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Helen Capewell
OCA Learning Log
Student Number: 522802
Degree: Illustration
Current Level: 2

Exercise 2.4

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Drawing with Tea Bags

There are many artist that use natural pigments to dye, paint and create with. History tells us the story of how pigments and paints began, and developed to become the processed tubes we buy in art stores today, but how often do we question the contents of the tube and the sustainability matter? I for one have paid close attention to making sustainable life choices in recent years, mostly with the way I shop, but the one area I haven't ever thought about, is art. I would lie if I hadn't thought about the damage that might be caused when cleaning brushes, palettes and water containers in the sink. The area I hadn't considered much is the actual buying of paints and equipment. Exploring natural options through this exercise was a great taste of what could be done when considering sustainable options. Low key and natural, with some interesting results.

Most recently I discovered a young artist and YouTuber, Jonna Jinton, who created a beautiful video that shares a little insight into her process and how she found her way to natural pigments found in her home.

Another video I discovered was about Scott Sutton.

With the title suggesting painting with tea bags, I wanted to continue with the theme of using something we can consume, such as chilli powder and turmeric. Both ingredients that have distinctive colouring when untreated. Simply using warm water, I mixed about half a spoon of each into little pots and stirred. The colours in the pot was promising, though I could already see that both hadn't mixed fully.

Starting with testing the behaviour of the two ingredients, I decided to draw the bottles they came from as the subject. As an extra tool to draw, I used a fine line pen to outline the drawings.

To be honest, apart from the flakey granules of the two ingredients, all felt familiar, like using a ready made paint mixture. It lacked the thickness, and the strength to layer, but over all behaved in a similar way which made it easy to paint with.

I had an old cheap lip balm lying at the bottom of a draw which I thought to test on the same page. It was a really gross finish which not only made me dislike the result but also the idea of this being on your mouth. An oil soaked the page which just made me think of cooking oil or grease. The coverage was pretty poor, it wouldn't go very far which made it difficult to use.

I decided to stick with the natural ingredients and introduced another powdered natural pigment, Spirulina for a deep green.

I set up a subject to draw and put the ingredients to the test.

Ok, so what was an attempt to creating a somewhat realistic painting of a mask turned out to be a bit of a disaster. The green of the Spirulina was perfect, such a strong pigment, however the consistency of the watered down mix wouldn't behave the way I had hoped. I really wanted the colour to be similar to the powder with the gorgeous vibrancy. Each time I tried to thicken the layers with more, the previous layer would also become wet again and in the end made it difficult to try create darker areas. Once I put down the green tones, I added the Chilli powder and turmeric.

I didn't like how the Chilli powder looked with the green, it was barely noticeable at all. Perhaps I didn't mix enough powder in with water, resulting in a very diluted consistency. Or maybe this is just what happened with water and instead I needed to look for an alternative solution to mix with the powder, if there was such a solution that worked! I was left wondering what could I use instead to create the red.

I knew that tea could be good when left to stew a while, and so thought I could work with a tea that had colouring. Blackcurrant tea seemed to be a perfectly good idea. After leaving it to stew for a while, the red colour was really vibrant. I had high hopes for the way this would behave and thought I had it 'in the bag' on this one.

I started to apply the liquid on to the painting, and for a very short moment, it look to be working, until it dried! What I was left with, after a minute of soaking in the page, was a an almost grey tone, and there was no going back! Perhaps I could have explored other natural ingredients with strong pigments, but I just wasn't feeling it.

As much as I loved the pigment of the green, the behaviour was not something I could work with. None of the ingredients were super successful, however it was an interesting lesson to have worked through. This sort of exercise would require many more experiments to find the right consistency for each, and for others! I love how Jonna Jinton creates her work and the textures she's able to achieve through the natural pigments, and feel this could inspire a desire to learn in more depth the power of earths pigments!


