Art is good for the soul, but what about the environment?
According to Nietzsche, art is the highest expression of life. Most people would also probably agree that art is a defining characteristic of the human race, if not the defining one.
Unfortunately, modern art also contributes to a world drowning in waste and toxic chemicals.
The toxic byproducts of certain oil and acrylic paints are nothing to sneeze at. Not only can they be harmful to you, the artist, but the environment, too, especially marine life.
Luckily you can create wonderfully vibrant paints and dyes from plants and flowers. Natural pigments are environmentally friendly, safe, and highly versatile, plus they’re pretty easy to make.
In this guide, we’ll look at what plants and flowers make the best pigments for painting, how to make your very own pigments, the benefits of using natural pigments, and some potential disadvantages.
Ready to make your art more eco-friendly? Let’s dive in!
What Are Plant Pigments?
Natural pigments have been used since prehistoric times. They can be derived from minerals and rocks like clay and azurite but also from animals, plants, roots, fruits, and flowers.
In fact, some of the richest pigments in nature can be found in your backyard. In spring, summer, and fall, flower and plant dyes can offer you a wide range of vibrant colors.
From painting a beautiful landscape to dyeing fabrics to staining wood, natural pigments can be used for all kinds of DIY projects.
All you need is a little time, a few rudimentary tools, and of course, plants and flowers of your choice!
While almost all plants and flowers can give you some pigment, not all will produce those rich, distinctive colors needed for painting. But the following flowers and plants will.
- Oranges: coreopsis flowers, madder root, carrots, rhubarb root
- Yellows: safflower, dandelion flowers, onion skins, marigold flowers, weld
- Reds: madder root, roses
- Purples/Pinks: red cabbage, beetroot, blackberries, elderberries
- Blues: indigo, blueberries, woad, red cabbage
- Greens: spinach leaves, nettle, comfrey, grass, matcha
- Browns: coffee, leaves, black walnut hulls
This list is certainly not exhaustive, and there are many more plants, vegetables, fruits, and flowers that can give vibrant paint and dye pigments out there!
However, it’s important to keep in mind that botanical pigments can be very unpredictable. Just because a plant is green, for example, does not mean it will produce a green pigment (more often than not, it will be yellow, brown, or yellowish-greenish). Also, some colors will change slightly, sometimes even dramatically, once they dry.
How to Make Your Own Botanical Pigments
Painting with botanical pigments is a process of discovery, which is why we highly encourage experimenting with different plants and flowers and playing with the extraction process. While not difficult or complex, the process of extracting pigments from plants requires time and attention to detail.
As mentioned, countless flowers, fruits, vegetables, and roots can give lovely paints, but it’s best to start with what you can find in your backyard, nearby park, or even supermarket. Today, we’ll focus on making botanical pigments from red cabbage.
How to Make Natural Pigments from Red Cabbage
Red cabbage is one of the best sources of natural pigment due to its high amount of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that are great for our health, but they also give the cabbage a wonderful purplish color you can use for painting.
Due to a high content of anthocyanins, red cabbage can give several different colors, including purple, green, pink, yellow, and blue, depending on the pH modifiers you use and how dry the pigment gets.
Another great thing about making pigments from red cabbage is that it’s super easy to find. If you don’t have it in your garden, a grocery store near you is certain to have it. You also don’t need a lot to make plenty of pigment. Use most of the cabbage for your favorite dish and scraps for making pigment.
What You’ll Need
- Several handfuls of shredded red cabbage
- A saucepan or pot
- Water for cooking red cabbage
- Three small jars
- Cheesecloth/fine mesh strainer
- Powdered or liquid gum Arabic
- A few drops of clove/oregano/thyme essential oil
- Baking soda
- White vinegar
Method – Making Pigments from Cabbage
- Finely chop several leaves of red cabbage or place them in a blender.
- Place the chopped cabbage in a pot and add water so the cabbage is completely submerged.
- Put the pot on the stove and let it simmer on low heat for about 3 to 4 hours.
- Strain the mixture over several small jars using a cheesecloth or strainer and press the liquid from the cabbage pulp.
- Add a drop or two of the essential oil you chose to each jar to prevent molding.
