The Color of a Plant Does Not Equal the Color of a Paint

I’ve been experimenting with local plants to get a nice, stable, green color for my handmade watercolor paints. Most of the things I’ve tried in my quest for green has resulted in gray or brown. Lamb’s Quarters, a common edible weed turned out to hold green promises. Blue is the other elusive color on my list, and with Thai Butterfly Pea Tea I might have a source for that if I can grow it here.

Nature offers me lots and lots of stones and clay right here at Wild Ozark. Those yield very nice shades of browns and I love them. Plants offer lots of shades of yellow. But I need blue and green to complete my custom Wild Ozark palette, and those are proving hard to find.

"Sandstone

Color From Plants

People have used plants to make dyes for fabrics since the beginning of our time on earth. So I wondered if I could use them to make paint, too. Plants offer an abundance of various shades of yellow. But green and blue colors are especially hard to make into paint (or dye) without using materials I have to purchase.

I’ve been on a nearly obsessive quest to find local sources for green and blue color, but even if I find them, the likelihood that the resulting paint will fade in time is high. Ideally I will find a plant or something that occurs naturally here to use as pigment for a color-fast blue and green paint.

What You See is Not Necessarily What You Get

You’d think with all the green plants growing around, green would be an easy color to make. Not so. Just because a thing is a certain color, that doesn’t mean the paint (or dye) made from that thing will also yield that color.

There aren’t many blue things to experiment with, but the things that are blue are such beautiful shades. I long for color palettes loaded with such saturated colors, especially if those colors were naturally produced from my local surroundings.

Chicory flowers are a pretty blue-purple, but the paint I made from them didn't even come close to capturing that color.
Chicory flowers are a pretty blue-purple color.

Take chicory flowers, for example. What a nice pretty color those flowers are! That would make a nice blue paint, right?

Ummm. No.

It makes a nice sort of umber color, though.

The color of paint that chicory flowers made.

The same goes for greens. Most of the things that have chlorophyll in them are green. And most of the time that green turns brown as soon as it is parted from the plant.

You can see some of the work I’ve done with the sandstone, yellow, black and gray I made earlier at this page. Eventually, I’ll organize the colors into palettes and make demo art cards to go with each set.

Promises of Green Color

So I’ve been experimenting. When I pass a plant, I’ll rub the leaf between my fingers and see what happens. How long does the smear stay green on my skin? Does it even make a color transfer to my skin? Does it make a completely different color stain, like the dark brown of green walnut hulls or perilla leaves?

Today I pulled an errant weed from one of the potted peppers on the porch. Turns out the weed was an amaranth, not the pigweed with thorns, or the goose foot lamb’s quarters, but some other amaranth I didn’t know. Before I tossed it over the side, the thought occurred to check the color. I rubbed a leaf, and wow, what a nice green smear. A few more of those plants would be enough to make a decent test batch so I went out to look for more.

Of course there wouldn’t be any. But I did find the lamb’s quarters and tried one of those leaves. The green color in that smear was even brighter than the first plant, so I gathered some of those and headed back to the house. Now, I know these plants are nutritious and tasty wild foods, so if making paint or dye isn’t your thing and you have these ‘weeds’ growing around you might give them a try as food.

Here’s the experimental green paint I made from the leaves.

Green handmade watercolor paint from lamb's quarters leaves.

Right now it’s drying on a blotter card and hanging on the line in the sun so I can see if it’s going to turn brown or fade from sight. After one day, it’s still bright green so there’s hope.

Blue Color from Spiderwort and Butterfly Pea Flowers

I smashed a spiderwort (day flower) yesterday and it left a very blue stain on my finger. Unfortunately, there were only three or four flowers blooming that I could find, so I didn’t get very far with that experiment.

But I have some blue butterfly pea (Thai) for making a medicinal tea, and those flowers stain the water a very bright blue. As it turns out, the butterfly pea flower has the same compound in it and research is taking place on it as a dye plant. So I used the tea to make a test batch of paint. I used alum with part of it to see if it makes the color more stable, but the alum turned it away from blue. Still a useful color, but not what I wanted.

The butterfly pea swatches after drying overnight.
The butterfly pea swatches after drying overnight.

The compounds in the butterfly pea and the amaranth are due to compounds in the plants called anthocyanin (blue) and betalains (green). What gives me hope is that those compounds are pigments and might be more stable. If the spiderwort flowers also contain the anthocyanin, then these two plants just might work for as local sources my green and blue handmade watercolor paints!

So far the results are very promising that I’ll actually have a green and a blue paint to add to my palette. The question is how light-fast will that color be over the years?

Testing the Stability

I’m doing a test to help me see how badly the colors I have so far will fade. I painted a swatch of each color all the way across the page and labeled it twice. Once on either end of the swipe. Then I cut the page down the middle. One half is hanging on the window outside so that it is exposed to sunlight. The other side is in the dark closet. In four weeks I’ll put the two halves back together and compare the colors. I’ll update this post to let you know the results.

All the colors I have so far, hanging in the light for four weeks to test stability.
All the colors I have so far, hanging in the light for four weeks to test stability.

Today I was supposed to be a cleaning and organizing day. This experiment totally derailed yesterday’s plans but now I’m going to try and get back on track.

Update on the Light Stability

082518 – Such sad news! All of the plant based colors failed – except the sassafras. That single one performed brilliantly, and even intensified a bit, so I’ve added it to my arsenal of earth pigments. I’ll just stick with the rock-based colors until I have more time to experiment.

 


About Wild Ozark
Wild Ozark is a nature farm. Mostly we grow rocks. I use those rocks and some of the herbs to make earth pigments and watercolor paints. We also grow native clay that I use for making my Fairy Swing Mushrooms. And then there are the trees. We grow lots of trees. My husband uses some for his woodworking and some for our Burnt Kettle Shagbark Hickory Syrup, but for the most part they stand around creating good air, shade, & habitat for the ginseng nursery.
Click HERE to sign up for our newsletter

About the voice behind this blog, Madison Woods
I'm a creative old soul living way off the beaten path with my husband in the wild Ozark Mountains. You can find my art on display and for sale at the Kingston Square Arts shop in Kingston, Arkansas. It's a tiny little town and a bit off the path to anywhere at all, but a wonderful ride out to a most beautiful part of our state. Besides homesteading, growing plants & making arts & crafty things, I write books and stories. My rural fantasy fiction, written under the pen name, Ima Erthwitch, usually takes place in a much altered Ozarks.

2 thoughts on “The Color of a Plant Does Not Equal the Color of a Paint

    1. Thanks! Happy Wednesday evening to you 🙂 I’ve actually managed to get a good deal of cleaning done today, lol. Aside from the detour to play with the clay for a little while, anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.