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Level: Junior, Middle School
Grades: 3-8 | Age: 8-14yrs | Written by: Kim Swanger
[Kim is a K-3 art teacher at Lakeview and Central Elementary Schools in Council Bluffs, Iowa.]

Students will learn that plants are a source of natural dyes and paints. This is a good lesson to show how pioneers or early civilizations may have used plant dyes to color cloth.

What You Need:
What You Do:
  1. Discuss with the students that before we had synthetic dyes, people had to make their own paints and dyes using plants and other resources available. Show the students the nuts and vegetables you have and ask how the pioneers may have used these materials.
  2. The night before the painting lesson, place beets, spinach or kale, walnuts, and onion skins in separate crock pots with enough water to barely cover them. Cook all night. The following morning, the water in each of these pots should have turned into natural dyes. The beet water will be magenta, the onion water will be amber, the spinach or kale water will be a light green and the black walnut water will be brown.
  3. Pour a small amount of paint into bowls and ask students to smell them. Discuss which vegetable made which paint.
  4. Provide brushes and paper (plain or coloring pages) and permit students to paint using the natural dyes.
  5. After the painting experience, ask students what other natural materials might make dyes the pioneers could have used. Experiment with student suggestions.

Note: If black walnuts are not available, VERY STRONG coffee or tea makes an adequate brown dye. Berries can also be used to make colorful dyes. Currently, red dye is commonly made from a parasite that lives on cacti.

Recommended Books/Products:

The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing:
by: J. N. Liles
Traditional Recipes for Modern Use.

The Craft of Natural Dyeing
A great background of the craft, easy instructions and even a glossary of terms.
by: Jenny Dean

My Very Favorite Art Book: I Love to Paint!
Creating with strings, fingers, rollers, straws, and other super techniques: no wonder this entry in Lark's fabulous new art series will have kids saying "I love to paint!"

Painting with Children
Painting with Children contains sections on the "moral effects of color," the experience of colors, preparation, color stories and poems, panting with plant colors, painting the moods and seasons of nature, and much more.

The Science Book of Color
by Neil Ardley
This book explains the principles of color and gives instructions for a variety of simple experiments.

My First Paint Book
by Dawn Sirett
Twenty-two activities, from stenciled boxes to T-shirt designs, are presented along with step-by-step, full-color photographs and clear instructions, in a visual introduction to making and decorating things with paint.

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