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Sustainability Lesson Clearinghouse

Painting with Natural Dyes

Lesson Description:
Students will use common plant materials to create pictures with an environmental theme.

Eco-fact: The first synthetic dye was discovered in 1856 by william perkins and was derived from coal tar. There are currently more than 10,000 synthetic dyes in use today.

Before the natural dye activity:
  • Introduce the topic of natural dyes. explain to students that natural dyes had been used for thousands of years before synthetic dyes came into use in the late 1800’s. Explain that most dyes were originally made from various parts of plants, with some coming from insects, seashells and earth materials, such as clay, iron and copper salts.
  • Show students the plant materials listed below and ask which colors they think each might produce. create a list of plants and the colors students think will be made from them.
  • Explain to students that they will be making and using natural dyes and describe the process for extracting the color from the plants and the need to use fixatives when dying cloth. (fixatives bind the dye to the fabric fibers, so they do not wash out easily.)

Preparing natural dyes:
  • Select plant materials from the list provided below:
    • beets (deep red)
    • cranberries (light red)
    • blueberries (blue/purple)
    • purple grapes (purple)
    • red cabbage (purple)
    • yellow onion skin (warm orange/brown)
    • red onion leaves ( medium green)
    • spinach leaves (yellow/green)
    • brewed coffee and black tea will provide shades of brown.
  • Prepare ahead of time as many plant dyes as needed for students to paint with during the art session. Large amounts of dye are not needed for this project. Small amounts may be made, but the more colors available the better. directions follow.
  • In class the teacher will demonstrate how a natural dye is made. Using pre-cut plant materials cut into small pieces, the teacher will add the plant material to the pot. The teacher will add twice the amount of water as compared to the plant material (e.g., 2 cups plant material and 4 cups water). the teacher will place the pot on the heat source and simmer the mixture for approximately one hour, stirring occasionally. the mixture will reduce in volume by about a third. remove the pot from the heat and let it stand to cool. Put on protective gloves. strain the liquid into a glass jar. Label the jar with the type of plant used to make the dye. cover and store until ready to use.

Using with natural dyes:
  • Provide students with watercolor paper and protective gloves to keep them from becoming stained by the dyes.
  • Have students select an environmental theme and have them sketch a picture that depicts the theme onto their watercolor paper.
  • Set out the jars of natural dye at stations. explain which plants were used to produce each color. next to each jar of dye place several paintbrushes. explain to students that the colors should not be mixed on the brushes.
  •  Students will use the dyes to give color to their sketches. explain to students it may take a few coats of layered color to produce a bright color.

After using the natural dyes:
  • Have students share their pictures and discuss how effective they think the dyes were.

Lesson Type:
  • Experiment
  • Group Work

Sustainability Topic:
  • Gardening

GEF Program Category:
  • Green Thumb Challenge

Time Needed:
Two sessions: 75 minute demonstration session, 40 minutes art session
Materials Needed:
  • portable hot plate
  • old pot
  • water
  • measuring cup
  • protective gloves
  • paper towels
  • pencils and writing paper
  • glass jars
  • strainer
  • newspaper
  • watercolor paper
  • paintbrushes
  • pre-cut plants from which to make dyes 

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