Green from blue

Iris petals

Iris petals

There is a remarkable medieval green ink that is pretty easy to prepare – as long as you’ve got some blue iris flowers handy – and that is iris green. This color is one that has been associated with sap green, the classic watercolor made from buckthorn berries, but iris green may actually have preceded sap green in use. At some time iris green was even called sap green. It’s been written that it is essentially impossible to distinguish one from the other in old manuscripts; but the bright, delicate greens I’ve been able to get from iris flowers I prefer to the olive greens I’ve gotten from buckthorn.

As I’ve posted here, I am growing some heirloom iris plants in my garden plot, and after a year and a half of care they began to bloom this spring. My irises are more on the violet side of blue, but this doesn’t seem to make much difference. In fact, my irises have a lot more dye in them than the irises I bought at the nursery last year for my first test. There’s something to be said for growing heirlooms. Here’s the procedure:

Cooking iris petals

Cooking iris petals

We’re making ink, so you want to make sure the dye is pretty concentrated in color. After chopping the iris petals into medium-sized pieces (Yes, you have to destroy the pretty flowers – I wish I could simply use the flowers after they have dried, but it just doesn’t work as well), split them into roughly equal parts. No need to be exact. Put one half into a small saucepan and cover them with distilled water. Steep or simmer them until most of the blue or violet color is gone from the petals, then strain them from the liquid, which will now be a pretty rose color. This should take a half an hour or so. Once you’ve strained the first batch of petals out, then add the other half of the petals to the bath and repeat the process. Splitting them up and adding them sequentially to the same small amount of water allows for a more concentrated color right off the bat.

Filtering the dye

Filtering the dye

Once you’re done with this, you should have a liquid that is a nice deep purple, deep enough so that you can’t see through it. You’ll want to filter it at this point to remove any petal debris, bugs, pollen etc. The setup I use is a really simple one: just a funnel (you can get these at Wal-Mart or any auto shop) and an ordinary basket coffee filter. I wet the coffee filter a bit before using it: already being wet, it doesn’t soak up as much of the dye. To collect the liquid I use a Mason jar, which will handle hot liquids pretty well – the last think you want is for your precious dye to crack the jar and spill all over the kitchen! – but even so, if I’m patient enough, I try to allow the liquid to cool a bit before pouring it in, cool enough to dip the tip of my finger into it.

Even with what is almost entirely liquid, the filter can get clogged and go slowly. Once it’s finished, you have your filtered dye. If all you want is a purple ink, then you can stop here; but the magic of iris flowers is their ability to make the medieval green. Purple can be had from many different natural sources.

Iris dye

Iris dye

To the right is the color of the dye as it is at this point. The next stage will be to add alum to it – the alum is what gives it its green color. Alum, or potash alum, is aluminum potassium sulfate, a crucial ingredient in dyeing and lake pigment production. It’s been used in dyeing and pigment making for – well, for quite a long time now. It’s also used to make pickles and maraschino cherries. Apparently you used to be able to get the stuff just about anywhere: the spice aisle, the pharmacy, etc. Perhaps if you live in a more rural part of the country you still can. I buy mine from an online dye supply shop. I’ll go over this stage in the next post.


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9 Responses to “Green from blue”

  1. Announcement: blue iris rhizomes available « Sunsikell Says:

    […] These are the irises I’ve used to create the iris green ink, which you can read about here, here, here and here. I don’t know exactly how many I’ve got, but it must be several dozen at […]

  2. Jeremy Says:

    You really inspired me. I made some ink from iris today with my wife. My ink turned out a dark green blue. I added glycerine and wine and it flows really well as an ink. I am very happy with the results. I was wondering how fugitive this ink is? I see you have done a nice piece with this ink. I was just wondering as it is listed as fugitive? I see it was extensively used in manuscripts with glair. I have experimented with vegetable “fugitive” pigments. Some fade some do not. The ones I notice faded were mostly clothing dyes like: nettles/spinach, gardenia, japanese algae, ink berry (polk), oil seed hopi dye, beets, marigold, annatto, safflower, etc. Ones that I have found good to reasonable stability are madder, weld, woad, walnut, sepia, gallnut, and even my cabbage ink (which i have had in a sunny window for a year with minimal color change). I am excited about the iris as a new addition to my ink repertoire. I am really excited about growing “Dyers Knotweed” indigo this summer. I am excited because it is supposed to produce a better blue and not be as harsh on the soil as my weld. I have tried to grow true indigo, but I have had difficulty with the climate in Virginia. So i think the Knotweed will be a good compromise. I see you are getting a new garden plot closer to home. Good luck and look forward to future posts! Best ~ Jeremy

  3. sunsikell Says:

    Jeremy, thanks so much for your post. Great that you made some iris green, and awesome that it turned out so well! It is pretty stuff, isn’t it? I’ve always assumed that it’s fugitive, like the sap green made from buckthorn, but I haven’t actually tested it yet. I’ve been planning comprehensive lightfastness tests for seems like ages now, but they keep getting put off. Hopefully sometime this year.