- Add several drops/couple of teaspoons of gum Arabic to each jar to make the pigment bind to the paper later on.
- Add several drops of white vinegar to the first small jar to turn the color into a lighter pink.
- Add some small pinches of baking soda to the second jar to turn the color into a darker blue.
- Leave the last jar as is, and you should have a regular purple color.
Now that you have three different colors, it’s time to start painting!
Check out this video by Oxygen Art Centre for more detailed instructions on how to make botanical ink from red cabbage:
Again, keep in mind that natural pigments can be unpredictable. Not only will the color depend on the type and amount of pH modifiers you use, but it will also change with time. What starts as blue might turn to green in a day or two. And what begins as green might change to yellow after several weeks.
How to Use Plant Pigments
The best thing about using natural pigments – aside from the fact they’re zero-waste – is that there is so much room for fun experimentation, and the possibilities are endless.
For example, for a base green color, you can steep spinach leaves in hot water (the older the leaves, the richer the color) and add matcha powder to the mix. Add some turmeric to the mixture, and you’ll get a more yellow-green pigment. Add a little coffee, and you’ll get a much darker seaweed color.
Coreopsis flowers can give a variety of pigments, too. The longer you steep them in boiling water, the darker the color will be. If you add some bicarbonate soda to the mix, the color will become a darker orange or red. Want to turn it back to yellow? Add a few drops of lemon!
Some plants give incredibly vibrant colors with little effort (like red cabbage), while others need to be boiled, crushed, and mixed with other plants or spices to produce a good pigment (such as spinach).
Whatever plants you choose for your pigments, you’re sure to get lovely, vibrant colors with some experimentation. You can use these to create unique, eco-friendly artworks such as watercolor botanical illustrations, textured paintings, and nature-inspired abstracts. You can also use natural pigments to paint on unconventional surfaces, such as wood or fabric.
Have fun and experiment!
The Benefits of Using Natural Pigments
Natural dyes are not only rich and complex, but they’re also much kinder to our skin, home, and the environment.
Sure, synthetic dyes are more opaque, easier to obtain, and undoubtedly produce more consistent results. But at what cost?
Acrylic paints, for instance, are overwhelmingly not biodegradable. Like all plastics, acrylic paints can be harmful when they break into microplastics, which is especially harmful to marine life. And while most oil paints are perfectly safe when used alone, if you use solvents to thin the paint (which most artists do), even oil paints will release toxic chemicals.
Natural pigments, on the other hand, are non-toxic and fully biodegradable, making them eco-friendly. They can also create colors not found in synthetic pigments, helping you create truly unique artwork.
The main disadvantages of using natural pigments are that they provide inconsistent results and that they have a shorter shelf life than synthetic ones. Still, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages; nothing beats making art with nature!
In conclusion, if you want to produce eco-conscious, zero-waste art, it’s best to experiment with plant paints. Of course, if you don’t want to spend time harvesting and preparing plants and then experimenting with the extraction process, you can always opt for ready-made art. There are plenty of eco-friendly paintings for sale that are less polluting and less toxic than most mainstream artwork.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are natural pigments?
Natural pigments are colors derived from natural sources such as flowers, herbs, roots, fruits, vegetables, rocks and minerals, and animals. Because they’re natural, they’re biodegradable and much more environmentally friendly than synthetic pigments. Read the full guide to learn more about natural pigments.
How are natural pigments made?
Natural pigments are made by extracting colors from various natural sources, either through cooking, grinding, crushing, or a combination of these processes. While not difficult, extracting pigment from plants, rocks, or minerals takes time and some experimentation. Read the full guide to learn more about making vibrant natural pigments.
What flowers can you use to make paint?
A whole variety of flowers! But the flowers that give the most vibrant pigments include coreopsis, safflower, dandelion, marigolds, roses, lavender, dahlia, and sunflower petals. The intensity of the color produced by each flower will, of course, vary depending on the number of petals you use, the extraction process, and other factors. Read the full guide to learn more about making paint pigments with flowers and plants.
References and Useful Resources
Skillshare Blog: Drawn From Nature: A Guide To Natural Pigments