Posts Tagged ‘iris green’

Announcement: blue iris rhizomes available

January 31, 2011
Blue bearded iris

Blue bearded iris

Next week, I’ll be taking my blue iris rhizomes out of the ground, about two months late. (Okay, more like three months. Whatever…) 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 least. I only need a dozen to replant, maybe a dozen and a half. So some rhizomes will be available for sale. I don’t know exactly how much I’ll charge, but it won’t be much over what it costs me to box and ship. Not interested in a profit here; just want these little girls to go to a good home! This is an heirloom variety, and even if you’re not interested in making iris green ink, the blooms would be quite beautiful in any garden. If anyone is interested, let me know in a comment to this post, or drop me a line.

Heirloom blue iris rhizomes

Heirloom blue iris rhizomes

Update: I’ve pulled up some of the rhizomes, and they’re prettily awaiting new homes. Lots more where these came from…

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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.

More from the dye garden

April 11, 2010
Drying weld plants

Drying weld plants

I’ve harvested some weld plants from my other garden plot. This is a plot I’ve given up this spring as I just don’t have time for it this year. The wedding is coming up fast and there has been no time to do so much as order seeds. (Well, okay, I’m sure I could have found a little time to do that – but things do have a way of piling up and slipping by me.) I’ve posted some pics of young weld in the garden – here is a shot of some of the weld plants hanging to dry in the garage. I’ve read they should be dried like herbs: hung upside down so the good stuff stays in the leaves, so that’s the way I’ve always done it – although when I extract the dye I’ll be using the whole plant except for the roots. This drying process should really be done when the weather is warm and dry, and we’ve gotten some unexpected late El Niño rain… but these should still be okay. They should have some good strong yellow dye in there for making my yellow lake.

Blue bearded iris

Blue bearded iris

Also, in the main garden plot: the bearded irises are finally flowering, and spectacularly. These are an heirloom variety of rhizome I bought from a cooperative grower in Oklahoma about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been nursing them along ever since. They are blooming now at last, and the flowers are incredibly beautiful, an iridescent blue-violet. This is the first one to bloom, and I gave it to my lovely fiancée; there are more irises blooming now. Behind the iris plants are a couple of weld stalks.

Why are these iris plants in the dye garden? Well, I tell people they’re to make things prettier around there, since so much of what I grow is rather, well, weedy-looking. But I can get a special color from these as well. During the Middle Ages a remarkable green ink was used in manuscripts, called iris green. It’s visually similar to the sap green derived from buckthorn berries, and at times has even carried that name itself. I made a little iris green last year, from some store-bought blue iris flowers. It’s amazing to get such a pretty green from such a pretty blue flower!

Digging in the garden

Digging in the garden

Finally, to the right is the hole I dug today to bury a board – to try to keep the madder roots from invading that part of the garden again. My neighbor (a businessman) has been watching my progress with the dye plants and lately has been getting somewhat excited at the commercial possibilities of this “high-end” product. That all ended today when he saw how much labor I was having to put into this. I agree with his newer, less optimistic assessment – you really have to be fanatic about this stuff to even attempt it seriously. There’s a reason why alizarin crimson kicked natural madder out of the market. I may (probably will) sell a few tubes of homemade paint later on, but basically I’m doing this because I love it. I’m glad my neighbor has lost interest – when I begin selling I want to do it on my terms, and without a profit requirement. Just a natural extension of what I’m doing already.

The wedding is one week from today(!) – and after that we’ll be in Hawaii for a week. (I’ll try not to do any earth pigment harvesting while we’re there – don’t want to incur Pele’s wrath!) It’s likely I won’t post again until three weeks from now. I’ll pick up again when we return. – L.Lawrence