Archive for the ‘Paint making’ Category

Hand-mulling Paint, Part II

November 2, 2012

Continued from Hand-mulling Paint, Part I.

If you’re mulling a particular pigment for the first time, you won’t know just how much oil you should add. You can do some research online, something like “raw umber oil absorbtion” – but you don’t really need this information to begin. At first, use less oil than you think you will need. Many pigments (not all) will loosen and become more and more oily as you mull. I try to add just enough oil to pigment so that when I start mixing with a spatula, I’m pretty sure it won’t be enough oil. Then I start mulling. Often it winds up being enough after all. Once you’ve done this, you can keep notes on how much oil to add to each pigment.

You’ll go in a big circular motion with the muller, and pretty soon you’ll have to stop, grab the paint spatula, and scrape the paint together into a pile again. You’ll have to scrape paint off the sides of the muller as well. Make it into a pile and start mulling again. It helps to switch hands every so often. It can take a tiring amount of time with some pigments, and patience is sometimes required. After a while, you’ll know if you need to add more oil (or, sometimes, more pigment).

Below, I’m mulling and then scraping together a homemade copper green pigment into linseed oil:

Mulling Copper Green

Mulling Copper Green


Mulling Copper Green 2

Mulling Copper Green 2

Just how necessary is it to mull pigment? Why can’t you just mix the stuff up on the palette with a spatula and go? Well, sometimes this might work – the homemade candle black I made into an oil paint recently barely required mulling at all, and probably could have been used right after mixing it with oil – but other times, mulling is absolutely required. See the difference between mulling or not mulling Egyptian blue, below:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

The first swatch is unmulled. It was quite difficult to even brush it out: I had to add extra oil and use one of my stiffer bristle brushes to manage it. The second swatch is after perhaps only two minutes of mulling. Big difference, isn’t it? The third swatch is the mulled Egyptian blue mixed with some zinc white. Nice color, huh?

Some earth pigments are said to display their best colors when only lightly mulled, and that this is one problem with the uniform grind of modern, industrially-produced pigments. I thought that I was seeing this phenomenon when I was grinding up a nice raw sienna from Sinopia Pigments. The more I mulled, the duller the color seemed to get. See the pic below, the difference between those two piles of paint? I thought I was seeing over-grinding in action. However, I was wrong: it was just that the finer clumps of pigment were soaking up more of the oil. When I added more oil back into the paint, its color sprang to life again. So if that happens to you, try the same.

Mulling Raw Sienna

Mulling Raw Sienna

I’ll post one more installment of the Hand-mulling Paint series, and discuss tubing your own mulled paint.

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Hand-mulling Paint, Part I

April 16, 2012
Mulling Yellow Lake in Oil

Mulling Yellow Lake in Oil

For the past few years, I’ve been mulling paint, both watercolor and oil. Mulling is the process of dispersing pigment into a painting medium. This involves some elbow grease at times, since you’re breaking up larger glomerates of pigment into smaller glomerates. (Though mulling is often called grinding – slightly older terminology – you’re not actually grinding pigment particles into smaller pigment particles. With homemade pigments, though, there are some exceptions: for instance, there’s just only so fine I can grind eggshell white in a mortar and pestle; the fine grinding of that pigment happens with the muller.) Some pigments take longer and require more work, some less. The vermilion that I ground up recently was very quick and easy.

Eggshell White on the Palette

Eggshell White on the Palette

So: why mull paint, when there is so much in the way of ready-tubed paint to be had at the art supply store? Well, here are a few reasons one might want to mull their own paint:

One, to save money. Art supply companies often charge premium prices in what is, after all, a niche market. Understandable. But if one is willing to do a little work oneself, a noticeable amount of money can be saved for our hero, the starving artist. Remember the recession?

Two, to make a paint with a pigment that isn’t available on the market. If you’re a fan of de Laszlo and you’ve got a particular hankering to try painting with chrome orange, you’re just going to have to make that paint yourself, because it doesn’t exist in a tube at the store. Or, in my case, I wanted to mull up the pigments that I’ve made myself. (That’s actually what got me started mulling.)

Three, to produce paint with specific qualities that are not currently popular in tube paint. I personally like gritty, goopy paint, especially in earth colors (it’s just no good if I can’t make happy, chunky swirl sculptures on the palette), and it’s pretty easy to mull up a bit for the day and slap it onto the palette. I have found some paints on the market – Rublev in particular – that match the qualities I like, so I use a combination of home-mulled and bought paint.

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

(Related to this: some pigments alter their color depending on the grind. Vermilion, pictured at right, has been said to become brighter and more orange the finer it is ground. Copper pigments such as azurite and malachite become brighter and less intense – you could theoretically model an entire form using only different grinds of azurite!)

Oh, and Four, just for the experience. It can be quite satisfying to make your own paint, and even more satisfying to paint with it! – and it certainly educates one about materials. I recommend trying it!

The equipment you’ll need to start mulling your own paint: A muller and mulling slab (usually a tile of glass, but it could be stone as well); a paint spatula; and a rough material for roughening the glass surface of the slab. Maybe a gripping material like a cabinet liner, so the slab doesn’t slide all over the place while you’re mulling. Oh: and pigment and binder. How could I forget!

Next: Mulling and Tubing Your Own Paint!

From Student Palette to Zorn Palette

January 22, 2012
Student Palette Portrait

Student Palette Portrait

As described in my last post, I’ve been working with something called the student pallette. This is a severely restricted palette using only earth colors, white, and black. I’ve been working on that some more, as you can see from the pics I’ve posted here. The color palette of the painting at top uses: Rublev’s Raw Sienna and Venetian Red; Da Vinci’s Magnetite Genuine; and Winsor & Newton’s Flake White #1. The color palette of the second painting is: Rublev’s Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher and Ercolano Red; Da Vinci’s Magnetite Genuine; and Winsor & Newton’s Cremnitz White (a blend of lead and zinc whites). So all natural earths, plus white.

Student Palette Portrait

Student Palette Portrait

It’s rather difficult to work this way. I wrote something to the effect that it is like doing calisthenics. You’re fighting to get as much saturation as possible out of earth pigments, while at the same time maintaining your valued structure. At the end of a couple of hours it can feel like you’ve been in a battle.

One of the more difficult things about using this palette is maintaining temperature contrast. Even the slightest amount of blending – intentional or not – and the colors just disappear into each other, making something that looks like a monochromatic painting. This may be partly psychological as well: when you’re fighting for saturation, the last thing you think about doing is deliberately de-saturating some tones to get that temperature contrast. However, as my instructors have pointed out, desaturating some tones is the best way to get other tones look more saturated – in other words, if you want one note to look more saturated, place a less saturated color next to it.

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Despite these difficulties – or, I should say, because of them – I highly recommend working with this palette. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about painting just from the half dozen or so paintings that I’ve done this way. I’d like to include a third painting here, one that was done with a different palette. This one was done in the Zorn palette, wherein the red earth in the student palette is replaced with vermilion. And for the first time, I’ve gotten some genuine vermilion to work with.

Zorn Palette Portrait

Zorn Palette Portrait

I purchased the pigment from Kama Pigments (which was a good deal less expensive than purchasing a tube of real vermilion paint). Because the jury is still out on the toxicity of vermilion, I took a few more precautions than I normally do when mulling paint: I took everything out to the garage, left the door open, and wore a mask and gloves. (I still managed to get a bunch of vermilion paint on me. Of course.) This pigment makes the most incredible vibrant red imaginable. And it’s got pretty high tinting strength in mixes; however, it doesn’t paint at all like cadmium red. You have to fight cad red a bit to get it to behave itself in skin tones – but mixing skin tones using vermilion and yellow ochre was a breeze. I’m not sure I can explain exactly what makes it so different from cadmium red. I guess I’d say that Vermillion wants to mix into skin tones – whereas cadmium red has no such desire.

One sketch, and I already love this paint. I know I’ll be using it more. In my last post, I wrote that the Student Palette is great for study, but probably not robust enough for most professional work. Vermilion is for the professional stuff.

