Welcome to 2015: A Year of Firsts!

Here I am checking in more than half way through March, but I wanted to confirm that, indeed, 2015 has been a year of firsts. Here are some of the most noteworthy:

  • I went ice skating.
  • I climbed Stone Mountain.
  • I had my first exhibition in Atlanta.

On March 5th I showed some of my latest paintings in a pop up show at Fuse Arts Center in Downtown Atlanta. I shared the space with landscape painter extraordinaire, Dawn Kinney Martin. Before the show I tracked the development of my paintings on Instagram. All of them were works on paper, mounted on boards or canvases. And all of them were painted with natural dyes. A few were augmented with acrylic paint.

In another first, I finished a great 3-day fabric dyeing workshop with Catharine Ellis last weekend. In it I learned how a limited selection of natural dyes can be used to create primary and secondary colors. As I don’t have much experience with dyeing or fabric art, I was really happy to find that this class was open to all skill levels.

The highlight for me was learning about water-insoluble lake colors.

For the TL;DR crowd most dyes require a mordant to stick to fiber / fabric. So your first step is to apply the mordant solution to the fiber. THEN you apply the dye.

Natural Dye Class with Catharine Ellis Separately, the mordant and dye are water-soluble. But together, inside the fiber, the mordant and dye combine chemically to become insoluble. This combination is called a “lake.”

Working backward from this information, you can make this pigment lake outside of the fiber and use it to make ink. (With a few more ingredients, you can also make paint.) Of course, the application of ink to the surface of fiber naturally makes it less lightfast than coating fiber in mordant and dye. But I think that 2D pieces would fare better than wearables painted with ink.

Other points of interest:

  • Indigo is more complex than I originally thought. Luckily, the chemical make up of instant indigo powder (made from a petrochemical base) is about the same as the 100% natural version. So I can keep playing with the batch I have right now.

  • If you consider dyes that were used before the introduction of man-made chemicals, there are actually very few stable natural dyes.

  • Pigment lake inks made from natural dyes can sit at room temperature for months as long as they are tightly sealed with a few drops of clove oil.

  • Pomegranate dye is made from the rind and it is yellow.

  • Citric acid can be used to “discharge colorants.” So be careful about getting lemon juice on your clothes!

  • At the pop up show this month I had a lot of questions about the lightfastness of my materials. I’ve read a lot of anecdotal experiences from artists and they indicate that color change over time is often seen as a feature of working with natural dye. It’s all very intuitive and feeling-based. Luckily, Catharine is very analytical in her approach to working with dye. She addressed the questions about lightfastness head on.

    In class she showed us a blue wool test. This test is a strip of wool that has been dyed to different levels of intensity using the same blue dye. You can test the lightfastess by covering it down the middle and sitting the strip in direct sunlight for 50 days or so. Conservators can use strips like this to test different environments for displaying art.

    Here’s a good resource for doing a similar test with paint.

  • Suggested Reading / Viewing from the Class:

    Early American Weaving and Dyeing (Dover Americana): The Domestic Manufacturer's Assistant and Family Directory in the Arts of Weaving and Dyeing by J. Bronson and R. Bronson

    Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe by Helmut Schweppe (Note: This book is in German. The latest edition has not been translated into English, but it apparently gives a great overview of the chemistry behind natural dyeing.)

    Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 by Amelia Peck

    Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments: Practical Recipes and their Historical Sources by Jo Kirby

    Studies in Contemporary Textile Crafts of India: Block Printing & Dyeing of Bagru, Rajasthan (Note: While this title is really exciting and full of physical examples of work, it seems to only be available from India.)

    Toile de Jouy by Melanie Riffel, Sophie Rouart and Sophie Rouard

    Michel Garcia has a pretty great DVD selection on his site.


    Most of the books listed above are pretty expensive, but you could always petition your local library to buy a copy!