More Thinking About Color Mixing

Yesterday I dyed a whole whopping load of stuff: some linen, some cotton jersey, a bunch of silk handkerchiefs, some rayon/silk velvet. This is what I ended up with:

Freeman-Zachery Raspberry

What’s interesting about this is that 1) it’s all natural fibers (except for that white elastic you can see peeking out of the middle of the pile) and 2) it started out white. Theoretically, you’d think it would all end up the same color: it started out the same color, it was all in the dye bath for the same amount of time, it should all end up the same color, right?

Nope. Not at all. And wait! We’re not just talking about fabric here. I know most of y’all are more interested in paper and canvas than you are in fabric, and that’s where this gets interesting. Think about all the things that effect what happens when you put paint onto a substrate. It’s not such a big deal if you’re painting with opaque paints, but what about watercolors, which, like fabric dyes, are transparent? Then the qualities of the substrate become really important: how white is it? And what kind of white–blue white? yellow white? gray white? Is the ground absorbent, or does it have a coating? Papers are manufactured in different ways, and this is something I learned to think about when I was doing a lot of rubber stamping. Glossy cardstock has a clay coating, different from other kinds of glossy paper, like photo paper. Handmade paper often has no finish at all and will readily absorb liquid. Some paper has various kinds of chemicals involved in the manufacturing process, and those can effect the colors you use. If you’re trying for uniform colors in a variety of pieces of work–say, if you’re doing a commission that involves several pieces in a variety of media–where color is important, it’s something you’re going to want to think about before you begin.

There are some things you can do to try to get a consistent color–it’s actually easier with paint than it is with dye. If it had been important to me to match these fabrics as closely as possible, I could have washed them in hot water with Synthrapol first to remove any sizing or additives and then used a color remover to get out any residual color. I would still have gotten some variation just because the fibers are different, but I could have gotten them closer than they are now. With paint, you could use a layer of white gesso on your various substrates, sealing them and making the surfaces more uniform.

This is something you’re going to want to think about and experiment with as you work and learn more about color. And the key really *is* experimentation: take time to play with your substrates and media and see what kinds of results you get. Happy accidents really *are* happy: who knows what you’ll discover about the colors you love?

To find out more about color, color theory, color mixing–and a whole lot more–here’s a good place to start in the North Light Shop with books, videos, and helpful tools.


Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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