dye profile · musings

Natural Dyes as Open Source Color

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Omphalotus Olivascens Mushroom Dyepot

We’ve heard of GMO companies that patent seeds or genomes. Then there are the patent trolls, those who purchase patents on which others’ technology is allegedly-based, then sue for its use. You may also have heard of Anish Kapoor, the artist who obtained the exclusive right to use the nanotech pigment known as Vantablack – a black so dark and light absorbent that the color ends up appearing as a hole in reality.

Kapoor, at present writing, is the only artist able to use Vantablack, which has raised the hackles of artists everywhere. Imagine if only one person was allowed to use indigo blue? It’s (patently) absurd. In response, British artist Stuart Semple released his own proprietary brand of pink paint called PINK, that claims to be the world’s pinkest pigment, which he has made available to anyone on the planet – everyone, that is, except Anish Kapoor.

On its face, the color controversy seems to be a comic diversion – but underlying it are troubling notions of economics, geography and freedom of expression. Who owns color? And who owns the color that results from our natural dyes, those made from the local flora and fungi gathered on the side of a country road?

Thankfully at this time, no one. And one reason has its seed in the idea that natural dye is a collaborative effort between the plants and the dyer.

For one, the plants are not around all the time. They have seasons. For example: in springtime, oxalis is blooming everywhere, but it’s short lived and will be gone by summertime.

Secondly, plants and mushrooms are inherently variable. Sometimes the dye color is bright and clear, other times, it is lighter or darker or even a different color all together, one can’t always predict it. Factors like weather, water and soil all make a difference, factors in the dyepot too, like the water used, temperature, time, or even the pot itself, make a difference. There are likely other variables we don’t even know about.

Since the plants, have such an effect on the outcome of natural color, they are really more of a partner than a raw material. So, are they still patentable, like Monsanto likes to think, or is their resulting color patentable, like Anish Kapoor believes?

I think that their variability is what saves them from being a commodity. Vantablack, while amazing, is a chemically engineered pigment, the same all the time, and as a result, only available to one artist. Indigo, a prolific plant yielding the pigment blue, is already traditional in many cultures, is variable, and as a result, is available to all artists who take the time to make a vat.

While synthetics vie to be the best, the most, the blackest, the pinkest—natural dyes aren’t even in this ballpark. One can’t make a natural dye be the “most” and one doesn’t even want to. It’s always a surprise; they are what they are, every time, part of a community of plants or fungi, yielding their own individual contribution as a result of their own individual experiences.

Once again, diversity proves to be a strength.

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Yarn dyed with Japanese Indigo
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A jar of Japanese Indigo heating on the stove
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