Material Color
Exchanging Ideas on Natural Dyes


Painting with Natural Dyes

An Artist's Personal Account of the Discovery of a New Medium

© Virginia Olive Hoge

Photo of Virginia Hoge

I learned about natural dyes almost by accident. I was a watercolor painter, and on a whim, I took an Indigo class one summer at the J.C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. There I met two extremely important people in my life, natural dye master Jim Liles (author of The Art and Craft of Natural Dyes) and dyer/artist Rose Wirtz. With Jim's help, Rose and I set upon the path to figure out how we could paint with natural dyes. It was not easy. The dyes were very thin and they were not concentrated in color. There were plenty of disappointing disasters. It took condensing the dyes by reducing them over low heat and the addition of small amounts of mordants to produce color. Also, Jim suggested treating the paper with tannin (from the sumac plant) before painting, in order to help the color adhere.

I cannot tell you the fun we had in those years. Rose had an old family cottage on the edge of a remote lake and we would meet there to paint and experiment. Rose is the type of dyer who will gather just about anything and try it for dyeing. A polypore, acorns, branches from a pruned tree - all of it went into her dye pots. There, we began the tanning process - soaking the paper in a tannin solution for 20 minutes and hanging it to dry.

Photo of painting with dye
Canyon River, 2003
Logwood dye, plain and with alum mordent on plain paper
21" w x 16" h

We also used the more established dyes: black walnuts, cloves, cochineal, goldenrod, logwood, fustic bark, and onion skins. I have to single out logwood as the most fantastic and mysterious natural dye I have ever painted with. Through experiments (and mistakes) I have gotten almost every color in the rainbow from that bark: orange, red, purple, black - even blues and greens! The color does lose some of its vibrancy over time, although the paintings do still hold true. The dyes are a very thin medium. I use a heavy-weight paper that can hold up to the soakings, and oil painting brushes that "rub" the dyes into the paper. Often many layerings of color and "flooding" of color (pouring dye onto the paper) are needed to bring the color to its full potential.

I advocate a free and expressionist method of painting, and this is almost essential with natural dyes. You just do not know when you start the painting what the finished product will look like. You have to listen to the painting itself, and to follow what it needs. The subjects I choose to paint are always based on direct observation of nature, yet I also believe in imitating nature with an original image.

I continue to enjoy painting and experimenting with the medium and hope you will view my paintings in the Gallery. I encourage anyone with an interest in painting to give it a try! This is a new field and the experimenting has just begun.