Armed with bundles of dried plants and bags of bugs from that serendipitous workshop on arriving in Mexico City, I hit the local market in Coatepec, where I was surprised how difficult something like achiote, that is used on an everyday basis is to find in its raw form. Other things like brazilwood and marigold (out of season in July… think Day of the Dead, when all the ‘oferendas’ are decorated with these iconic flowers;) I needed to look for in the medicinal herb stalls.
Marco, the Moku Hanga tutor also introduced me to a fabulous book by Leticia Arroyo Oritz all about natural pigments used by indigenous peoples in Mexico.
And so, here I will share will you some of my research into a few of the plethora of plants that yield such a broad range of colours for us artists to exploit.
Anil indigo, Indigofera suffruticosa, is one of 750 species of flowering plants used to extract a distinctive blue used that has been used as a textile dye for centuries. This herbaceous perennial woody shrub is native to the subtropical Americas, though has been introduced across the world as a dye-plant. The Aztecs called the blue colourant “xuiquilitl” whereas the Spanish referred to it as “azul de añil,” or simply “añil.”
Añil was considered precious and was used in prehispanic artwork such as sculptures, murals, textiles and illuminated codices, such as the Florentine Codex. Mixed with Palygorskite clays it can produce Maya blue, a pigment manufactured and used by the Mesoamerican civilizations both in the murals which decorated their temples and also to paint the bodies of human sacrifices to Chaac, the Mayan deity of rain.
In the UK and Europe, woad (Isatis tinctoria) was used to extract indigo before the higher yielding Indigofera tinctoria replaced it. Indigofera arrecta (Natal indigo) was also used for extract indigo in Central America, while in Asia the primary commercial indigo species was true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, also known as Indigofera sumatrana).
Cochineal (Coccus cacti, Dactylopius coccus) is a natural red colourant, carmine, made from the dried bodies of female scale insects. These insects are native to Mexico and North, Central, and South America and are parasites of Nopal cactus, (commonly referred to in English as prickly pear) particularly, Opuntia ficus-indica. The Aztecs called the carmine red colourant “nocheztli;” the Spanish referred to it as “grana cochinilla” or “cochinilla.”
It is said that Aztec leader, Montezuma received taxes paid in cochineal and after the Spanish conquest it was one of the most valuable exported products, after gold and silver. This natural pigment was employed in a variety of uses: as a paint for manuscripts and decorative objects and also in decorating pre-hispanic temples; and as a dye for fabrics and textiles. In Mexico, cochineal farms (or nopalry) are mainly found in the southern state of Oaxaca.
Today, it is still produced the active colour component, carmine is used as a colouring agent for medicines, foods, and cosmetics identified to by its E number, E120.
The colour changes when mixed with pH levels. Lime (tartaric acid) produces a brilliant red, crimsons and scarlets, and even oranges; while bicarbonate of soda (alkaline) turns it purple. Though it can ‘de-lake’ in low pH conditions (acid) precipitating through orange to black.
The heartwood of the Mexican Logwood tree (Haematoxylum brasiletto) known as Brazilwood has been used as a yarn and textile dye and also a colourant in pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.
It was well known to the Aztecs and was also a prominent dye in Maya weaving. It is a species of tropical hard in the legume family, Fabaceae, known in its native Mexico and Guatemala as “palo de brasil” or “palo de tinto”.
It is still readily available at local markets in Mexico, also sold for its medicinal properties. The colour ranges from bright pinks to scarlets.
Also known as Logwood, the primary use of Haematoxylum campechianum or “palo de tinto” in Spanish, was also to dye cotton and wool. This tree also grows in the same regions and the demand for the dye from logwood is the reason the British took over what is now Belize and colonized it during the Industrial Revolution in the UK. Per Anderson told me a story of how a Dutch paper maker was arrested for travelling to Sweden to teach his trade and sentenced to penal work chipping Brazilwood for the textile industry.
It was a good thing that I had an arsenal of natural binders as this is what happened when I mixed the extracted dye with Daler Rowney Acrylic medium… a glutinous wobble! I think this is due to the pH.
Tagetes erecta is known as the Aztec marigold and is a species native to Mexico. Its flower is also called “flor de muertos” (“Flower of the dead”) and is used to decorate “oferendas” (alters) for the Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in November. The flower is also called cempasúchil translates as “twenty flower” from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) term for flower cempohualxochitl.
Tagetes Lucida, a perennial plant also native to Mexico and Central America, it is known as wild marigold, or Mexican tarragon as the leaves and a tarragon-like flavour. In Mexico is commonly called “Pericón” or referring to the Aztec incense “Yauhtli”. The plant was associated with their deity Tlaloc, and the incense blown into the faces of those about to become the victims of human sacrifice. The Huichol peoples are also known to mix it with a strong native Mexican tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) for its claimed psychotropic effects.
Since prehispanic times, as well as medicinal purposes, these plant has been used to extract yellow lutein dyes, a common yellow/orange food colour (E161b).
Bixa Orellana, a shrubby tree found in tropical regions of North, Central and South America, though thought to originate from Brazil. The name achiote derives from the Nahuatl word for the shrub, āchiotl.
It is the seeds that have been traditionally used for red body paint and lipstick, helping earn its name as the ‘Lipstick tree’. Each spikey pod contains seeds covered with a thin waxy blood-red aril. The colour of the seed coating is due mainly to the carotenoid pigments bixin and norbixin.
The Aztecs also used it as a source of red ink for their illuminated manuscript (codices) painting in the 16th century.
This natural yellow-orange-red colourant is used widely as a condiment known as “annatto”. In Mexico, this Yucatecan condiment is called recado rojo or “achiote paste” is made from ground seeds combined with other spices. It is also used as an industrial food colouring (identified by the E number E160b) including chorizo and UK cheeses such as Red Leicester. The more norbixin the more yellow it is; a higher level of bixin gives it a more orange shade.
So many others to try, but at least this has been a good start covering a primary colour base as well