Can the use of botanical inks nurture a love for nature and sustainability?
Most creatives buy materials for their projects from art supplies stores. Shirin Rafie and Liz Liu, however, turn to the natural environment around Singapore. Since 2019, the duo known as Wild Dot have been handcrafting botanical inks using flowers and tree branches from local gardens and farms. But as their business grew, the duo needed a more regular and sustainable supply of raw materials.
“We started looking through cuttings from landscapers and farms and realised not many people were using them aside from mulching,” says Shirin. “So we thought it would be interesting to pivot towards horticultural waste.”
In 2021, Shirin received support from the Good Design Research (GDR) initiative and they began their GDR project to experiment with extracting pigments from tree branches that were regularly cut as part of the maintenance of local parks and estates. With the help of a landscaping company, they duo gained access to a variety of trees to build a database of pigments. They also experimented with turning these into watercolour paints, textile dyes and even “milk paint” (made up of clay, milk protein, lime, and pigments) that was once commonly used on furnishings. While these methods of making pigments are familiar to indigenous communities in the region, there is little knowledge about it in Singapore.
“We wanted to see how this traditional knowledge of making natural paints can become relevant again, especially with increasing conversations about conservation and the relationship between humans and nature,” says Liz.
One conclusion from their year-long research was for Wild Dot to focus on designing ways to share knowledge instead. By teaching others about natural pigments, they can see for themselves how these are less environmentally harmful as compared to industrial ones.
This led to the creation of a botanical paint making kit based on helpful feedback from parents and educators. Each kit offers a set of pigment sticks—made from the bark of the Yellow Flame and Angsana tree, mango tree leaves and blue pea flowers—for grinding to make water colour paints, while an accompanying art journal offers activities to explore making art with nature.
Response to the kit which Wild Dot is currently testing out in small groups has been very positive. The duo is looking to promote the kit more widely through outreach events.
Looking back, the pair shares that the past few years of working with these plants to create paints and artworks have been very grounding and humbling.
“Each plant has their own personalities; the age of the plant, the harvesting timing, the health of the plant, may affect subtly what we get. This makes our work inextricably tied with the wellbeing and growth cycles of the plants,” Shirin explains. “This mutual dependence between us and our plants is what we think makes this craft an interesting way to reflect on harmonious living in a world which tends to forget most of what we have today is dependent on the well-being of our natural ecosystems.”