Within 2 days of arriving and digging in, I immediately became curious about plant pigments. My first volunteer day was at the Biocultural Conservation Farm, harvesting plants that produce an indigo pigment. I wandered over every evening to peek inside the vat that was fermenting away and pulling out pigment, and dipped a few papers in to see what would happen. After that, I was hooked, and started looking around at all the other plants in the gardens and in the landscapes in a whole new light. Plants are just so dang fascinating!
Pretty soon my studio turned into a lab, with plants in various stages of experimental extraction. I was going off the School of Google, with only bits of information as the internet is spotty here and I wouldn’t always get to all the videos or pages I wanted. Chatting with folks here over the last couple of weeks, and attending an ink making workshop using invasive plants, has added to my growing amateur hobby.
Every plant requires some experimentation, and I had to really use my sciency brain to think about acids, bases, chlorophyll, carotenoids and the like (i.e. the colorful parts of plants) and how they are best pulled and preserved. They all have their own personalities and this is the fun part of learning, where art and science blend together! I’m so freaking curious about this now, that I am sure it will become part of my artistic tool kit, creating a collection of my own hand made and non toxic paints.
It’s especially intriguing for a few reasons.
First, it takes the creation of art even deeper, creating your own raw materials from what’s available. Not only can I paint, I can now make my own paint! Pulling pigments from what surrounds me just feels so dreamy and comforting; creating seasonal palettes of place.
Second, using natural plant paints has encouraged me to let go of a lot. Which is always a good practice in life, generally. Letting go! I no longer have an exact color match for the insect, bird or plant I’m painting, but I have what I have – and it’s beautiful. The expected result of pigment rarely comes forth, and is fleeting as it ages. Hot pink pokeweed subdues over 24 hours into a lovely deep rose, for example. Purple carrots go from bright purple to a lovely dark blue. These don’t flow like the professional paints I’m used to and the colors are unpredictable, at least until I experiment more and figure some of this out. It’s just so much fun to let colors run across the page! Seeing how how onion skins play with beets, how plantain mingles with butterfly pea to make a lovely grayish blue. I’ve just felt so much joy in the process of messy, unpredictable and ephemeral materials.
This process is allowing for the creation of cleaner and gentler products. Many artist’s supplies are harmful to our Earth, made of all sorts of icky things like synthetic and toxic chemicals, plastics, metals etc. While handmade plant paints aren’t perfect, with some of the inputs needed to extract and bind the pigments so they actually function as paint, dye or ink – they are better options, and there is room to improve. I have been exploring and thinking about the gentlest and most minimal inputs that will still create beautiful materials, that don’t harm the beings I’m inspired to draw, paint or print.
There are some things I’ll never be able to give up, like paper, black micro pens, and some of the very rich commercially made watercolor paints and inks. But this process is allowing me to think more about resources including those readily abundant from my own backyard. Which is currently the rural countryside of Virginia with the most incredible gardens that create quite the palette!
I can’t wait to paint Florida colors! Hopefully I’ll still find the time for such play when I get back to regular life.