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From Seed to Color: Transforming Fresh Indigo Leaves into Paint

Fresh indigo plant

The pursuit of unique and sustainable mediums has led me to a deeper connection with nature. This season, I've cultivated my first natural pigment garden, and I couldn't be more thrilled to share the results with you. This blog post takes you on a journey through the process of transforming indigo plants into beautiful, natural botanical paint for an upcoming painting series.

What are Botanical Pigments?

Botanical pigments are those that are derived from plant sources. I've spoken a bit about natural earth pigments in the past, but haven't gone too far into botanical pigments thus far. Thats because botanical pigments are a whole different world of process involving a little more complex chemistry to make them shelf stable. Each plant goes through a slightly different process, and changes in the steps of that process can change the resulting pigment color. Since the world of botanical pigments is vast, today I will focus on one magical plant in particular: indigo.

Infamous Indigo Color

While some botanical pigments can easily be foraged, others need to be cultivated. Indigo has a long and rich history of being cultivated for pigment, as it is one of the oldest and most famous of botanical colorants. From Kassia St. Clair's The Secret Lives of Color:

"Indigo is woven into the burial customs of many different cultures globally, from Peru to Indonesia, Mali, to Palestine. Ancient Egyptian dyers began threading thin lines of blue fabric into the edges of their linen mummy cloths from around 2400 B.C.; a state robe found in the extensive funerary wardrobe of Tutankhamen, who reigned around 1333-1323 B.C., was almost entirely indigo."

After cultivating indigo it is easy to see why it has cultural importance to so many people across time and space; my relationship to the the beautiful color these plants produced was made deeper by the incredible and transformative experience of extracting their pigment.

Preparing the Leaves

After tending my plants from little sprouts to big bushes, I harvested the leaves and set out to extract pigment in the same way people have done since ancient times. The first step was to give the harvested indigo leaves a thorough wash. This crucial step removes any dirt, impurities, or unwanted residue from the leaves. After washing, the leaves are left to soak--I used water gathered from a mountain spring, to avoid additives that might affect the resulting color. Leaves ferment over a period of days, and during this time, the water takes on a beautiful green hue as it absorbs the indigo pigments. This is the first glimpse of the magic that is about to unfold.

fermenting indigo leaves

The Alchemy of Fermentation

Once the water reaches a specific color and smell the fermentation process is complete. It takes experience to know exactly the right time to end the fermentation. I would describe the water as the color of a mermaid tail (and it smells like a fish tail also)! Once the water reaches this state of fermentation the leaves must be removed. If the mixture is left too long the whole batch goes bad, and the pigment is lost.

The Magic Moment

Once the leaves are separated, oxygen is added to the mixture by pouring the liquid back and forth between separate containers for several minutes. After this a scoop of slaked lime is added and the color transforms instantly from a swampy green to a thrilling dark blue. Every time I go through this process I feel giddy like a child witnessing a magic trick--to watch the color transform before your eyes is completely mesmerizing! The video below captures this magic moment.

Adding Binders for Stability

Once the pigment has been separated, it is filtered and dried. At this point it can be ground up as other pigments and used to make paint. Depending on the desired consistency and intended use of the paint, I can add binders like gum Arabic (to make watercolor paint) or linseed oil (to make oil paint). These binders stabilize the paint and allow it to adhere to paper or canvas. Indigo is famously one of the most lightfast of the colorants, meaning the color stays true over a long period of time, even when other pigments may change colors or fade entirely.

indigo color blue paint

In the Studio

The striking blues born from fresh indigo leaves add a unique and profound dimension to my artwork. Transforming fresh indigo leaves into paint is not just a creative process; it's a profound connection with the world around me. As an artist, this journey has deepened my appreciation for the beauty and history of all pigments. It's an artistic adventure that bridges the realms of nature and creativity, resulting in a greater appreciation for how my work and the natural world intersect. I can't wait to include this pigment in a future collection!


Artist, Growing In Process


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