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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Violet Sea Snails

I have been reading an amazing and inspiring book called COLOUR, a natural history of the palette by Victoria Findlay. It has been amazing to read as she traverses the globe seeking the natural sources of the colours that define the world we live in. The chapter I am reading at the moment is the one on Violet and it is amazing to read how these snails were found that exude purple pigment that can be used as a dye. Hundreds of years ago the women would send off their men with skeins of cotton to the coast of mexico to an island where these snails live. They would search for the snails then blow on them so that they release the pigment, smearing it on the cotton which turned green and then purple and then released the snail back to the sea.
At one stage a japanese company won the contract to collect the pigment, however when the locals found out they were killing the snails they caused such an uproar that the contract was cancelled and returned to the local men.
Some of the dyes and colours were so valuable that painters could only afford to use them if their patrons bought the dyes for them. Other colours were poisonous and caused the painters to become sick, but they were so passionate about achieving the right colour, that they continued using the paint regardless.
It was only very recently that synthetic dyes were discovered, but their relative cheapness has meant that almost all of the natural dyes are rare or extinct now. I remember as a child playing in the yard of my neighbours house, collecting the different coloured clays that were dug up as their pool was put in and making paint with them. They seemed somehow more special than the bright paints that came out of the tube. I would love to paint again with the ochres of the desert of Australia, creating the sunburnt land with colours that have been forged by the earth. I have done some natural dying of wool which was amazing, using different mordants to create greens and blues from barks of the eucalyptus trees that grow here in Australia.
Hmm, I think I might need to get out the paints. The world looks better when it's purple.

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