part 3: painting with plants

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! 

Dipping a few print papers into the fermenting vat.

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. 

Keeping track of who’s who over time, concentrations etc. More experiments to come. Greens have been hard, working on figuring out how to pull forward that magical chlorophyll!! With regular muddling and soaking they just make….brown!

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. 

There are kestrels here, always swooping over the grassy fields, and I had the palette! Light blue = butterfly pea. Darker blue = indigo. Gold = yellow onion skins, Background I’d hoped to be a vibrant pink sunset, faded quite a bit but is a mix of yellow onion skins, poke berry, Hopi dye amaranth and avocado skins + pits. Local plants pressed and glued. The glue did not play well with the natural paints and ate them up, giving the weird halo effect around each blade. It’s kind of a cool and unexpected transformation.

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. 

Way outside my “usual”, but a must paint! I had the palette, and the thistles and goldfinches are so abundant here! The messy black ink is made from wood ash and I do not like it! I’ll stick with my black pen, or see how the Black walnut ink I’m working on now will substitute. This is so very messy and not detailed like I usually do, but let me tell you how much fun I had making a mess! Sky = butterfly pea. Finch bodies are combined with plantain leaf (brownish hue for the female top left) and a mix of invasive weeds making the bright yellow (Barberry and Mahonia). Thistles are purple carrots and a mix of other reds/pinks. Pale orange monarch = some invasive weed I lost track of during the workshop! Green = Bush Honeysuckle.

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.

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