Origins of Color: Natural Dyes & Inks

Note: The content of the images in this post are here with permission from Karen Gorst, who taught the workshop I attended, Origins of Color. Karen is a world class calligrapher and manuscript illuminator whose work and contact information is available on her website, Photographs were taken by me, and are the property of Ash & Elm Press.

This past weekend I attended the class Origins of Color at the New York Center for Book Arts. I’ve taken a lot of classes there, from bookbinding, to box making, letterpress, and more. The Center has excellent teachers, and you learn so much in such a small amount of time. If you live near or can travel to NYC, I highly suggest taking a class or two if you’re serious about learning anything about the book arts.

Origins of Color explored how natural colors are taken from semi-precious stones, earth, plants, and even insects. We learned how to extract the colors naturally, how and why we’re able to get certain colors, and what needs to be added to turn them into ink and paint. Since I’m not, and have never been, exceptionally skilled at drawing or painting, this was completely new territory for me. But the book artist and medievalist in me was ECSTATIC that this class was being offered, and that I was able to go!

Bunch of 80 Purple Irises
Irises! Just one of many materials used to get natural color in the class. Guess what color they’re famous for? Hint: it’s not purple! The answer’s on the Ash & Elm Instagram and Facebook if you’re curious!

World-class calligrapher and manuscript illuminator Karen Gorst taught the class. Luckily, I didn’t look her up until after the class ended, because she’s way famous. She’s taught medieval illumination at the Cloisters, and has had work commissioned by the MET, MoMA, and Morgan Library & Museum (among others). She’s considered one of the top 100 most influential calligraphers of the 20th century. Karen is also credited with reviving certain medieval ink and paint recipes previously lost to us, and I’m sure she’ll bring back a few more in the future.

Guys, this is why I don’t look up who my teacher is before a Center for Book Arts class. If I had known all this about Karen, I would have been a lot more timid about asking questions when I didn’t understand something. Which happened a lot.

I can’t stress enough how little I knew about pigment, dyes, and paints, people. Luckily, Karen is an excellent teacher, open to questions, and makes a real effort to include as much information as possible according to her student’s individual interests.

I learned so much in this class, there’s way too much to fit into one blog post. I’m going to break down all this awesome info into different posts, so everything gets the attention it deserves. There’s just so much to talk about; everything’s made differently and has different properties. For now, I’ll give you a general overview of what we made during the weekend class.

Natural pigment samples organized by origin: stone, earth, alchemical, vegetation, and animal
Samples Karen brought in to display the sources and colors of different pigments, categorized by origin type. The content of this image is property of Karen Gorst of Gorst Studios.


We made a lot of colors over the weekend. Karen supplied some color sources for us to work on, and myself and the other students brought in some materials suggested by the workshop syllabus. We made pigments from semi-precious stones, insects, eggs, sand, plants, and spices. From these ingredients, we made different shades of green, blue, brown, tan, red, pink, gray, yellow, orange, black, purple, and white. Then, we made paints and inks with different finishes such as oil paint, watercolor, tempera, glaire, acrylic, shellac, and natural glues (such as bone glue and knox gelatin).

Yeah, I know. All that in TWO DAYS!

Here’s a sneak peak at my final color chart. You’ll notice a few peculiarities, such as the insane color difference between the two hibiscus samples- one’s bright pink, the other a storm gray. Or the difference in color between the cosmos samples that both have chalk added- but one chalk is from Italy and the other France. Why did this crazy stuff happen? This is all stuff I’ll have future posts about- the answers are fascinating!

Sample color chart
I’ve edited this so the colors are as close to the physical colors on my chart as possible. They really are this vibrant! Also, ignore the fact that I apparently didn’t remember how to spell ‘hibiscus’. Shame, shame.

Let me know in the comments if you would like me to talk about anything in particular first, such as where we got certain colors, how we made the paints, why there are weird color changes, or the history of some of these methods/pigments. And make sure you don’t miss these future posts by following Ash & Elm on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter!

Live long and color!


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