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Recently, I began to look at David Lee’s book Nature’s Palette.  It has piked my curiosity about natural dyes and pigments.  Among the quotes highlighted by the author in the book, I connected readily with a number of them and thought it likely that other artists will find these similarly pertinent as a reflection of their own intuitive connection to nature through art making.

I advise students on the subject of color as follows: “If it looks good enough to eat, use it.” Abe Ajay

I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.  Claude Monet

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars.  Walt Whitman

The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber.  The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

As I explore the subject of color, I will start with the basics – and share these with you as I learn more about them.

First, what are natural pigments and dyes?

Pigments reflect the wavelengths of light that produce a color, and absorb the other wavelengths.  The pigments we mix for oil painting are primarily mineral compounds with such characteristics.  Dyes, on the other hand, are in solution (not particulate) and produce color by allowing certain wavelengths to pass through the solution.  Thus in watercolor painting, we introduce pigments into the water solution and paint them on paper.  The vibrant colors in these paintings are produced when light passes through the dried film of dyes and reflects off the white cellulose fibers of the paper.  In both, colors are produced in a subtractive fashion. The wavelengths that are not absorbed pass through the cells and are scattered and reflected by the plant tissues.  The colors that we will discus here, produced by plants, are equivalent to industrial dyes.  They produce color by allowing certain wavelengths to pass through them, and scattering of those wavelengths produces the enormous variety of plant colors.  Chapter 3 – Nature’s Palette

And, what kinds of pigments are found in nature?

Plant pigments occur as products of metabolic pathways – porphyrin pathway – example: chlorophylls – green, isoprene pathway – example: carotenoids – yellow/orange, phenylpropanoid/flavonoid pathway – example: flavonoids – pinks, reds and purples, but also include flourescent yellow-oranges and the betalain pathway – example: intense absorbance peaks in the visible wavelengths – strongly flourescent – present in cacti and bougainvillea.

Source: Wikipedia – GNU Free Documentation License

There are more pigments that are produced by lichen and fungi – indoles – example: indigo dye, quinone methines – example: dark red rosewoods and red sandalwood, phenalones – example: turmeric plant’s curcumin – bright yellow, as well as pyrones – example: tropical fruits – orange, red, yellow and purple.

 Source: Wikipedia – GNU Free Documentation License

To introduce the theme, I am going to explore my own intuitive exercises using colors that I have observed in nature due to their appeal and occurrence especially amongst plants.  Here is a group of works from my portfolio that were influenced-inspired by floral and botanical subjects.

Wheel within a Wheel 75-79, 83-85

The world in which we live is teeming with color: the sky, earth, water, and fire all have distinct colors.  From time immemorial, we who delight in such perceptions have tried to reproduce these colors in our day-to-day surroundings.  What could be more normal? For color is the child of light, the source of all life on earth.  The challenge of finding materials capable of producing lasting colors in the world around us has preoccupied humankind from prehistory to the present day.  Francois Delamere and Bernard Guineau, Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments

I plan to continue to look into this intriguing subject of natural pigments and dyes in future posts as it intertwines with my ongoing work in the studio.