One of my all-time favorite flowers is the peony, especially tree peonies. This is the grand and regal variety you see embellishing delicate Chinese vases and elaborate paintings of Japanese gardens. I often use them as a theme in my work.
Treasure Island Triptych 104" x 132" Natural Pigments on Brazilian Linen

Years ago I had the opportunity to present a solo show at a wonderful location in Tokyo–an old Tokugawa Era building in a park-like setting called Sho’u'en (蕉羽園), sponsored by Kosansha. The inside of the building was being re-gold leafed in anticipation of an international publisher’s convention (Kodansha is one of the world’s wealthiest publishers and they own the building). I would be the next program in line.
In anticipation, I went to Tokyo to check out the space, take measurements, and bask in the potential. One of the walls in the room was painted much like a folding screen, gold with a colorful landscape of flowers. I decided to tie into this theme and to fill the large tokonoma with a piece designed just for the spot (above).

I offer many interpretations for the imagery, as the mood strikes me, but the one I’m sticking with (for today) is as follows: Ships in Japan are often symbols for good tidings, an emissary of knowledge, culture, and treasures of all sorts. Lions are often shown with peonies–the lion as the grandest of all beasts, and the peony as the most stately of flowers–each capable of holding their own. My lion is winged, as St. Mark is often depicted in the West, representing Truth. The ship is leaving, having dropped off its passenger. As it turns out, there were already Many Truths occupying a very important niche in the Island’s ecology, frolicking among the Flowers of Indigenous Beauty. What will be the outcome of this intercourse?
Window with view to outside and painted peonies below.
Fast forward two years, the day of installing the show. In the last minute rush in seeing to all the details involved, I somehow managed to leave the right-hand panel of the triptych at home in California. Well, what can you do but charge on?
As it turns out, I measured the tokonoma wrong in the first place and only two panels would fit in the space. I was so glad that it wasn’t the center panel left behind!

Two dear friends are shown helping me with the show (right), Sunny Hara and Cheryl Lawrence.

Weary of Packing (Don't mess with me!)
As mentioned above, this piece was dyed entirely with natural pigments. The vast majority of that dye (by volume) was made with rust. To prepare the dye, I first gather it from a hand-dug well on my property. We have a high magnesium content in our water. The magnesium-laden-water is filtered through the soil and collects on the side of the well when the water table drops as the summer advances.
Installing the Reformed Triptych in the
Tokonoma of Sho'u'en
This pigment is so pure and fine that it doesn’t require any further grinding or processing. I mix it into a paste and then add more water to create a dark solution. I allow it to sit for quite a while to allow the heavier particles to settle to the bottom of the container. (The image at the left show the liquid backlit to exaggerate the difference in concentration.)

The rust/water mixture is divided into two different containers. Care should be taken to not unsettle the concentration of pigment at the bottom of the glass.
Soymilk is added to act as a binding agent to hold the color to the cloth. The soymilk also helps to protect the fiber from direct contact with the metal, and to encapsulate it and help to retard further oxidation.
Heavier Iron Rust Particles Allowed to Settle to Bottom of Vessel
The thinner solution was used to dye the pale rose background of the triptych above. The darker solution was used for highlights and for blending with other colors to darken them.

By examining the warrior piece below, perhaps you’ll gain a better appreciation for the range of shades available. Some indigo and yellow iron-oxide has been added for contrast.
Iron Rust Solution Shown in Two Different Concentrations
Iron rust comes in many forms and colors. It has been mined for thousands of years for use in everything from cave paintings to cosmetics. Below is a yellowy rust I made by pouring rainwater over old iron nails and allowing it to evaporate away. A rusty powder was left behind on all of the surfaces which I gathered for later use.

The range of variations in colors may be increased by simply super heating some pigments.
On the left is iron rust as collected from old nails, on the right is the same pigment baked in the oven.
Pigment Storage Facility
Gives new hope for the honey-do sitting in the front yard, doesn’t it?
Ujigawa-Gassen by John Marshall, Natural Pigments on Silk
copyright John Marshall, 2001
John’s Art – Pick of the Week: Peonies
newsletter Signup.png