The Oldest Art Studio

October 17, 2011
Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Here’s some news that blew me away: The oldest art studio ever discovered (National Geographic). In Africa, a cave was unearthed that included all the basics required for making pigments: natural colorants, tools for grinding them (stones), and bowls for holding the pigments (abalone shells) – as well as some evidence of some fairly complex chemistry in their making, and even color mixing. Which is all extremely cool. But here’s the really cool thing: These art materials are 100,000 years old. Yep, a tenth of a million years is how long (at least) we humans have been making art materials – which means, of course, that we’ve been making art for at least that long as well. I’ve always had a younger date in mind, and have often shared that with my students: say, 30,000 to 40,000 years. But clearly, it’s been much longer than that.

I’m excited by the news of this discovery for a few reasons. One, this means that we homo sapiens have probably been making art ever since we’ve been homo sapiens. One related article at CNN mentioned that fragments of pigment have been found from even longer ago than those in this find, though without the related tools found there. Longer than a hundred thousand years is how long we’ve been painting. In a very real way, I think, making art is a part of what it means to be human – as much as tracking, or storytelling, funeral rites, or any other part of our deepest shared culture.

Second has to do with the pigments themselves. The pigments discovered were ochres and other minerals, charcoal, and bone. None of these is unexpected – but what has an impact on me is the feeling that when I paint with a natural earth pigment, I am a part of a hundred-thousand-year-old tradition. That makes me feel differently about what I’m doing when I use these pigments, in a wide but not-quite-definable way. It makes me feel – human. Really a part of our culture, not our modern veneer and glitz, but the real deal. It feels good.

Third, of course, is the fact that I’m a handcrafter of pigments myself. When I read the article, I immediately felt a strong connection, a kinship even, between myself and those color-makers from long ago. I felt part of a string. I thought about myself, and about some artist grinding earth pigments 100,000 years from now, and about those ancient color-makers from so long ago. I wished they could have known about me somehow, grinding earth pigments so long after they did. And I wondered if they felt the same excitement in the gathering and making of the colors, the same satisfaction with the finished pigments, and the same joy in using them for their art.

I bet they did.

Candle Black

September 12, 2011
Candle Black Ink Drawing

Candle Black Ink Drawing

There was a power outage last week here in the American Southwest. You might have seen it in the news – or even been affected yourself – it was quite a large blackout, about 5 million people without power. It was interesting to go for the evening walk with the dog, seeing house after house darkened, and the unusual sight of neighbors actually talking with each other on the street. Amazing, the things that happen when the TV and computer are out. As always, it brought home to me how lucky we are to have such things as electricity at our constant disposal. With a changing world on my mind, it was a thoughtful but enjoyable walk.

When we got back home from our walk, we lit the place up with candles. Romantic and comfortable as it always is to do so, I found myself by habit still reaching for light switches in every room I entered, even though I was carrying a candle with me. The whole thing brought to mind an experiment I’d carried out some time before to make a different kind of carbon black pigment. The kind of carbon black pigment with which many will be familiar is vine black – created by calcining grapevines in the absence of oxygen – but there’s another kind described in various treatises from the Middle Ages that is made from candles. This is a black pigment with extremely fine particles, which mixes very easily into linseed oil, and makes a beautiful black ink. It’s also a snap to make. Here’s how you do it:

Making Candle Black

Making Candle Black

First, the equipment. You’ll need, not surprisingly, a candle. But not just any candle: this needs to be a natural beeswax candle, not the paraffin or carnauba wax variety. Preferably, it will be a beeswax candle with no perfumes or dyes. You’ll need some kind of metal bowl capable of holding water, and some way to hang it suspended above the candle while the candle is lit. It doesn’t have to be fancy; you can see the system I’ve jury-rigged here. In fact you can tell a lot about me and the kind of stuff laying around my household from taking a look at the different objects I’ve used here: two fantastic books from the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco about impressionism and post-impressionism; an old paintbrush holding up the bowl; a sketchbook to adjust the height of the candle (notice how the cover is bound upside down–I saw it that way on the shelf and of course had to grab it); and the table underneath protected by a newspaper clipping about the power outage, which I just had to put under the candle.

Making Candle Black

Making Candle Black

Fill the bowl with cold water, suspend it, then light the candle and put it under the bowl. The candle flame will deposit its black soot on the underside of the bowl. This is your pigment. You can see in the pic how close the candle should be to the bowl. This will heat the bowl up quite a bit, more than one might think, and that’s why it’s necessary to fill the bowl up with cold water before beginning.

