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Experiments in Natural Colour

When it comes to experimenting with natural colour, I am an enthusiastic amateur, boiling up pans of whatever I have just foraged or scavenged, to see what colours I can extract. I do not pretend to be an expert! There is a very strong, committed community of natural dye experts who take their craft very seriously, and rightly so. It is so important that this knowledge is preserved and passed on. But I have enjoyed a certain amount of success through my experiences and use my naturally dyed papers to create botanical art pieces. Sometimes the colours fade and change over time - just as real flowers would - creating an extra dimension to the work.

A bright and cheery collection of paper wildflowers with bright yellow evening primroses coloured using natural dyes

The Common Evening primrose in this stemscape were dyed using Weld, known as one of the 'Three Ancients' - dye plants which yielded a fast colour. Weld gave yellow, Madder gave red, and Indigo gave blue.

I specialise in creating paper flowers - botanical art - and my main passion is wild flowers. I want to inspire people to reconnect with nature, and, as long as your foraging respects the environment and the countryside code, or perhaps focusses - as does mine in great part - on kitchen waste, then experimenting with natural colour is a wonderful way to experience the magic of nature.

A collection of paper flowers including roses and Michaelmas daisies all coloured using plant and vegetable dye

In the image above, papers are coloured with, variously, turmeric, nettle, beetroot, red cabbage, onion skins and tea. The colours yielded by these ingredients are largely 'fugitive' colours, which is to say, they tend to run away!

Over time, colours fade, sometimes they change. This is not acceptable within the natural dye community and understandably so. However, as part of my creative practice, I welcome the nature of these fugitive colours.

My Why...

a collection of papers coloured using red cabbage - bright on the day they were dyed!
a collection of papers coloured using nettles - from pale greens to deep dark pine greens
a collection of papers coloured using vegetables, vibrant pinks, golds, greens and blues
a collection of papers coloured using onion skins - reds, golds and soft greens

These papers are all freshly dyed. Because I am dyeing with 'fugitive colours', some of these colours will change - and some change enormously quickly, especially the aqua greens in the first picture!

I love colour, it lights up my life. My favourite colours are green and yellow (ok, mostly yellow). When I read Kassia St Clair's amazing book 'The Secret Lives of Colour' I was - not exactly surprised, as I already knew some of it - but quite shocked, to discover that green was the most problematic colour of all. Green, the most natural of colours, the colour  of nature. This launched me into my experiments with colour. I looked into making ink (see Jason Logan's wonderful book 'Make Ink') and I researched natural dyes - but found that the information I discovered applied only to textiles. So I started to experiment myself, and eventually I was awarded an Arts Council England grant allowing me time to develop my creative practice. It has taken time to work out where my work slots in, but I'm now very clear about what I am trying to achieve. My interest is in sustainable art, and environmentally friendly practice, not necessarily lasting colour (although it would be a bonus!). 

The Effect of Time

an arrangement of plans dyed paper flower including coneflower echinacea dyed using beetroot
A year old, this arrangement has changed as time has muted the colour of the paper flowers, but the shape remains

When I work with natural dye and envision my pieces, in my mind's eye I see a natural bouquet of flowers, and consider the effects of time. The colours will fade, the flowers will wilt, eventually desiccate and turn to dust. The images above illustrate the effects of time on a paper floral arrangement over roughly a year. Left is clearly the original image, and on the right you see the arrangement some twelve months later. Some colour remains - I particularly like the way the onion dyed centres of the flowers retain depth of colour. The blues and pinks are still there, but faded. And the shape is of course still there!


A group of students holding paper Gerber's they have created at a natural colour for paper workshop

My plant dyed paper workshops are designed to be an informal introduction to the experimental process of dyeing paper with plant and vegetable matter. Over the course of the workshop (usually 5 - 6 hours) we create up to 6 different shades using a range of materials. The workshop is built around creation of a Paper Gerbera, using the different colours we have created. See Workshops for current dates or contact me to schedule a workshop for your group

Strips of paper showing the range of colours that can be achieved using vegetables
strips of naturally dyed paper drying showing a vibrant range of colours
a selection of papers in gold, green and russet tones, all coloured using onion skin


This workshop is not a course in the intricate process of naturally dying textiles, but if you get a taste for it, I recommend courses by The Wild Dyery

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