experimenting with dyes

i’m preparing for a residency in the west of ireland in october, see here. at the moment i’m chronicling airfares, but earlier on i have loads of considerations about what to take with me in order to make as much art as possible in 3 weeks. the lists are entertaining, to me. and i’ll pull them up when the time comes to pack and most of my work will have been done for me.

the reason i’m preparing so far ahead of time is that there are several new techniques and methods i want to explore while i’m there, and i need to learn the basics now so i won’t waste time once i’m on site.

the thing i’m doing new is to go completely back to basics, which is the same thing as saying doing it on the way cheap.

i have a weight requirement for my luggage, and i’m only bringing one bag, tho as big a one as they allow. so everything i need for three weeks of art has to fit inside it.

so i have to rethink tubed oil paints, tubed watercolors, tubed acrylics. what a lot of lead-lined tubes for the guys in security to tut-tut over.

i’m bringing pigments in little plastic containers. and i’m bringing most of my mediums and will mix them as needed. some of the media i want to bring they won’t let me. beeswax, turpentine, alcohol. i might be able to slip orange oil past them.

this is revolutionary, for me. i no longer need rely on buying something in order to paint. hell, i can paint something everlasting with a brick and some grease.

and that’s easily 20 pounds of luggage just in the tubes i’d have to bring.

why duplicate things when i can bring the raw ingredients and make my own?

thus said, i have a lot of raw ingredients where until now i had a lot of proprietary mixtures with no ingredient labels. so i’m laving to reinvent the wheel in a lot of ways.

for instance, how to make my own resist. i want a water based resist, but i don’t want one that costs $8 for 4.ounces. it sets me off; let’s not go there.

but the old traditional japanese resist is a big pain in the ass to make. so i’m looking for substitutes.

a few weeks ago i experimented with tapioca starch resist, and thankfully didn’t write any of it down for your delectation. i did, however, make a gooey mess and never did get all the tapioca out of my silk. didn’t resist worth a damn, either.

today my subject is sodium alginate. not exactly algae, but really slimy and thick. you use it to thicken your dye so that you can paint it on as if it was watercolor, and it won’t run and bleed as much as it would if it weren’t thickened. i’ve never actually used it before, because i mostly have used low-immersion scrunch dyeing. but i have a project in mind for a set of placemats that are paintings of the landscape around cill rialaig, which is the name of the place where i’ll be staying.

so i made up a batch of so-called paste, which was goopy but thinner than i can use for resist lines. i’ll have to make it twice as thick to put it in a tube and squirt out straight lines. so i mixed it with red, yellow and blue instead, and used all the chemicals – soda ash, urea, calgon, salt, alcohol, and dye powder, and used three different brushes to dip out of three different bowls, and made an abstract design on a piece of linen i’d cut off the 6-yard roll i’m taking with me to ireland.

having done that, and seeing that the fabric was sort of wet thru, i rolled it up in a plastic garbage bag and sat it out in the sun on top of the plastic trash can, where it will sizzle and steam.

it’s 80 in the house – atlanta at the end of may – so i uncovered four high-count cotton pillow cases i’d been saving, and planned to use up the rest of the dye.

i couldn’t throw away all that leftover dye, and because it had soda ash in it, i couldn’t save it, because the ash just eats away at the dye’s dyeing power. something.

so. i scrunched up all the pillow cases from one end to the other, and then folded them in half and stuck them in the corners of a plastic tub, all folded and facing the same way. i’m not very neat at this. there’s no point.

then i added more water to the yellow and poured it into the middle of the tub where all four points meet. it was very grainy at the bottom (i don’t mix very well, and i don’t use exact amounts of anything) so i made sure to put that in the very middle on the theory that it was concentrated dye that hadn’t broken up and dissolved. or else it was urea. or soda ash.

then i poured the red in around the yellow. i kind of forgot to put any extra water in to the red, but it went around twice. then i did put water into the blue, and put that around the outside.

at that point, it looked colorful, but i knew it was only mostly on the surface, and i needed to add plenty of clear water to make it spread and do wonderful color things.

so cup after cup of water from the sink (chlorine from the water plus iodine from the salt, what chemistry there is in dyeing) until the pillow cases started to float. then a grocery bag on top of the fabric, and bricks on top of that, squeeze all the air out maybe, and let it sit for 24 hours. at above 70. which it’s been for a month now.

you should see the weeding i have to do in the back yard.

on this first day of experimenting, i’m just making sure i’ve got the basics of plant dyeing. later i’ll have to figure out the formula to dye silk, another learning curve among many.

the next thing i have to do is work out whether and how i can use sodium alginate to resist dye.

this linen i’ve got? i bought it on impulse at binders years ago, when i had a day job. i thought it was on sale for $6/yard. i paid $6/square foot and gulped. but i had credit…

and it sat there. it’s always been too expensive to use for the kinds of paintings people were just going to hang on their walls and look at. something.

in the meantime i reused old canvases, and i used up a roll of raw canvas given to me by my brothers.

in the meantime, the cats slept on my roll of linen, sharpened their claws on it, got their fur deeply interwoven in the fabric.

but it’s 6 yards.

and the things i can do with six yards of canvas.


dyed and then painted things

bases for encaustic paintings

oil paintings

pastel paintings

acrylic paintings

art quilts

placemats and napkins

just like using pigments and all the various media you can make paint with, i can use my linen as the material with which i make whatever art appeals to me at the moment.

this is artistic freedom.