In an interview for a quilting magazine recently, I was asked why I liked oil paints. I found myself speaking lovingly about the names of paints — burnt sienna, cadmium yellow, quinacridone magenta, perylene black, French ultramarine.

My response surprised (even) me. I hadn’t actually thought of the names of colors as a reason to like a specific medium. Thinking it over, however, I came to understand why I fell into praising the precisely designated oil paints. And watercolor paints. And even acrylics.

It isn’t the names, charming as I find them, so much as it is that the names signify a specific color that holds fairly true across media and brands.

To understand the hold that standardized pigments have for me, you have to know that I began my color education with textile dyes rather than pigment paints. Once you have struggled with making art with dyes, you find that using pigmented paints seems ridiculously easy.

Here are reasons why dyes are inherently difficult to control.

Dyes form chemical bonds with the fabric; they fill up dye “receptors.” (Pigments coat and sometimes stain fabrics but they don’t form chemical bonds.)

Dyes will change color depending upon the temperature (ambient as well as liquid), the amount of time they have to react, the particular color and strength of the dye (which can also be altered by age), and/or the way you hold your tongue when you apply them.

Different fiber reactive dye colors “strike” the fabrics at different rates (and also attach to different fibers, say cotton and silk, at different rates and with different hues). This strike rate means that some dyes, like magenta, will produce color faster than others; if the dye is a mixture of colors, the fastest striking dye will take up most of the dye receptors in the fabric and therefore not be able to be dyed over regardless of the strength or depth of color any dye laid over it is. And some dyes travel further along the fabric than others, so the reach or wick of one color could be much longer than the reach of another, even given the same consistency of liquidity.

With fiber reactive dyes, temperatures have to be maintained at a constant state and should be no lower than 75 degrees F and no higher than 95 degrees F. You can compensate for lower temperatures by increasing the time a dye is allowed to set, but different colors of dyes have different requirements, so what works for fuchsia doesn’t work for turquoise. And higher temperatures of water or air will kill the dyes before they have time to react (except for magenta….)

So here’s what can happen when the bully dye fuschia (magenta) attacks the fabric: This mixture looked like a purple when it was in solution.

Of course, a great deal of the joy of fiber reactive dyes comes precisely from precisely this inprecision. If you drop a bit of yellow into an already (blue) dyed cloth, the yellow will wick out in unexpected and beautiful ways. Most domestic dyers work toward this kind of indeterminate never replicable, often delightful, result. Then they cut the fabric making use of only such parts of it as work for their needs.

If you use wax as a resisting agent, as batik dyers do, you can achieve relatively precise markings with your paintings as well as tight control over line making and wicking. Stencils, stamps, and screen printing, good for replicating imagery, can also be used for very precise effects. And occasionally an artist will be able to control her materials and environment so precisely that she will be able to brushpaint representational scenes with dyes, using a thickening medium to control flow and wicking. However, the thickener lightens the color, so it’s difficult to get intense dye paintings.

The less good dyers, among whom I include myself, play with the dyes, allowing their indeterminate results to emerge senedipitously. I can’t control the temperature in my dye studio, which is almost always under the recommended 75 degrees F; I am cavalier about how long I allow my batched dye paints to sit and get fixed. I measure with teaspoons rather than weighing the dye stuffs. I throw salt on top my dyeing fabric. All this makes the results variable.


But without the ability to control the environment, with a certain amount of impatience, and without the kind of temperament that loves precision and planning ahead, I have found that I am ultimately dissatisfied with dyed effects. I now want my tools to work in expected ways, so the creativity comes out of my fingers and mind. I find myself loving pigment — for its precision of color, for its ability to make fine as well as crude marks, for its lack of variability in moving across the surface of the support, for its sheer immediacy.

Dyeing is a joy and has a lot of advantages for textile use, but for the immediate rush of pleasure in making art, I’ll take pigment.

The best reference for beginning and intermediate dyers can be found on Paula Burch’s website:

Paula lists the pure (unmixed) procion MX fiber reactive dyes along with the names various manufacturers give them: this list helps in achieving both the color desired and resisting unwanted strikes and wicking.
She also has a good discussion about the differences between paints and dyes

But just for comparison, here are some details of a cotton textile that I’ve painted rather than dyed. I don’t think I could achieve these results with dyes, even with fullest knowledge, patience, and methodical controls: