“Iris Green” pigment


The “iris green” of the Renaissance palette would have captured these shades of green in the landscape overlooking the Ottawa River at Portage-du-Fort, an area on the early 1600's exploration routes of Samuel de Champlain. The Stone School Gallery of the Pontiac School of the Arts marks the 400th anniversary of de Champlain's voyages in the region with a workshop in making and using Renaissance pigments and an exhibit of work by students and instructors.


My contribution post-workshop was a small selection of iris prints on paper and textile together with an Artist Book that documents the making of iris green pigment and the processes for obtaining contact dye prints with plants, in this case, the Tall Bearded Blue Iris. Renaissance artists would likely have had access to Iris pallida and Iris germanica, ancestors of the iris introduced to North America by early settlers and now a heritage variety in the gardens of Eastern Canada. This plant with striking blue flowers gave artists green for their palettes. The wild Iris versicolor (perhaps an escapee from pioneer gardens) is now the provincial flower of Quebec whose flag bears the image of the Fleur de Lys – a lily in name, an iris by form!


With these ideas in mind, and artistic license in action, the covers of my Artist Book show a green Fleur de Lys; the accordion spine (Saint Armand, Montreal “Canal” paper) is painted green with iris ink


The book is, of course, a Flag Book, punning on several levels: Irises are sometimes referred to as “flags”: the Fleur de Lys ( or iris flower when not a lily) is the name of the Quebc flag (technically the “fleurelise” – accents required) The symbol would have been known to de Champlain and possibly used by him, too.
The “flags” in the book are printed green with iris blooms, the green emerging when the paper is soaked first in alum. The image below shows fold-out pages in the Turkish mapfold structure; these are the pages that contain my text about the processes used to obtain the iris pigments. Two pocket pages complete the book structure- the pockets hold swatches of colours obtained from the iris petals to make ink and dye.

Here are examples of fold-out text pages and pocket pages:




The green clothlet (R) soaked in iris pigment: blue iris pigment turns to green in the presence of alum in the cloth. The blue-purple pigment in iris is an anthocyanin identified as delphinidin or delphinin. The blues and purples (L) are on paper that has not been treated with alum. The yellows come from the anthers of the iris blooms as well as being components of the pigments that separate out into analagous colours in the steaming process.


Then overall book structure:


The Clamshell Case made by Shlomo with my eco printed and dyed papers (book inside)



The open Clamshell:



Three Iris prints:




The Iris Scroll (vintage silk, eco dye-printed and hand embroidered: iris-dyed strings). Another little pun: Hanging the textile perpendicular the wall installs it as if it were a flag:



This close-up invites you to find the Fleur de Lys on the “flag”:



The Iris book:




One of the other artists, Rob HInchley, led students in watercolour painting sessions by the river. Rob is a highly accomplished and adventurous printer, also. For this exhibit, he also shows HUGE prints made from his woodcuts on plywood sheets and printed with ink by a STEAMROLLER!!!


Rob carved whispering pines in the plywood. He read that de Champlain had written about the pines in his journals…small wonder. In those days, the 100 foot trees of the old forests would have been an unforgettable sight.

Rob's woodcut prints by steamroller:



The carved plate:



Pretty awesome art by Rob.


The marks made by the wood cuts really do convey the soft whispers of wind in pine branches…you can almost smell the pine wood and resin…striking effects in a hard medium and huge scale.


A la prochaine!





The Champlain Palette: Workshop in Renaissance Pigments

Follow this link to Genevieve's instructions on how to prepare Renaissance pigments:

A two-day workshop in recreating the palette of Renaissance painters at the time of Samuel de Champlain, an early explorer and map maker of Eastern Canada, was offered this weekend at the Pontiac School of the Arts in the charming riverside village of Portage-du-Fort, about 100 kilomètres from Ottawa, west along the mighty Ottawa river. Genevieve Samson, book conservator at Library and Archives Canada and specialist in pigments in medieval and Renaissance MSS and books, led the workshop, assisted by local artist Rob HInchley. Her goals for the first day were to instruct participants in the composition and making of 33 organic and inorganic pigments and on the second day, for participants to use a smaller collection of thirteen pigments under Rob's tutelage to paint watercolours of nearby riverscapes where Champlain would have travelled. What a perfect set of interesting and achievable goals! And after this the students would have a show of their work at the art school.
Along the road to the school, July wildflowers abound: Hypericum perforatum, white daisies, blue Bear's Breeches, pink wild dianthus, white Achillea, early Golden Rod and Queen Anne's Lace. Here, going down to the Ottawa river are blue and white blooms appropriately coloured blue and white for Quebec:
The Renaissance Palette and the use of powdered pigments
Using a huge array of powdered pigments originating from all over the world and obtained through Kremer in New York , KAMA in Montreal and some made by Genevieve herself, the class created thirty-three samples of paints in yellows, reds, blues, browns, greens and oranges. We used gum arabic as a binder to make watercolour paints from the pigments; we also learned how to make egg tempera paint with egg yolk and pigment. No tap water but demineralised water should be used to make the paints when water is required.
Genevieve has made efforts to obtain the pigment powders from their places of origin. It was not always possible for sometimes the supplier did not want to reveal sources…In the future she hopes to make her pigments starting from scratch using the soil, the rocks, the plants, etc. But she cautions that steps must be taken to ensure that pigments made directly, e.g., from clay, must be made free of impurities that can cause mold growth, etc.
After each paint sample was mixed and made ready, we entered the colours in the chart:
We learned that painters of the day did not blend colours together but used them pure.
For each student to take home, Genevieve had prepared in advance a set of thirteen pigments of the above colours in small pans in a watercolour tray:
As part of her presentation on pigments derived from plants, Genevieve asked me to share the results of my iris clothlet experiments previously reported here
Painters carried their pigments in white shells like these below because the colour of the shells enhanced pigments so that they “read” correctly. Genevieve showed images in medieval paintings of painters using shells for their pigments.
The top row of shells contains alum and iris pigmented linen clothlets soaked in Gum Arabic (L) and glair AKA egg white (R), with resulting colour; the shells on the bottom row contain clothlets without alum.
Tips, Tricks and Gossip a la Renaissance Pigment class
Genevieve is a warm raconteuse and tells flavourful side stories to keep us working while we mix and grind our pigments. Some examples to share:
– Renaissance painters and dyers were often a cagey lot. We have lost a lot of useful knowledge because of this tendency to keep trade secrets but at least it keeps conservators employed… Trade secrecy is maybe an issue sometimes today, too…
– One “secret recipe” for a dye process contained nasty inclusions like rancid fish oil…We wondered if this ingredient was early “disinformation” in action: the release of sketchy info in the hopes that a competitor would steal the process and suffer loss of business as a result…We speculated suspiciously that we know people can give out their pie recipes but with something missing or a false ingredient, etc…Was that Renaissance dye recipe “leak” like a modern day Wiki-leak? Controversial topics then as now…

– As recently as the 1980's in France, women conservators at the National Library were permitted to carry out only the first steps in restoring bindings. They had to pass the final finishing work to male binders and were not allowed to know how to do the males' work…
— A tip for preserving pigment “cakes”: Do not keep them in ziploc baggies where they get no air. Either vacuum seal the bag or store the pigment cake in a container that lets in some air.Here is some paint that grew mold in a ziploc bag. Gum arabic can go bad, too.
– Tips for making egg tempera paint: Use older rather than fresh eggs; the egg yolk is good for one day only – mix pigment with a new yolk the next day.
Sharing Knowledge
Genevieve gave permission to describe freely the content of the class and to publish photos, as did the other students. She said she would like nothing more than to spread the word about the beauty of these pigments and the fascinating processes involved in making them. As a researcher, she is committed to spreading current or new knowledge as well as restoring lost knowledge.
The link below will take you to a slide show on the How To's of Renaissance pigments a la Genevieve Samson:

Genevieve's email address:
End Note
The Fleur de Lys (“Lily Flower”) forms part of the Quebec provincial flag and is a design long associated with French history and culture in France and in Quebec. It was used in France at the time of Champlain. Its origins as a symbol go far back to the sixth century when King Clovis of the Franks adopted it in his banner. Did he intend to call this flower a lily, which is the strict meaning of the term? The symbol is pretty obviously not a lily at all but an iris. Perhaps he, as a native speaker of a Germanic language and not French, as a soldier and a conqueror, would not have worried too much about correct French plant identification. What did it matter, lily or iris? I think what most likely mattered was that this flower shows a tripartite separation of petals and in religious imagery, could have been a apt symbol of the Holy Trinity for King Clovis, a new convert to Christianity.
The adorable little lapel buttons below have clever designs within the Fleur de Lys form, demonstrating aspects of Quebec French culture:

Next post: What's new in the garden for eco dyes? And yet another stage in the Iris Camino.


Iris Scrolls: Artist Books printed with iris pigments

My “Iris Camino” continues.

Today on my Iris Journey, I introduce two companions: Artist Books, printed with iris dyes and one of them made with pages of iris leaf fibre. (For pics of the Tall Bearded Iris, check iris eco print tags).


“Iris Scroll 1”, the first book is (re)made from thrifted and repurposed blank journal pages, paper type unknown but perhaps some kind of hand-made mulberry paper (The waffle weave typical of J cloth-type cloths used for drying papers is obvious on the journal page surfaces).


The book pages were singles so a “Flag Book” binding came to mind. And since a pun is involved (“Flag Iris” is a kind of wild iris growing near water), I enjoyed the connection to my chosen book structure.


Below is how the pages looked after being inserted into an accordion-type spine made of another found paper, no idea what kind of paper but it was too soft and fabric-like and a b**** to work with here.


I made a separate hard cover to house the Flag Book; the spine on the hard cover is made of my iris leaf fibre paper:

The single pages fly like flags:





The dye prints on the book pages ( “Flags”) were obtained from the bounty of the early June garden: Iris (blues, purples, turquoises and greens); Rhus typhina (sumac leaves: greeny-yellows and khaki-type browns); Coreopsis verticillata (reds, oranges) and spent Tagetes blooms (greens and browns from the calices; yellowy-orange from petals). The cover image is of a sumac leaf touched by iris and coreopsis; the spine is made of iris leaf paper, in two layers:



For the book spine (iris fibre paper) I used the thicker sheets, and coloured the inner spine paper with green iris ink:






Three overlapping “Flags”:




“The Medium Is The Message” (Marshall MacLuhan) in this next book.


” Iris Scroll 2″ has a coptic binding structure with covers and endpapers made from iris-printed watercolour paper, pages made of iris leaf fibre and sewing string dyed green with iris ink:


Oy. The iris paper is extremely fragile even after having added newsprint pulp (will use abaca or kozo next time) so the stitching turned out to be true “Stitch and Bitch” sessions…But still fun, ha ha, as bitchin' can be…
To sew, I used cheap cotton string dyed in iris ink, even though that string was really too thick for delicate stitching…The page papers ripped when I put in the needle and string, the pages failing to match up perfectly with the cover holes. I went back and reinforced the signatures with linen tape dyed in iris ink. That worked up to a point but did not hide the holes completely. Ironing the paper did the trick in closing most of the unwanted holes.
One must, at times, make a virtue out of necessity. I enjoy the “ghetto” effects of the rough papers, the very hairy deckled edges, holes everywhere all stitched up, the chunky pale green string…A study in contrasts with the elegant Iris prints in a range of blues and greens on the covers. I enjoy the abstract impressions made by the iris blooms that allude to original forms without replicating them.





” Surface Textural Interest” – AKA, Curator Art Speak for little fragments of unblended iris leaf as well as mends in the paper attempted with pulp when the page ripped during my sloppy couching:



More “textural interest”: AKA, blobs of white newsprint that I did not blend well with the iris leaf




Wonky alignment of holes due to ripped paper in the signature folds:



Overall, though, I love the imperfections.


Next post: Renaissance pigments and the class with Genevieve Samson, book conservator and Renaissance pigment expert at Library and Archives Canada in the nation's capital, Ottawa

O, it was lovely! And perfect.


An Eco Dyer’s June Garden

The garden I collect my dye plants from has been over 25 years in the making. My husband has a penchant for creating quirkily beautiful sculptures to place among the plants. It's not a garden you can see all at once – it is long and narrow but twisty with odd little angles and corners to turn except for a long, long border beside the Rideau Canal inlet pond. So over time, I have developed many small areas with a sculpture or other ornament as a focal point. The experience is of passing through many gardens but not necessarily dye gardens.

Classical plant nomenclature would attach “tinctoria” to the name of any plant known to tradition as a dye plant. I do not have many of those “official” dye plants, only two in fact: Coreopsis t. and Anthemis t. Since starting to work with eco dyes, I have come to know that virtually every plant can produce some colour on a substrate, given appropriate preparation, dye processing and post- dye treatments. But It will take me quite some time to learn about the eco dyes and print properties of all the plants and their parts in my garden: fresh, dried, leaf, stalk, bloom, seed, root, bark: these all come into the colourplay, as do other aspects of the craft such as appropriate processing times and methods, dye assistants and mordants, fibre type and age…Still, with experience and the help of other dyers' knowledge generously shared, I can begin to feel confident that I might contribute something to the field.

