporate it? I think I might use the paint we made in my little book I made about Fountains Abbey. It’s given me a new appreciation of what the monks probably went through to get the colours of the illuminated manuscripts and how precious they must have been.
      Looks like you have a good garden of plants to choose from for your dyeing!

  2. Wow! That was a lot to take in in just one day! James looks a whole lot more fun than Professor Snape though!

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