Rocks are so cool. In case you hadn’t noticed.
More on that later! First, a bit of background…

When I was in Japan studying katazome, I was introduced to dyeing paper (and sometimes fabric) using ‘ganryo’ pigments.

“Ganryo” just means colourant, it is the colour in powdered form without any binder. (Though it can be sold in the form of paint-pans or solid sticks). It can be a naturally occuring colourant, like yellow ocher (ohdo) calcium carbonate (gohfun), cinnabar (ginshu which is natural but ironically, toxic!) indigo (ai), ultramarine (gunjoh) or iron oxide (bengara) etc etc. They can also be chemically altered versions of these (to produce whitened tones etc) or just straight up synthetic pigments (basically a chalk substrate dyed different, sometimes nasty colours)

A small portion of my collection of commercially available Ganryo pigments. The ones in stick form are already mixed with a binder.

Pigments are also used in Nihonga (Japanese-style Painting) but they are slightly more complicated – see my older post all about it, and painting broccoli, here.

That one time, when I spent 5 days painting a broccoli portrait in Japanese pigments…

As I was saying, pigments are also used in combination with the katazome technique. Most famously, rich pigment colours are used in the Okinawan Bingata technique (similar to katazome – see more here) and I suspect that’s why they are in the katazome repertoire in the first place. In both cases, the powdered pigment is mixed with a binder – soymilk – to create a thick paint-like liquid. These can then be applied to the fabric or washi being dyed in the same manner as dyes (with a stiff bristled brush, from the front side).

Mixing commercial pigments with soymilk to a painty consistency.
Some bits and pieces I dyed on washi (kozo paper) using commercial pigments and the katazome technique. 

Just to point out that pigments have different characteristics to dyes, it might be important to remember:
A DYE is colourant dissolved in liquid which grabs onto a fibre – it really gets into the fabric and you faciliate a chemical reaction (with steam or an alkali etc to ensure that it links sucessfully and stays on that fibre).
A PIGMENT, on the other hand, is insoluble and the particles sit on the fabric, rather than seep into the fibres. They are matte finish and can appear to look more like paint.
Bingata technique utilises this unique difference by dyeing colours first (transparent colours, which grip the fibres) then adding details on top in pigment colours (matte colours that sit on top of the fibres. This step is called “kuma-doi” lit. adding shadows). This creates a sense of depth which can’t be achieved by using only layers of dye.

a detail of a bingata pattern on cotton cloth from the 19th Century. You might be able to see the heavy red pigments in the centre of the petals creating depth, versus the translucent blue dye of the background.


Having known that pigments can be used with the katazome technique and having played around with them in a short Nihonga course, I wondered if I could make my own, Australian pigment colours. Canberra is well known for “Canberra Red Bricks”, churned out here from 1913 to the 1970’s, so I knew that at the very least there would be a clay around here that I could use for pigment.

Rewind a bit to last September.

sketching with dirt and a lump of charcoal,
September 2017

As one of four artists chosen to take part in Craft ACT’s inaugural ‘Spring Tidbinbilla Residency”, I spent time out at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, sketching, hiking and photographing. During a hike back down from Gibraltar Peak, I stopped to sketch the view of the mountains. I had found a pinch of some clay-ish dirt up the track and little and wanted to try using it as paint. Nearby where I’d sat to draw I also found some burnt tree stump and it worked perfectly as a charcoal.
This simple drawing sparked an obsession.

Fast forward and I’ve collected 100 Natural Pigments and counting.

a growing collection of local pigment colours.

Since February this year, I have been keeping my eyes on the ground. In non-descript walking paths and parks, along rivers, on the tops of hills and some trips to beaches, I’ve found colours in rocks, dirt, shells, ash and charcoal.

Mostly, I’ve smashed, sifted, ground, re-sifted and re-ground rocks to get these colours. Some rocks give themselves up easily, crumbling after one strike. Others are like trying to shatter steel.

smashing up rocks – this one gave itself up easily.
after sifting and grinding.

I’ve been sort of playing at faux-Geologist. Mostly I’ve been smashing and seeing what happens. I’ve also been trying to understand which rocks are found where by using these visually stunning but scientifically overwhelming Geological maps.

beautiful but cryptic Geological Map from Geosicence Australia

WOOO! Rocks!

The most exciting part of this whole experiment has been to do what I first intended – use these colours I’ve collected as pigments for katazome. The chance for this arose when an exhibition was borne of Craft ACT Spring Residency at Tidbinilla last September. The show wrapped up this past weekend at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra. The work all came together beautifully, without intending to, all four of us artists used complementary textures, colours, as well as references to stones and foliage. Narelle Phillips at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre did an excellent job of curation and organising everything.

Traversing Tidbinbilla, Tuggeranong Arts Centre July 6-28, 2018. To the right is work by fellow artist Sally Mumford.

Here are a few close ups of the work I exhibited. You’ll see works on paper – these are all made with my pigments mixed with soymilk, applied to kozo washi. I also tried the pigments on different weights of silk, in an installation piece depicting Eucalyptus Cinerea foliage. Finally, I wanted to display my vials of pigment in the manner of a old fashioned museum, you can see this in the wooden box in the pictures.

Foliage Series, 2018. Katazome on washi using local pigments. 38 x 40cm
Left to Right, ‘Welcome Swallow’, ‘Eastern Yellow Robin’ & ‘Grey Shrike-thrush’ 2018. Katazome on washi using local pigments. each 25 x 31cm
Flame Robin (Male) 2018

In all these works on paper, I selected ground pigments from what I had collected, mixing them with soymilk in small mortars. I didn’t really mix different colours together, just used what I had as is or layering one colour over another. Charcoal from found burnt logs was good for giving strong blacks. The hardest colours to represent were a vivid yellow and red for the Flame robin and the Eastern Yellow Robin. In real life, the breast feathers of these birds are nearly fluorescent. I had to settle for earthier versions.

Cinerea Breeze. 2018. Katazome and earth pigments on silk. The cottage we stayed at out at Tidbinbilla during the residency is called Cinerea Cottage, so this piece has extra meaning 🙂
Floaty detail of Cinerea Breeze. The foliage is dyed using pigments and the background beige and orange tones were dyed in a natural dye bath of Eucalyptus Cinerea leaves. 

Lastly, here’s my (Tiny) Museum of Natural Pigments. I love that colours which seemed so ordinary and similar when I spotted them, appear completely different when crushed and lined up next to each other. Many of these were successful as pigments to dye paper but a lot of them were too gritty or crystal-y to be an effective colourant. Still, they are pretty as a powder amongst their fellows.

*I’d like to make clear that I have only taken small amounts of colour from locations that aren’t national park or designated nature reserves. I definitely didn’t take from spots where it would damage the area. I know there will be some people who will take issue with me having done this. I have tried to honour the spirit of nature and her beauty through these works. If I’m found to have done something wrong, I’m sure I will hear about it…*

In an exciting development, this exhibition will now travel to be exhibited in the gallery at the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, from Friday August 3rd until the 14th of October 2018! It will be great to see the works so close to the location that inspired them and I hope lots of interstate and international visitors get to see them too.

The next step in this Pigment adventure is looking further afield for different colours that aren’t present in the ACT and also, trying to make pigment colours from natural dye baths – as ‘lake pigments’. This a science-y process that I haven’t had much luck with yet (though admittedly, I haven’t tried very hard yet!). Watch this space!