I have since become the owner of an inspiring book called Creativity Through Nature - Foraged, Recycled and Natural Mixed Media Art - by Ann Blockley. A book released this year, full of reminders why now is a better time than ever to reconnect with nature. It is packed with many references to the modern world, Covid and the grinding lifestyle surrounded in concrete, with an abundance of encouragement to forage yourself.

When freedoms are taken, you crave them more. Since being reduced to venturing locally last year, and with holidays feeling less of a relaxing time during the Covid hoops one has to jump through which consumes any enjoyment, being outdoors across the country with no rules has been a saviour. It's on these trips where I spent most of the days amongst nature that I discovered Ann Blockley's book (in a shop not a forest, fyi), and with nature having found its way back into my life and inspiring me beyond expectation, it felt a little bit like destiny when I saw it!

I couldn't resist the cover, and the artworks that filled each page charmed my curiosity. I remembered this exercise and my attempts at using turmeric and chilli powder to less successful use and thought how valuable it would be to have a book such as this. It felt like a good place to start when blindly stepping into a world of natural pigments.

Of course, during this course I have somewhat hungered for knowledge through other artists and their experiences. Searching for inspiration for how I would like to fill my books. At first I wanted to see their sketchbooks, then I wanted to see how they filled them, and now I'm curious to know what they fill them with. I find it fascinating to see how artists use natural pigments within their work, and I love how it has brought sustainability into my conscious when considering the materials I purchase. Although I am attached to the materials bought ready to use, the idea of bringing in natural elements to my work is exciting. It feels like biology and art combined, a science experiment living on a chosen surface, and whats more, it can change in time, making it art that is alive.

Ann Blockley's work makes me think of dry glass photography, or negative photos that has been left in a wet box, I can't quite work it out but the abstraction through mixed media is beautiful. Colours are vivid, the texture is delightful and the slight details of nature is where I feel the reminder of old photography that has been distorted, they're a wonder to look at. Is there a technique in printing found flowers, leaves and other? I had no idea about such methods and, honestly, I still don't! Though I took to the challenge of this exercise again, to dive a little deeper in the home cupboards and find other things I could make colour out of.

I started with the basic science of boiling a red cabbage, a popular and easy choice. I had seen many articles and videos that would show the process of preparing the cabbage for extracting its colour. I found which household items would react with the colour of red cabbage giving its pH values, and set out on my mini science project with acids and base solutions.

I didn't really know what I was doing, and although there was plenty of examples on the internet, I also wanted to just play with my own ideas of what I thought might get a reaction. Above image is when each test was wet; I wish it stayed this way! The colours are lovely, and would be perfect work with should they stay this way. When drying, the colours didn't change too much which was a pleasant surprise, they just lost the vibrancy,. I had essentially made a dye, it was difficult to get a thick colour to paint with and so I looked at ways I could thicken them.

I thought the consistency of the solution when mixed with baking powder or soda was thick enough to perhaps act as a paint, so I wondered what other powdery neutral ingredient could I use for a similar effect. I mean, flour was the only idea I had, and so gave it a go! It lightened the colour to a pastel tone, which looked super cute! After a while, the consistency began turning into a dough like thickness. It rolled up into a ball real nice but didn't spread across the paper very well. I did think it would be a really cool substance to use when creating a textured background, and is it dried up, it reminded me of the properties similar to pulp.

Another wild idea I had was using chia seeds that had been soaked in water for a while. The chia seeds would create a glue like bond which I imagined would possibly mix well with the powder from the baking powder experiment. Again, the textured properties when drying was like pulp. The colour stayed a while but in the end turned almost yellowy grey. If there was a way of extracting the chia seeds so that the residue was left, it could be an interesting combination.

After doing the basic tests I decided to play a little with how they might react with one another. I found that the best way to get colours was by using tissue rather than paper. I guess, with it being a dye, the tissue is the closest to being a fabric, and so it was able to absorb the liquid better.