    You’ve worked with several things I haven’t tried yet. Of the dyes you mentioned, I’ve tried spinach, beets, marigold, weld, walnut and cabbage. The cabbage and the marigold both made very fine lake pigments – the marigold yellow, and the cabbage blue! – one of the very few natural blue lakes out there. The beets wouldn’t lake no matter what I tried, and I haven’t figured out a good way to get the chlorophyll color from the spinach leaves.

    Japanese algae – is that spirulina? I’ve read about Japanese industries using algae to color beer blue(!). Is that the same stuff you’re using? Where do you get the algae, and in what form? And: is there a North American algae that can do the same thing?

    Good to know, again, that others are into this stuff. These are some of the colors that will become increasingly important into the future, I’m convinced of it.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Yeh I love that iris blue/green. I like it better than buckthorn too. I am sure i will still make ink drawings with it regardless of fading. I found that a great deal of historical inks were fugitive they pale, change color, eat paper…but rarely completely go away at least with in a reasonable time period. The declaration of independence was written with polk berry, which is way fugitive, but it is a really beautiful. Unfortunately the algae variety is not Spurlina… I wish it was…because that stuff is everywhere. I got my “Japanese Blue Green Algae” from Kremer about 8 years ago I still have some. But they discontinued it a few years back. It was so beautiful. It is fugitive and pales to a lighter blue (I still use it anyhow), but still is a very beautiful color. I made this print back in 2003:

    The back ground is blue green algae, the antlers/hooves are gardenia, the shading walnut, red madder lake, and the line work is pthalo. I wish I knew more about their species/variety of algae that I was using. I am sure it needs a tropical environment to grow? I have been experimenting with rice based screen print emulsions for printing. I also recently found an emulsion that they are using in the garment industry called sodium alginate… an “algae” that produces an emulsion that is colorless and does not yellow. I ordered some from dharma trading where i get my alum, potash, and citric acid. So excited to try this stuff out. I got really inspired by this japanese dyer I found on etsy to use that dyers knotweed as my new indigo. (I ordered some plants from companion plants).
    I am also going to try and make a safflower red too (from the petals i collected last summer) when I have some time off. I hear you can lake safflower.

    I agree that fungus and algae are the future of pigments, food, medicines. Have you tried making pigments from lichens. I tried collecting some lichen, but I have really bad allergies and It was making me feel sick. Some of them smell like perfume/incense…it was really weird. You can make a hot magenta ink. I never processed my lichens…i felt miserable after picking and I am sure processing would have been worse. Sorry for rambling. I just find this stuff fascinating. I am really glad you are sharing your knowledge. It is really cool that you are into this stuff …especially on a fine arts/pigment level. I really look forward to seeing more of your work and posts. Take Care. ~jeremy
    Ps. If you find out any info on the algae yourself let me know.

  5. sunsikell Says:


    What a great print! Makes me think of illuminations. And that algae blue in the background is yummy. Beautiful work!

    This company says that it will have a spirulina blue pigment “coming soon”:

    Cool that you’re into printing. I’m quite interested in trying etching, using copper sulfate as a mordant, and natural colors for the inks. Have you read Phil Shaw? He’s done some experimenting in using vegetable colors for process printing, which he calls “phytochromography.” Multi-page article can be found here:

    I haven’t used lichens, as they are a bit rare and precious around here.

    I find this stuff fascinating too!

  6. Jeremy Says:

    So cool you have found an algae! and spurlina… Awesome! I will definitely book mark that!!! It is awesome you found phil shaw. I am a big fan of phil shaw…I found out about him after doing some experiments a couple years back. I found him and I have totally been inspired by him. He grew all of his pigments and printed with them. I always wanted to do process prints (CMYK) with vegetable based printing…and he did it in the 80’s and 90’s. He was so ahead of his times. I wish mainstream printing media would have caught on to his philosophy. Most print media is disposable so having vegetable based inks for newspapers, boxes, etc. seems logical as it is trash as soon as you buy it…so it could potentially do a lot for the ecology. Unfortunately I did not know lichens are precious. I will certainly be more cautious myself with picking. They seem like they are growing on everything on the east coast….that being said I did not do research on if they contributed to ecosystem balance. Thanks for the info on the algae! I am so excited! If you find anything new and exciting. Please post. I really like what you are doing. It is great to know there are others out there doing this. I used to feel alone. I have optimism that these techniques and materials could move into the mainstream and in-turn help the earth and art by getting back to the roots.

  7. Bundle the First « dyefeltsool Says:

    […] […]

  8. faun bonewits Says:

    Have you tried using the blossoms from day lilies ?
    wish i had found your weblog when the iris were blooming
    i’d moved them from next to the house to under the cedars
    and they bloomed well this year.

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi faun,

      I’ve meant to try out lilies – the stamens have some seriously staining color on them – but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. One of the many things! Thanks for your comment – L.

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