Onion skins are one of the most wondrous “compost” colors. Their beauty lies in how easily accessible they are and how often they are overlooked as waste in grocery stores, restaurants, and even your own kitchen. Onion skins, both yellow and red, contain the potential of deep saturated oranges, golds, ochre, and dark green. With a concentrated dye bath and enough time for the fibers to steep in the dye, these earthy hues truly glow.
Collect yellow onion skins from your local grocery store’s onion bins; grocers are usually happy to hand you the sloughed-off paper skins, but it’s always good to check first. Farms, farmer’s markets, and restaurants are also great places to gather in bulk.
The saturated tones of yellow onion skins lend themselves to experimentation with the depth of color you can achieve with a simple mordant and pH changes. This project is a combination of dyeing and painting with mordant and modifying guar gum pastes to create extrasaturated and layered painterly color effects—creating a natural onion skin-dyed Rothko-inspired painting. I chose to used hemp-silk as a canvas. The silk helps you achieve glowing golden saturated tones, and the hemp is both strong and UV resistant, ensuring your canvas doesn’t fade.
- 2 yards hemp-silk fabric, 54 inches wide (about 2 pounds)
- 1 tablespoon aluminum sulfate
- 4 tablespoons guar gum powder
- 1 teaspoon iron powder
- 2 pounds yellow onion skins (more skins will yield more saturated color)
- pH-neutral soap
- Heat- and water-resistant gloves
- Dust mask
- Large stainless steel pot with lid
- Cotton canvas drop cloth
- T-pins for stretching fabric
- 2 large housepainting brushes
- Stainless steel strainer
- Heavy-duty wood stretcher bars large enough for finished canvas and crossbeams
- Staple gun
- Spray bottle
- Hammer (optional)
Scour your hemp-silk fabric and allow to dry completely.
Wearing a dust mask, make 1 cup of aluminum sulfate mordant paste and 1 cup of iron mordant paste and set aside.
Remove your scoured hemp-silk fabric and let it dry completely before painting mordant pastes.
Add the onion skins to a large stainless steel pot two-thirds full of water, and bring to a low boil. Continue to simmer for 40 to 60 minutes. Then turn off heat and let your onion skin dye steep overnight.
Lay your clean cotton drop cloth onto a large flat surface. Stretch your hemp/silk fabric and pin it (with T-pins) to the canvas drop cloth to hold your fabric in place while you paint your alum and iron squares.
Using your prepared alum and iron mordant pastes, paint two large squares in the center of your hemp-silk fabric—one square with the alum paste and one with the iron paste. You can trace large pieces of wood, as I did, or eyeball it for a more painterly effect. You won’t see much of the alum paste after it dries as it will be clear, so be careful in this process to keep the pastes separate with different brushes to be painted only in their designated zones. Let your hemp-silk fabric completely dry while still laid out flat.
When your fabric pastes have completely dried, strain the onion skins from your dye bath and put your onion skin dye back on the heat.
Take the fabric off the drop cloth and add it to the dye liquid and simmer on low heat for at least 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let your canvas steep. The longer it steeps, the stronger the color you will get.