Following similar colour theme, flowers I had were on the way out and so decided to recycle them for sake of seeing what could be extracted. Once they had been in water, I left them to dry on tissue thinking to use them later, after some time I noticed the colour bleeding on the tissue was a really vivid purple colour. Reacting quick I put them in my sketchbook instead to see if the same would happen. I loved how the colours printed on the paper. The purple to yellow is a lovely gradient that I'm really pleased with.

Instead of having each colour already mixed in a small pot, I wanted to try directly on tissue. So squeeze the lemon on a red cabbage dipped tissue, and sprinkle soda on top. I wasn't able to paint with the solutions, so I thought perhaps I could create some interesting work by applying them directly. I had the hairdryer at hand so I could dry in between each application. The results are seriously cool and I'm really surprised at how the colours held up when dry.

The middle tissue with the brown colours was a test with coffee. Coffee is no discovery having used it many times in the past to 'age' paper. Learning that the colours did better on tissue, though on some papers also showed to have a positive reaction, I also tried dipping cotton pads. I loved the colours on this, they were definitely most effective on this type of surface.

Ask much as I loved the effect the colours had on the tissue, I didn't like the actual tissue too much. At the end of the day it was loo roll with a pattern pressed in, it always looked like loo roll no matter what was covering it. It wasn't a surface I wanted to make art on, and if I put anything else on top it would probably crumble and fall apart anyways. I grabbed a thick piece of paper and followed the same process as the tissue. I sponged the red cabbage dye over it and blasted it with a hair dryer. Like paint, it spread out leaving dark outlines similar to watercolour. So once it had dried slightly, I applied another coat and followed the same steps until I had several layers.

If cabbage alone had this effect on paper, then I was pretty confident mixing it with soda , vinegar and with lemon would also result in the same way. Adding to each layer I would dry them with the hairdryer. I had built up quite a nice texture with the colours, and so far I was really pleased.

Something that Ann blockley looks to do, though I have no idea how, is print with nature itself. Leaves look to be pressed into her works, leaving a beautiful delicacy and detail within the abstraction. I had a few cuttings from a tomato plant which I thought would perhaps work if pressed on to the paper. Of course I had no idea of the process and what I had found online didn't seem to give me the answers that are similar to Ann's work. So I improvised. With a hammer I softly hit bashed the leaves onto the piece with a layer of paper on top. Yea, this didn't work. But what I did discover is how the green colour would smudge onto the paper very easily. The colour was strong, so instead of trying to learn how to print it, which probably just involved brushing paint over the leaves and pushing them down on the paper (just a guess), I decided to draw with it instead. I crushed the leaves between my fingers and smudged them across the page leaving marks that would add to the existing work. The way the leaves turned into. a liquid made me think how it might be easier to crush them in a pot and squeeze liquid out of them so that I could paint with it. So with the hammer I did exactly that, crushed the leaves in a small pot of water. The more I crushed, the stronger the colour would get.

As this brief asks you took look at different tools to work with, whilst on a walk I picked up feather and a chalky rock that I could draw with. With the newly made liquid from the tomato leaves, I used the feather to paint with.

Painting with the feather didn't bring too many differences compared to a paintbrush. It was soft to use and the more I used it the more the hairs stuck together, creating lines as it brushed over the paper. The green from the leaves was proving to be a lovely colour to use, and work really nice with the existing colour from the cabbage. I decided to just pour the rest of the liquid on to the paper and hit it with the hairdryer once again.

Using the chalky rock a scribbled lines across the areas that were already dry. I tore the paper up a little but overall it worked.

I would have liked to have included the flour mixture in this to create more depth and texture, but I'm really happy with the results. I'm really impressed with the green from the leaves, and with the process of drying in between application, I was able to build up a selection of vivid colours that look really great together.

It's a very messy process overall, however continuing the experiments and finding what I can do with foraged gifts from nature could easily fit into my practise. I would need to learn more about pigments and what works well to create a consistency that is ideal for painting. Returning to the likes of Jonna Jinton and Ann Blockley would help to learn more about the technique of making your own medium. I've been very inspired by both.



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