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If paint grew on trees… or vines

Plant Chicago intern Clarisel Cantarero has found a way to combine her passion for art with sustainability in helping us find a use for a plant that had typically grown in the background of our farm. Below is her introduction to this journey:

What is paint?

Paint is a substance utilized in many cultures across the world. It can exist in many forms, such as frescos and water colors, the dyed mud for adobe homes, fine art oil paint and the ubiquitous gallon paint can that covers the walls of the typical American home. For most of us however, the composition of paint has fallen short of drawing attention.

As you approach the middle of Plant Chicago’s aquaponic farm, you notice the extensive curling and winding that a vine has constructed over pipes, cords and even other plants in media bed Number Two. This vine is malabar spinach. It is not related to spinach, but it shares similar characteristics when cooked, and tastes similar to chard. The berries are nestled within the care of the thick leaves. You can’t help but notice the faint pink staining on the leaves near the berries, or on the floor when stepped on. The leaves are normally eaten, either by humans of chickens, but the berries normally are composted. Instead of having these berries continue to be composted, why not make it into a natural paint and create another product?

Paint is usually made up of at least two components: the foundation being a pigment (in this instance an organic, i.e. carbon-based pigment) and a paint binder (in order to carry and provide body to the pigment). Paint binders vary according to the type of paint you are trying to produce, and will at times determine what type of paint would be most suited in order to produce the most vibrant color without having to chemically alter the pigment.

In the case of the Malabar spinach berries, since they have a high water content, we want to focus on water soluble binders. For paint mediums with higher water content, we can explore acrylic binders and watercolor binders. Acrylic binders consist of an acrylic polymer and water while watercolor binders are gum arabic or even synthetic glycol. Additionally, we could explore egg whites as a possible binder, since Plant Chicago raises their own hens.

How to make paint

  1. Harvest Malabar spinach berries

  2. Dry berries (in oven, etc.)

  3. Make into a powder (mortar, spice grinder, etc.)

  4. Mix with binder, liquid, and additives

  5. You have paint!

Originally we tested oil paint binders such as linseed oil and turpentine, and other solvents such as acetone, odorless mineral spirits and xylene. These were tried just as a way to see if they would change the composition of the berries and potentially enhance the color. The issue that we ran into when mixing these chemicals was that the pigment would not dissolve or release color when mixed. Even the xylene – a chemical not pleasant to breathe, much less get on your skin – did virtually nothing to the ground up berries.

As expected, however, when added to an acrylic medium (polymer binder + water), the ground berries released the pigment to give a pale maroon colored paint. The next steps will be to see what we can do to increase vibrancy, such as different water-based binders, or other solvents to chemically alter the berries. In the end the berries may be giving us all that they can, perhaps one of the reasons why most modern paints, regardless of type, are created using synthetic pigments.

Next steps will be trying other water based binders, such as egg whites, and producing some actual art with the paint!


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