So once a month throughout the season, I thought I could show you some of the plants that grow nicely here and some I use for my dyeing and printing experiments and projects.

Clicking on the link below takes you to a web album of my garden photos for June.


Eco Printing Synthetics with Serviceberry

Leisa Rich's article in the current issue of Fiber Art Now is inspiring. (My article on eco print artists is in there, too, brag brag, see future posts). She challenges us “granola” types (you know who we are in the textile world: recycled-everything, natural dyes, non-toxic-this-and-that) to make art from the humongous piles of discarded synthetics out there. Thus she leads us on a Camino with artists who have kissed the Toads of the art materials world and turned them into Princesses and Princes…

Let me not slander my buddies, the garden toads, though: I do love them. As an icon for this post, I introduce you to my Guardian Toad, here watching over Canada Violets, Rosa canina and rock-nostalgia from Wharfdale in Yorkshire:


This week I tried printing Pellon with Serviceberry. Pellon is a synthetic material in various weights used for interfacing that can also be painted, melted, waxed, embroidered, etc for mixed media art applications. It is known as Vilene in Britain and as Freudenberg by handmade papermakers who use it in heavier weights as felts when couching sheets of paper.

Here is the lovely Serviceberry in May:

Here is Serviceberry in June, in full fruit:

Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) is a Canadian native with delicious berries (we ate a bowlful with ice cream yesterday). First Nations peoples use them to make pemmican. The tree has given a truly bountiful crop this year, with so many berries that the squirrels do not even bother to eat the ones that fall on the ground. (Mind you, who can understand how the Squirrel Brain works at any time? It reminds me of the kind of thinking employed by some galleries when they run about collecting art to sell…)

We have one Serviceberry tree in the front yard whose berries fall on the sidewalk so I have to sweep them up (Aside: Alas, some folks around here use terms like “litter” to describe fallen fruit, even if they do live in a neighbourhood known as Granola Heights, suggesting it is populated largely by Ex Hippies on Fat Pensions – not me, BTW. ) My thought is consonant with Leisa Rich's : that pretty well any “litter” can have art in its future, that one woman's litter might be another woman's life support.

Why waste certain of our fallen plant bounty if it can be eco printed? Even “deadheading” has been dropped as a term in my gardening vocabulary since I began eco dyeing and printing. I now say I am collecting dye plants when I nip off dead blooms to be saved for dye pots later.

So assorted pebbles, pine needles, soil samples, unknown sidewalk treasures and Serviceberry leaves ended up in the sweepings destined for eco print bundles in the steamer:


Silk, linen, cotton, paper and Pellon wrapped the berries. Sad to say, the linen and cotton were a bust, print-wise, despite pre-mordanting and post-dye-pot treatment with iron and copper assistants. A complete flop! The watercolour paper (unmordanted because I had no mordanted sheets ready) did quite well, despite lack of alum: some purples from the berries and greens from the leaves, as well as lovely embossings overall because I had rolled this bundle over a copper pipe instead of layering it flat. I have to assume that the copper pipe assisted the dye take up even in the absence of alum mordant:


The surprise of the dye pot was the unmordanted Pellon, bundled around a fat, bark-free branch (no extra tannins), steamed first, then immersion-dyed for an hour with iron bits and Serviceberry materials; later dipped in homemade copper sulphate (which did not shift the colours further to green, to my mind). Blues and purples emerged from berries and with a tad of lavender-grey with iron. Greens from the leaves. I tried a lot of colour-shifting manoeuvres but I believe the original green print from the unmordanted Pellon printed in the steam process is what we end up with.






Finally, a comparison with the ever-dependable silk habotai. Silk on the right. Note the “deckled edge” on the Pellon which comes when you tear it:


On silk alone: Note that there are hardly any prints from the berries here and ditto for the other textiles. Still, a fresh, lovely green from the leaves of Amelanchier laevis. In the fall they turn beautiful shades of red, orange, yellow, even purple and those colours do print, too.

I have lots of synthetic interfacing in various wieghts in my stash so this experiment with synthetics will likely not be the last, and neither will dyeing with Serviceberry.






