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Building a Relationship with Natural Color

Photos left to right:

  1. Permeate, 13.5" x 20", privet berries, Oregon red ochre, Oregon yellow ochre, soy wax, and egg tempera on paper

  2. Teachers can help show the way. Student looking at my display at the beginning of my class at "Natural Color Lab" Sitka Art Center, September 2023.

  3. cooked privet berries on paper

  4. Learning the plant color alphabet can look something like this.

  5. Frame, 6" x 8", Oregon red ochre, Maya blue, Oregon yellow ochre, Chamisa lake, calcium carbonate, egg tempera, and soy wax on rice paper

  6. Scatter, 14" x 14", privet berries, Oregon red ochre, Oregon yellow ochre, soy wax, and egg tempera on paper

  7. Window, 6" x 8", North Carolina red ochre, Maya blue, calcium carbonate, egg glair, and graphite on rice paper

  8. A coreopsis and madder lake accidentally combined onto one filter, drying.

  9. Closeup of "Natural Color Lab" class display, Sitka Art Center, September 2023

  10. Orbit, 10" x 14", Oregon red ochre, Oregon yellow ochre, soy wax, indigo, and egg tempera on paper

  11. Learning the plant color alphabet in one of my classes at Wildcraft Studio School.

  12. Mineral color in the field, Oregon green chlorite on the side of the road

Have you though about using natural color in your art practice? Or maybe you want to start an art practice so you can explore the natural colors around you. Either way, I have some thoughts to share. I have been using natural color from plants and minerals for nearly a decade on paper, and multiple decades going back to my work with natural dyes on textiles. In addition, I have a degree in Fine Art for which I used conventional artist materials of all types to create work on paper and canvas.

Over time I am shifting away from using natural materials as equivalents to their conventional counterparts. I believe in letting the plants and minerals lead the way, and in doing so I am creating pieces I never could have imagined. My process taps into both scientific inquiry and early childhood style play. It's all about building a relationship with specific plants and minerals.

Many of you will be familiar with using watercolors, but have you ever tried painting with a slurry of ground up rocks or clay on paper? If so, you'll know you will probably want a binder to anchor the dried dust on the page. There are lots of simple non-toxic, even household, possibilities here. You might be familiar with plant dyes or plant inks, but have you thought about pressing the leftover cooked plant material onto paper to make marks? These are the type of experiments I have been doing and the results have surprised and delighted me. And I know I am just scratching the surface of the endless possibilities.

Not only can you use natural materials in many different states of refinement, but you can also use them together. In my recent pieces I build up layers, alternating oil and water-based binders with egg tempera or egg glair as the intermediary. This means a water-based piece can be reworked without disturbing the foundational layers, much like if you were painting with acrylic, but with so much more nuance.

Working with natural color is similar to learning a language. It is best to start by learning the alphabet, but with time one is able to build fluency. And that language will be unique to you, your community (because we all learn from each other as well as from our non-human collaborators) and the plants and minerals you are collaborating with.

I encourage you NOT to think of natural color in terms their counterparts in conventional artist materials, like watercolors, oil paints, etc, but as their whole own universe. Many of the principles behind them are similar, but the possibilities are so much broader. It has taken me years to come to this, likely because of my background in traditional artist materials.

The process of building a relationship with the natural color around you is actually quite simple. Just follow your questions (never forgetting a hefty dose of humility towards all parties, human and non-human). If you feel so inclined, please let me know what you find, because as I said this work is best done together. And if you need a boost there are many wonderful teachers sharing their insights.

To see more of my work with natural color head over to my artist website

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