What is a sustainable color?

Or: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Despite more than a bit of misuse in popular culture, what the word “sustainable” actually means is simple – though the implications are quite profound for us all – and it’s this (from merriam-webster.com):

  1. : capable of being sustained
  2. a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
    b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

So here’s my interpretation for the purposes of this discussion (and my own philosophy):

An activity is sustainable if it in no way impedes the ability of future generations to live their lives or to engage in the same activity or other activities – for all intents and purposes forever.

If an activity does not meet that test, then it is unsustainable. Can’t keep it up forever. Can’t sustain the activity indefinitely. If you try to keep up that activity forever, then eventually you crash. It’s a fail.

Sustainability is not a nicety. It’s a requirement and a hard fact. If an activity is unsustainable, then that means we will stop doing it – eventually. The only question is whether we cease the activity voluntarily, or are forced out of it through diminishing options – or whether we ourselves will meet our end before it becomes an issue. (As one cynic put it: We will keep doing what we do until we can’t any more, and then we won’t.)

So that’s my strict definition. But “forever” is a little hard for the human brain (at least my human brain) to comprehend and plan for. When I think about this stuff, I tend to think in more discrete chunks of time, because it’s easier for me, and it clarifies my thinking: five thousand years from now, ten thousand. Will our heavy industry still be consuming at its present rate in ten thousand years? Will the Three Gorges Dam still be standing? Will we still be mining for cobalt?

This, of course, is a blog about art materials, and more than anything else it’s about colors. So which colors are sustainable? Which are not? Which are finite, but nevertheless are abundant enough to probably last the long millenia?

The good

These are the materials that really could last pretty much until the end of the world. Non-destructive, renewable, natural organic colors (definition here) that can be raised or wildcrafted in one’s own bioregion (geographic backyard), and can replenish themselves, through careful horticulture or natural propagation, and can be prepared over a simple fire using abundant, locally available ingredients – these are probably the only colors that can be considered truly sustainable by our strict definition above. One can conceivably at least keep up that activity pretty much forever, so it does pass that test, assuming it’s done with care. (However, it should definitely be noted here that not all natural organic sources pass the test. More on that in the next post.)

Also, I think we can go a little easy on ourselves here and throw the natural earths into this category. Although technically they are finite (especially the nice brightly-colored ones), well, there’s just a heck of a lot of the stuff out there. It’s a little hard to imagine artists ever managing to use up all the red earth in Arizona – or Brazil.

The bad

The pigments that are most clearly unsustainable, for various reasons that should be fairly obvious, are the ones that are manufactured from petroleum or other hydrocarbons. These synthetic organics (definition here) are going to go away sooner or later – more likely sooner. For me this is the most easily identifiable group. Flatly not sustainable, because petroleum isn’t. End of story. I’ll actually be rather surprised if they manage to still be around for much longer than another decade or two.

Perhaps slightly less obvious are the pigments that merely require a hydrocarbon-driven industrial process for their manufacture. They may not have petroleum as their basic feedstock, but they are just as dependent upon it for their existence. I don’t see how this group can make it out of the cellar either. I’ll be going through a few examples in later articles.

The ugly

Any material which is finite is therefore, strictly speaking, unsustainable. However, common sense and a little research indicate that there are certain natural inorganic materials that are so plentiful (and in some cases highly recyclable as well) that we probably don’t really need to worry about them, at least not for a very, very long time. Iron and alum in particular, which can be used to make Mars pigments and lake pigments, will almost certainly not deplete completely from the major regions of the earth in any time scale meaningful to this discussion. Also, the minerals calcium, sodium, potassium and sulfur – also used in the creation of lake pigments and some other pigments – are in abundant supply as well. There are a few other materials that I also count as reasonable candidates for this group, depending on other factors.

So, luckily, I doubt we will ever be restricted to using natural inks and earths only, even though they’re the only materials that actually made it into our “good” category. (As much as I love natural inks, I do like to make an oil painting once in a while.) We’ll be collecting earths, and making lake pigments and a few synthetic inorganic pigments (definition here), for a long, long time to come.

Forever? Can’t answer that. Ten thousand years from now? Almost certainly.

Details to follow…


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7 Responses to “What is a sustainable color?”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Great post!!!! I totally agree about the earth pigments. I use my fair share of ochre and green earth (who knows how long they will be here..I know there is a lot of it). yeh you are right about woad..it has some issues with soil depletion. it really ravaged soil and farm land in medieval times. I have mine contained in a box for that reason. I wish i lived in a tropical climate so I could grow proper indigo. I tried 3 years ago with a bell jar. I got the seeds from a place called “companion plants”. i have had succes with their seeds. anyhow this sustainability stuff is for sure not perfect. I have been working with walnut inks and mostly plant based pigments for several years now. It is tough to keep a strictly sustainable pigment palette. I still use titanium occasionally. It is really nasty stuff. fairly non-toxic… but the processing is in the realm of the aromatic pigments…really not sustainable. But in this realm of our industrial civilization i do what i can do… and it is really exciting to see people like you really exploring this subject to its fullest and sharing it with others. Again I enjoy your blog and I cannot wait to see what else you write about in the future! Cheers!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Thank you Jeremy! I am also thrilled to have made some connections lately with others who find this discussion important.

      So cool about the Companion Plants – that’s the same company from which I bought my first generation of weld and suffruticosa seeds, and the madder plants! Did you find out about them from Rita Buchanan’s Dyer’s Garden book? That’s where I found out about them. They’re a good company, good seeds and good customer service.

      You’re right, two of the pigments I plan to talk about in the coming posts are woad and titanium white. You obviously have done some research about both the pros and cons of materials like these, but a lot of people may not have considered the subtleties, or understand why someone interested in sustainability might choose to use more toxic materials instead of these. As you note, for some things there’s no clear yes-or-no answer.

      Glad to read you’re growing your woad in a container. I’ll be doing the same with the madder from now on. I don’t think madder can escape into the hillsides around here, especially since the birds have shown zero interest in the berries – but it just makes me nervous how aggressive the stuff is.

      I think it’s awesome that you’re using mostly natural organic inks and pigments, and I’m glad to have you participating here!

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Can’t wait for the post on titanium and woad! Very interesting topic. I have a quick question. What type of filters do you use for your pigment processing? I have had problems with too much pigment seeping through. Any recommendations?

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I have another quick question: where did you get your turnsole seed. That has been a tough one for me to source. I read a book on medieval pigments and turnsole seems so great as a safe, sustainable, and beautiful blue. I could not find the right species that produces the blue pigment. Again thanks for the awesome blog! You are really helping me solidify some issues for me. Best ~ Jeremy

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hi Jeremy – so far I’ve simply been using basket coffee filters in funnels to filter pigments. When I’ve had a problem with pigment particles being too small, then I simply use two filters at the same time. That’s a pain, because it slows things way down, but it works. I know there are different filters you can get for use with a buchner funnel at a chemistry supply shop, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.

      Here is where you can get the turnsole seeds:


      scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, and they give you a way to order them. Turnsole gives a wide range of beautiful colors; have fun with them!

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks again!!!!!

    • sunsikell Says:

      My pleasure! I look forward to exchanging more information with you, and with Chrissy and other readers here. I’m enjoying checking out some of your dye colors on your blog.

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