Explore the colourful world of plants and make “nature paint” from plant pigments. Invasive plants can be safely harvested to make homemade paints for unique works of art. This activity complements lessons on invasive species and their impacts in your area.
- What invasive species grow in my community?
- How can I use plants to make art?
- What pigments are found in different plants and what are their functions?
- How are plant pigments used today and historically?
Arts Education Big Ideas
- Engagement in the arts creates opportunities for inquiry through purposeful play (Grades K-1)
- Artists experiment in a variety of ways to discover new possibilities (Grades 4-5)
- Creative growth requires patience, readiness to take risks, and willingness to try new approaches (Grade 8)
- An artist’s intention transforms materials into art (Grades 10-12)
Arts Education Curricular Competencies
- Explore elements, processes, materials, movements, technologies, tools, and techniques of the arts (Grades K-2)
- Develop and refine ideas, processes, and technical skills in a variety of art forms to improve the quality of artistic creations (Grades 3-7)
- Use the arts to communicate, respond to and understand environmental and global issues (Grade 8)
- Describe, interpret, and evaluate how artists use technologies, processes, materials, and environments to create and communicate ideas (Grades 9-12)
Science Curricular Competencies (All Grades)
- Identify First Peoples perspectives and knowledge as sources of information
- Experience and interpret the local environment
Part 1: Plant Identification
- Plant ID guides or apps. See Additional Resources section for some suggestions.
Part 2: Harvesting
- Collecting baskets or containers
- Sorting containers and strainers
- Scissors and/or pruning shears
Part 3: Extracting the Pigments
- A blender/food processor and/or mortar and pestle (for Cold Press method of pigment extraction) OR pots, water, and a heat source (for Heat method of pigment extraction)
- Strainers, and/or cheese cloth
- Masking tape for labels
Part 4 : Painting with Invasives
- Watercolour palettes (ice cube trays work well)
- Colouring sheets and/or watercolour paper
Pro-tip: For the brightest colours, use watercolour paper. Watercolour paper is more absorbent and designed to soak up as much pigment as possible.
Documents to Download
Nature is full of brilliant colours. Plants contain pigments that serve important functions in their physiology, development, growth, and life cycle. These pigments include green chlorophyll; yellow, orange and red carotenoids; and red, blue and violet anthocyanins. Chlorophyll is what makes plants green and is the compound that allows plants to absorb light to make energy in photosynthesis. In the autumn, deciduous plants resorb chlorophyll in their leaves, making other pigments, like yellow carotenoids and red anthocyanins, become visible and create vibrant fall colours. Pigments have properties that help protect the plant from herbivores, and to attract pollinators and seed dispersers. For example, hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers whereas bees prefer violet-blue and yellow pigments.
Plant pigments have also played important cultural roles. Indigenous people have traditionally used native plants to create body paints and natural dyes. In British Columbia, many plants are traditionally used to dye baskets and clothing, such as Oregon grape inner bark (yellow), Red alder bark and leaves (red, orange, and yellow), huckleberries (purple), and lichens (green, yellow, and brown).
Invasive plants are harmful to our environment and community. But they may also be beautiful, colourful and an excellent source of pigments to create a diverse range of colours of nature paint. Students can make a positive impact to the environment by harvesting invasive plants and using them in artwork.
For general background information on invasive species and their impacts, read Background on Invasive Species for Educators.
Part 1: Planning your plant paint
- Talk about the different coloured plants students see in their natural environment. Each plants get its colours from special molecules called ‘pigments’.
- Have your students brainstorm the colours they would like to make. Which plants do they think would make those colours? Have they seen them in their environment before?
- Ensure you have a field guide or the iNaturalist app downloaded to help you ID plants. Look through plant ID books or the ISCBC website (https://bcinvasives.ca) to identify some invasive plants in your area and ensure they are safe to pick. Some plants, such as Orange hawkweed, can cause skin irritations in sensitive individuals. Others, such as thistle, have spines and prickles. Protective gloves may be necessary for harvesting some species.
- Need inspiration for colours? Go on a nature walk to see the colours available in your community. Refer to the Plant Colour Guide for ideas.
- Discuss the difference between invasive plants, native plants and non-native/introduced plants. Discuss why picking invasive or introduced plants commonly found in the environment is better than picking native wildflowers.
- Plan how to safely harvest plants. Choose a community greenspace that you can pick invasive or common plants from. Obtain permission to access the area if needed.
Part 2: Harvesting Plants
- Gather your students in your green space. Delineate boundaries for picking and review your safety procedures. Remind students to only pick the plants discussed while brainstorming, not native wildflowers.
- Assign students into groups and hand out 1-2 baskets or containers per group. You may want to assign certain plants or colours to each group.
- Now the fun begins. Have the students harvest the invasive plants from nature! Collect lots; the more plants you have for each colour, the brighter the colour will be.
Pro-tip: Collect as many plants as you can and separate by color. Petals need to be plucked separately to keep the colour vibrant. Green stems or leaves can make the colour brown.
- Once back at your work area, sort your harvested plants by colour, species, or both!
- Decide which plant parts you would like to use and carefully separate them from the rest of the plant. For example, pluck yellow petals and collect them into a basket. Ensure only the yellow petals are in the container; little bits of stems or leaves left with different pigments can change the colour.