Eco printing Perennial Geranium


Before the July- August garden begins to blooms its gaudy head off and I get carried away taking photos, I thought I might present some of the last of my June eco print images. Artist and blog visitor Julie Shackson inspired me to share more about printing with geraniums, a topic I touched on only briefly last post. If not published now, those geranium photos would most likely sink unseen into the pile of 3000+ already on this iPad.

Hoarding issues, folks? Thank you, Julie, for encouraging me to divest. I have promised myself that whatever else I might hoard, I will not hoard knowledge that might assist or inspire others.

One of my favourite plants is the Cranesbill (above) or Perennial Geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum” or “Big Root geranium”.) The “geranium” part derives from Greek “gerano” meaning “heron” (or “crane” ) so named because the seed pod is a capsule, shaped long and pointy like a beak ( “bill”). The pods “dehisce”, which means they explode open and fire their seeds into the air like wee projectiles. In my garden, the purple flowered geranium have virtually replaced grass in some areas, growing “dwarfly” in a mat of leaves covered with little elfin flowers and defying the mower by their speedy regrowth. These and the “album” ( pale-pinky-white) geranium make wonderful drought-tolerant ground cover in sun, shade or semi shade. I let them romp and replace unwanted plants- if there is any such thing…Either plant is perfect in dry rooty areas under trees. And it is pretty-well evergreen here in Zone 4 USDA. ( Garden talk today, my lifelong passion…I have grown a garden in every place I have lived in my 72 years – and there lies the true root of my newer passion for natural dyes)

As eco prints, geraniums are stars. They were among the first I used for prints on cotton and linen, which, as substrates, I now know are not as easy to print as silk and wool. This June 2011 eco print (below) shows leaf and flower prints, the latter being the blue and purple marks on the alum-mordanted vintage linen. The blooms print quite well, though not in flower forms but in patches of blue or purple – unlike the leaves which can be relied on to print realistically (if that is your aim).



Geranium print colours vary with the season and even the month. Deep under snow in January, the leaves remain green but they print in the khahi-brown range:


The same January Under Snow Priint dipped in iron liquor (rusty nails in vinegar). Thanks to Amelia Poole for this tip. (See Refs pages)


In late April – early May, yellows emerge:


The buds print beautifully – see below. Blue patches have leaked from an iris print!

With iron, one can shift the colours from yellows to deep grey-purplish-charcoals with some original yellows holding their own as luminous passages ( Honestly, my photos cannot do justice to the nuanced colours and forms in many of my eco prints. I am certain other artists would agree re the difficulty of taking a good photo.) A tiny blue stain or two leaking from an iris bloom in the paper layer above in the steamer offers an inspired near-complement as foil to the geranium leaf colour. The iron liquor induces near-lavenders from the yellows of the initial print. The shadow effects are delightful, I think.

As the season progresses, the geranium leaf prints become greener, especially on cotton rag paper. This print is from August 2012:


Later last year, I made some little journals like the one above using the geranium leaf printed papers as soft covers. The colours continue to glow in soft but bright shades. Coreopsis verticillata sent some pigment way down through a couple of paper layers in the steamer. Coreopsis contains powerful pigment! I try to plan accordingly. Here it is welcome, providing a tad of red-orange complementarity to enhance the greens. I love the contrasts of forms and colours in this print and I enjoy the challenge of manipulating the materials and the processes to obtain certain outcomes. I look forward to trying more prints with geraniums as the season advances. .


Finally, “Forest Floor”, a deep green geranium leaf print on a silk habotai panel, one of my botanical scrolls series. The silk was immersion-dyed a cinnamon colour first in a lichen bath (Parmelia saxatilis), then with safflower, (oops – vice versa, actually), overprinted with geranium leaf, iron dipped and embroidered. (The lichen was foraged from the forest floor of a wee plot of Boreal land my daughter owns, so it was responsibly foraged, IOW) The colours in the photo seem to be picking up mostly the cinnamon lichen and yellow safflower dyes; in the real world, this work shows a wide range of rich greens besides cinnamon.



I hope you will try some geranium prints and find them rewarding as I do.

Dear Readers, I know this post is not about soils! Will get there… trying to track down some Leda (Blue) clay, a chief soil constituent hereabouts in the Ottawa Valley. And hoping to make good on my promise to experiment with water soluble glues for attaching plants to substrates for eco prints. Has anyone tried that?