Making Candle Black

Making Candle Black

One of the great things about making candle black is that it’s not labor-intensive at all. You can walk away and do something else while you’re making your pigment. Just wander back once in a while and put a finger into the water to make sure it’s not getting too hot. Once it starts to feel a bit on the warm side, blow out the candle, pour the water from the bowl into a garden plant, and simply scrape your black pigment from the bottom of the bowl. You can keep doing this as long as you wish, of course; you can also periodically move the lit candle around to deposit pigment over a larger area.

Candle Black in Oil

Candle Black in Oil

In this image you can see what this candle black pigment looks like in oil. I made a little set of swatches using homemade candle black and lead white from Rublev. Straight candle black in oil is a really rich, inky black, slightly darker even than my bone black from Rublev. Mixed with lead white, it makes fairly neutral grays. If you’re working in oils with candle black, keep in mind the very small particle size of this pigment, likely much smaller even than lake pigment particles. This means that it might lead to premature cracking of your darks if used too thickly on its own.

Candle Black in Oil

Candle Black in Oil

But where this pigment really shines is as an ink or watercolor. With oil, the candle black pigment dispersed very easily with no mulling at all, just a little mixing together with the palette knife right on the palette. In water and gum Arabic, however, the pigment resisted dispersion mightily. I had to resort to mixing in a couple of drops of glycerin, which helped. Nevertheless, once finally dispersed, it made a beautiful ink. In the large image at the top of the post, you can see the drawing I made with this ink. I’ve been trying to figure out a way, in my ink drawings, to mix quill work with brushwork. This represents another attempt to do so. I don’t think I’m there yet; but this one is better than some of the ones I’ve done recently, and I’m happy that my more successful attempt happened with the homemade ink.

Candle black is a beautiful color, historic, sustainable, and easy to make. Grab a beeswax candle and give it a try!

How to make a lake pigment

January 10, 2011

A basic lake pigment is pretty easy to make. Some lake pigments are more complex – there’s a reason madder lake took a while to catch on, historically – but most of them are easy as pie. It was noted recently in a comment that there is a dearth of comprehensible recipes online, and it’s true. It took me a bit of searching to figure out what things like “base,” “thrown down,” “precipitated onto,” and so on actually mean. But here is the basic process in all its simplicity. Let’s go:

Alum, washing soda

Alum, washing soda

First, what you’ll need. You’ll need alum, for starters – that’s potassium aluminum sulfate. This is the basic material that’s going to grab onto the dye color, just as it does when used as a mordant in fabric dyeing. You used to be able to get the stuff in the spice aisles of grocery stores, and apparently in some parts of the country you still can (it’s used in pickling cucumbers). I purchased mine from a dye shop. Also, you’ll need some kind of alkali to precipitate the alum (turn it into an insoluble powder). Some possibilities are potash (potassium carbonate), washing soda (sodium carbonate) or chalk (calcium carbonate). I use washing soda most often. You can get it from dye shops as well; but for a better deal grab a big container at Home Depot or Lowe’s in the pool section. On the right are these two items.

You’ll need the dyestuff itself. It’s worth noting here that not all dyes will grab onto alum to form a lake pigment; but if you’ve done a little research, you’ll have some idea at least of some of the ones used in the past. Here I’ll use some ripe buckthorn berries. These were most often inspissated to make the watercolor sap green; but the dye from them will make a lake pigment.

Cooking buckthorn berries

Cooking buckthorn berries

Equipment you’ll need: a pot and something to heat it with. On the right you see me heating up the berries in water on the stove. Some dyes, such as carmine, need to be boiled; for others, such as madder, boiling can ruin the color. Research and/or experiment. Other stuff: a funnel, some coffee filters and two jars of some sort (preserving jars work the best, because you don’t have to worry about pouring hot water into them). I usually have various jars around, so I can pour back and forth as needed. You’ll also need some distilled water – this is what should be used whenever the recipe calls for water. A mortar and pestle. And: a turkey baster. No, really.

