Painting with Natural Dyes - More Specifics

February 22, 2015

After some weeks of pretty intense experimentation, I’m making progress. Feeling pretty comfortable with using Cochineal, Logwood, Fustic, and Yerba Mate for silk painting. And using Madder and Indigo are coming along, but still more to learn.

Dye preparation

In order to make these dyes, I am taking a few teaspoons of dye stuff, herb or cochineal, tossing it in a pan with a good amount of filtered water and simmering it for a while, straining it to pour off the liquid, adding more water, simmering that, pouring it off, and so on, till not much color is coming off the material. This makes for a lot of liquid, which I then simmer down till it’s pretty concentrated. I don’t have specific ratios for this. I’m gauging it by what looks right and how bright a color I am looking for.

They do seem to go “off” over time (I had my mate go moldy), so refridgeration helps. I haven’t seen that a slightly off smell interferes with the dye properties, but it’s probably not recommended.

Fixing the color

I am using Jacquard water based resist to draw the outlines on untreated silk, then painting the colors in with the dyes I’ve made. Then letting it dry and overpainting the whole thing with a mordant. My favorite is 1 part iron and 4 parts alum. But then I like deep colors, not too pastel. Just enough to saturate it all, and no more. I wear gloves for the mordant application. These are natural metals, and in sparing doses, but you probably don’t want them on your skin. Just common sense.

About the mordants:

*Iron mordant* makes things darker and richer in general, but it can also dye your silk a bit yellow, if painted over resist lines. So it pretty diluted. It doesn’t take a lot of mordant, and more does not make for stronger color.

*Alum mordant* seems to create a rich natural color, not too dark, not too bright.

*Tin mordant* brightens things up. It can make for a bright, lovely red with madder root. But I don’t trust it - it smells strange and my body instinct is to keep away from it, so it’s not a part of my usual process.

And then I steam it in my big metal steamer from Dharma Trading, just like with synthetic dyes. Some folks say you shouldn’t have to, but I find this keeps the color rich and lovely, while it fades without it. My theory is that heating it helps it set, just like heating immersion dyeing on the stove top. I let it sit for a day or two after steaming before rinsing it out to pull out leftover resist, dye and mordant. And hardly any color falls out. It stays pretty strong. I think using concentrated dyes like I do, most all the color and mordant fixes right into the silk, so there’s very little waste. (Unlike with synthetic dyes, where I have to rinse and soak, and a lot of color washes out, even if the color of the silk doesn’t fade.)

I am slowly expanding my color palette through experimenting with these dyes and combinations thereof. I don’t have a full color spectrum, but I do have nice tones, and this research project is going to keep me busy for years to come!

The Dyes

*Logwood* is beautiful. It makes for a nice purple, moving to dark almost black with an iron mordant. It’s a rich, strong color. It does crazy things, too, with mordants. A note about logwood - I have seen it referenced as toxic because an extract from it, hematein is moderately toxic. I’ve also found references using it as medicine too. So I am not too worried about it, but use sensible precautions, and keep if off my skin as much as I can.

It paints on a warm tan color, and goes purple with the mordant. It’s weird and fun watching the color change!

*Cochineal* makes a nice pink, and when you steam it it goes slightly purple, a rich magenta. Mixing it with fustic can tone down that look, since magenta is not my personal favorite. It goes a bit maroon with iron mordant.

*Fusticwood* is a cheery yellow, going slightly olive with iron mordant. I like blending it with other dyes.

And the crazy one, *Yerba Mate* makes a sweet sage/olive green with alum/iron mordant. It’s beautiful, and I can’t find much of anything on the internet about other people using it as a dye, but my experiences have been very good! It’s a staple for me, for drinking as actual tea, so I have it around all the time.

Things I’m learning:

Consistency is important for surface painting. This isn’t a big deal in immersion dyeing. But sludgey dyes make for blurry lines when using resist in silk painting.

Madder seems sludgey to me, so I am trying to find out how to get the color in the liquid, not the particulate.

Mate is big for this. It’s best using the leaf-only mates, not leaf and stem (just from the health food store), “sin palo.” It doesn’t have the sludgey powder that the “con palo” has.