Foxglove, The Secret Lives of Color, The Metropolitan Museum, & Plant Pigments

artist blog color foxglove china planty pigment tree

One of the things I did during my recent artist residency was to read some art books, including Kassia St. Clair's The Secret Lives of Color. I enjoyed it and think other artists would too. It's full of anecdotes and stories about various colors--- an easy book to read in little bits, since it's organized by colors. The best part for me was finding out about foxglove as a pigment. Back in June 2015, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "China: Through the Looking Glass"  exhibit with artist friends, right after taking a course on Japanese traditional use of natural materials for art. Some of the early Buddhist sculpture had "traces of foxglove pigment," according to the explanatory tags. None of us knew what that would entail or even what color it was. There was nothing at the Met or that I could find online that explained what part of the foxglove plant or flower was used or what color it was. I was happy to find out more in this book. Apparently foxglove roots are used for dye; the book mentions it was used to dye for Chinese Imperial garments, which were yellow:

The key ingredient was the Rehmannia glutinosa, or Chinese foxglove, a plant with trumpet-shaped flowers and roots that look like elongated golden beetroot. To achieve the precise color desired, the tubers were harvested at the end of the eighth lunar month, and then pounded by hand into a smooth paste.
— St. Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Color. New York: Penguin Books, 2017. p. 85.
Bodhisattva. Northern Song (960–1127)–Jin (1115–1234) dynasty. 11th–12th century China. Wood (foxglove) with traces of pigment and gilding; single woodblock construction. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bodhisattva. Northern Song (960–1127)–Jin (1115–1234) dynasty. 11th–12th century China. Wood (foxglove) with traces of pigment and gilding; single woodblock construction. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Was foxglove pigment on the sculpture a similar color? I'm still wondering about that and hope to find more information on it, since I'm particularly interested in researching and using natural pigments and materials in my own art studio. Perhaps I'll have more luck researching that in some of the new books and online resources for natural dyeing of clothes. 

I did one more online search and found information that somehow only was there now but not before when I tried to access it. Today the Met's website says that the sculptures were actually carved from foxglove-tree wood, an entirely different species than the garden flower. Paulownia tomentosa is a deciduous tree native to China that was used to carve sculpture in China and musical instruments in Japan and Korea, according to Wikipedia. This makes sense, although I still remember the labels at the Met mentioning traces of foxglove pigment, not that it was carved from foxglove-tree wood. So the mystery continues.

plant watercolor pigments made from weeds. Sherri Silverman.

plant watercolor pigments made from weeds. Sherri Silverman.

I love trees, plants, gardening, and nature, and have explored natural pigments for a few years, beginning formally with my taking the Nihonga workshop in 2015. In August 2016, I took a one-day "Invasive Pigments" workshop with artist Ellie Irons at Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin on creating watercolor pigments from plants. Here's my test palette from that brief dip into the hues taken from nature. 

I still don't know whether the foxglove flowers or other parts of the foxglove plant make paint, but I feel closer to finding out.