Filtering the dye

Filtering the dye

Once your dye is extracted from the dyestuff, filter it, using the funnel and a coffee filter, over one of your jars. You need to get all the gunk out of there. Now that you’ve got some extracted and filtered dye, the magic can begin. Dissolve some alum in water on the stove (a pic of this can be seen here), then pour the warm alum solution into the dye jar. With some dyes, such as weld, this will immediately bring out the color; with others, you won’t see any difference.

Lake pigment precipitating

Lake pigment precipitating

Now, do the same thing with the alkali (be a little careful with potash or washing soda – these are alkaline enough to cause a burn, make sure to keep the stuff out of your eyes): dissolve some in water on the stove, then pour some of the solution into the dye. Right away you should get a fizzing reaction as the alum encounters the alkali: as the alkali precipitates the alum, it releases carbon dioxide (or something like that). How much of each, alum and alkali, should be used? Well, it’ll be different for each dye and each recipe. As a general thing it’s better to add too little than to add too much, as more can always be added later.

Precipitate settling

Precipitate settling

Let the jar sit – sometimes for a few hours, sometimes overnight – and the precipitate will eventually settle to the bottom. Now it should be washed a few times. Take your turkey baster (told ya) and siphon off the clear water on top, as much of it as you can without losing too much pigment. Then fill the jar back up with water and allow it to settle again. Do this as many times as it takes for the clear water to be colorless (or as near to that as your patience and water supply can handle!).

The filtrate

The filtrate

Once the water is colorless to your satisfaction, siphon it off one last time, and then you’ll filter the precipitate through the funnel and another coffee filter, into your other jar. The pigment will usually clog the filter, so you’ll need some patience for this: fill up the funnel, then go do something else for a while as it slowly drains, then come back and fill it up again, etc. If you’re making a larger batch of lake you may need more than one filter. Remove the filter containing lake and lay it flat on a surface – I use plates with paper towels, but bricks are supposed to work nicely – and give it a couple of days to dry (but don’t put it in the sun – these are fugitive colors here!). It will probably shrink in volume quite a bit as it loses moisture. Once the lake is completely dry, you can grind it up, thoroughly, using a mortar and pestle.

lake pigment

The lake pigment!

Now you have your pigment – mull it into linseed oil or gum arabic and give it a go! There’s very little more satisfying than creating a painting with your own pigments and paints. Don’t forget to keep good notes on your process – and feel free to post any questions or comments below.

Walnut ink drawing

July 25, 2010
Walnut ink drawing

Walnut ink drawing

Here is a drawing made with homemade walnut ink – 9X12 on Arches hot press watercolor paper, cropped a bit. Once again a Steve McCurry photo provided the reference. I sketch in ink pretty regularly, as a way to practice and keep my hand in on an everyday basis, but normally I sketch with a ballpoint pen if I’m out and about. (My bosses know that sketching is the best way to keep myself awake and focused during a meeting!) When I’m at home, I like to use crow quill or brush, and a bottle of ink, preferably one of the inks I’ve made. Walnut is a favorite of mine.

I love ink drawings, but I don’t care for how tight mine normally are – I tried to force myself to loosen up with this one, with some success. Instead of drawing flat on a table, I put the watercolor pad on an easel and leaned it back, and held the pen as I would a paintbrush. I think it will be a good method for me, and I’m happy with how it came out. Ink drawing without making a pencil sketch first also helps.

There are instructions elsewhere for making walnut ink directly from rotten husks dropped by a black walnut tree – for instance here or here – and if you live in a part of the country with a lot of black walnut trees around, it is something that’s easy to do. I don’t live in such an area, so I bought my walnut husks dried from a dye company. (Actually, there is a “Southern California black walnut” (listed as threatened, naturally) and of course I’m eager to try it out when I happen upon one of them – but it isn’t the kind of black walnut normally associated with making ink. When I find some and try them out I will of course post the results here. I’m all about using local materials when possible.)

Filtering walnut ink

Filtering walnut ink

Anyway, if you go the same route I did, making walnut ink is about as easy as it could be. Simply cover the dried husks with distilled water and simmer them for an hour or three until you’ve got a nice thick dark liquid, adding more distilled water if necessary, then drain through a coffee filter as with the iris green. You’ve got a pretty ink! If you keep it for a while it will mold, and then you just filter it again. I add a bit of clove oil to mine as a natural preservative, it helps a bit. I understand that another ink can be made with pecan shells, and so of course I’ve got to try that as well.