Pro-tip: Use all the parts of a plant for colours. Flowers can make yellows, pinks, purples or reds. Leaves and stems make green, and roots can create earthy browns.
If the green space didn’t have some of the plants with desired colours, or if the plants were out of season, it is ok to supplement plants from a farmer’s market, garden or grocery store. Review the Plant Colour Guide for ideas.
Part 3: Choose the right method and create your colours
Decide how you want to make the colours: heat or cold press.
What is heat vs. cold press?
Heat uses hot water to extract plant pigments. Heat is useful because you can boil the pigments down to make concentrated colours. However, it may take more time or alter colours slightly. Boiling should be done by the educator away from very young students.
Cold press does not use heat. Instead, water is added to the plant parts and then blended together and strained to give colour immediately. Cold press is useful because it is fast, you can do it safely with your group, and the colours will stay true. However, the colours may not be as bright or concentrated.
Both methods work well and have benefits and drawbacks. You can choose the method you think suits your group best.
- Gather your supplies. You will need: blender or food processor, mortar and pestle for grinding, strainer, gloves, scissors, water, jars, and labels.
- Put your plant parts for one colour in the blender. Use a knife or scissors to cut the plants into small pieces that can fit in the blender. Use gloves if you handle any plants with thorns or prickles.
- Pour a SMALL amount of water into the blender. You only want enough water to allow it to blend. The less water you use, the brighter the colour will be.
- Blend the plant parts until they are smooth or broken into small pieces.
- Pour through a strainer into a jar. Label the jar with the plant name and which part of the plant was used.
- OPTIONAL: Pour into a rag or cheesecloth and wring out more liquid. This will help you get as much colour as possible out of the plant.
- Wash out the blender and strainer.
- Repeat for each colour.
- Gather your supplies. You will need: pots, stove, strainer, gloves, scissors, water, jars and labels.
- Put your plant parts for one colour in a pot. Use gloves if you handle any plants with thorns or prickles.
- Add enough water to completely cover the plant parts.
- Turn the pot on and bring to boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer.
- Check on it regularly, give the plant parts a stir if needed. Allow water to evaporate off to concentrate the colour. The more water evaporated, the stronger the colour will be. Take care to ensure nothing burns.
- Once the desired colour has been reached, remove the pot from heat and let it cool off.
- Pour the pot contents through a strainer into a jar. Label the jar with the plant name and which part of the plant was used.
- OPTIONAL: Pour into a rag or cheese cloth and squish out as much liquid as possible. This will help you get as much colour as possible out of the plant.
- Repeat process for each colour.
Part 4: Painting with Invasives
- Discuss with students the differences between water-based paint and other paints they have used. Water-based paints are often lighter, more natural-looking, and can blend together to create subdued pieces of art.
- Pick a space that can get messy or go outside.
- Ensure students are wearing paint smocks or clothes they can get dirty. Plant based plants are safe and non-toxic, but it can take some work to lift stains from paints made from berries!
- Pour each colour into water-colour paint trays. A little will go a long way. Usually 4 Tbsp (or 60ml) will be sufficient for a class. Ice cube trays can be a great substitute for paint trays.
- Distribute art supplies and paper – visit My Colouring Book for beautiful colouring pages of invasive species made by youth to paint. For best results, try watercolour paper. (Optional: Have students create their own line art to paint.)
- Paint and enjoy!
Share with us!
We’d love to have your feedback and see photos of your students’ participation in this activity and their art work. Send to [email protected] for the opportunity to win resources and have your class have a virtual visit with an invasive species expert!
How do plants make colour? Learn about pigments such as chlorophylls, carotenoids, flavonoids, and anthocyanins. For an overview and in-depth look at these pigments head over to Let’s Talk Science
Explore chemistry. Add acids or bases to alter the pH of the dye bath and see how it changes the colour. Try adding lemon juice or vinegar to make your dye more acidic or add baking soda to make it more alkaline. Experiment and see what different colors you can make with just one dye. Not all dyes will have dramatic changes in color from modifying the pH, but it’s always fun to see what happens.
Dyes throughout history: Discuss the historical and cultural uses of plants in producing paints and dyes. What plants did the First Nations traditionally use as sources of dyes in your region? Connect with knowledge keepers in your community to learn more about cultural connections to and uses of plants.
Explore Invasive Species: Research more about the plants that were harvested for your nature paints. Which ones are native or invasive? How did the invasive plants get here and what are their impacts? What can be done to control their spread?
Identify invasive species in your Region:
- Identify invasive species using the ISCBC Identify Library
- Link to the affiliate Regional Invasive Species Organizations near you: https://bcinvasives.ca/about/our-networks/
- Field Guide to Noxious Weeds
- Plant ID apps: iNaturalist, Seek
Natural Plant Dyes and First Nations’ Plant Uses
- First Nations Plants and Their Uses- Lesson Plan, Scientist in Residence Program.
- Senisi, Ellen B. 2001. Berry Smudges and Leaf Prints: Finding and Making Colors from Nature, Dutton Juvenile, New York.
- Turner, Nancy J. 1998. Plant Technology of the First Peoples of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum Handbook, Victoria.