Iris green – fin.

Iris blue?

Iris blue?

Incidentally, regarding the two previous posts: I have resurrected an old mystery surrounding iris ink. According to numerous medieval sources, it is possible to obtain a blue color from iris by “leaving out the yellow parts.” Thompson and others assumed that the “yellow parts” meant the pollen, but were confused that following the instructions doesn’t seem to work at all. I myself thought at one point that it may have been a bit of a medieval joke, based on green normally being derived as a mixture of blue and yellow. However, through experimentation I’ve discovered that the iris juice, or at least the juice from my more violet blue irises, will indeed paint blue, if one adds only a very small amount of alum. Perhaps that is what was meant? I don’t know why alum would be referred to as “yellow parts,” but then I’m not privy to the various inner meanings in medieval alchemy, puns, or insider codes. Anyway, it might be a possibility.

As the year progresses, the iris plants are producing fewer flowers – and those that are produced seem to have less color in them. Today’s little batch of ink is probably the last of the year, and it won’t be the best. I may not be able to really test my idea properly until next year. Iris green is definitely a springtime color…

Other medieval inks I’ve made besides walnut and iris green: brazilwood red, buckthorn yellow, saffron, folium red and turnsole blue (the color from which Sunsikell derives its name). All beautiful colors, which I’ll show and discuss in later posts. Medieval inks I have yet to make: iron gall, poppy and cornflower. The fun never stops around here!

Iris green, continued

July 11, 2010

Continued from the previous post.

alum

alum

For this amount of iris petals – a heaping dinner plate full – I used about a tablespoon of alum. (As it turns out, that was a bit too much. I’m still learning.) Put it into a small saucepan and cover it with distilled water, about a quarter inch deep. The alum should dissolve within a few minutes. If it doesn’t, then you may need to add a bit more water – but when used in an ink, it’s generally better to start with too little water rather than too much, to avoid diluting the color too much. You can always thin the cocktail later if the color demands it (this often happens with buckthorn yellow, which is really strong). If you’re making a lake pigment it doesn’t matter.

Iris green dye

Iris green dye

Once you’ve got your alum dissolved, go ahead and add just a bit of it to the iris dye. Swirl the jar around, and If you’ve put in enough of the alum, you should see the color change from purple to a cool blue (if it doesn’t do this, try adding a bit more of the alum). The picture on the right shows the difference – compare this with the violet color of the liquid in the previous post. Transparent colors can often shift hues in more concentrated amounts like this, and this is a very transparent color. It will be green when you brush it onto watercolor paper.

I like to use wine as a binder for inks if I mean them to keep, as recommended by Theophilus in his Essay Upon Divers Arts; the sugars in the wine bind the ink to the paper, while the alcohol gives a bit of preservative function. (If I’m going to use the ink right away, then glair makes for a wonderful binder instead.) The wine I have used so far is an ordinary cooking wine that contains a salt and some kind of preservative in addition to the wine. You can cook the iris petals directly in wine instead of the distilled water if you want to; this may affect the resulting hue.

If your green turns out too delicate, you can steep it on the stove some more to evaporate off some of the water, or simply leave it in an open container for a while. This was done with sap green and iris green, and is called inspissation (thickening by heating or evaporation – and there’s your new geek word for the day). Here’s where my adding too much alum became apparent: as I inspissated the liquid, the oversaturated alum began crystallizing out. Well, I learned what an alum crystal looks like!

Iris green ink sketch

Iris green ink sketch

Iris green will also make a lake pigment, but I’m not convinced it’s completely insoluble. The iris juice – especially without the wine – will spoil eventually. It’s not a bad idea to keep whatever you don’t use right away in the refrigerator.

So, if you’ve got some irises in the garden, you can make a nice bright green ink easily with a little alum and/or cooking wine. To the right is a little sketch done in this color, once again from a Steve McCurry photo; not a very good likeness, but you can see what the color looks like. Post any questions if you’ve got ’em!

Green from blue

June 29, 2010
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.