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See art in living color at Huntington Gardens

Bee smart about art - discover the living colors of flowers and plants at Huntington Gardens.
Bee smart about art - discover the living colors of flowers and plants at Huntington Gardens.
Photo by Max Donner

Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena combines superb art collections with model gardens from regions around the world. Long admired as a global center for appreciation of botanical art, the gardens at the library also provide a distinct perspective on a key element of fine art – the foundations of color.

You can see the “C” in CYMK, the technical foundation of color combinations based on cyan-yellow-magneta-black in the gardens when you admire the cassis and bluet plants. Extracts of cassis, bluet and similar varieties are used to produce delphinidin, a source of sky blue dyes and pigments. Look for delphinium flowers in season to see more of this phenomenon.

The “True Blue” best known to Southern California museum visitors from the “True Blue” art exhibition at the Mingei Museum in San Diego, is most closely associated with indigo plants, but there are many other varieties you can see in a large botanic garden. Irises that blossom in spring in the Japanese Garden of the Huntington are a good example. The chemical source of this vivid blue that can be transformed into paint pigments is called isotan B. Black elderberry plants, not native to California but occasionally cultivated in irrigated gardens here, produce berries that can be transformed into pastel blue watercolor hues or processed to make blue inks for monochrome pen and ink drawings.

Reseda luteola is an excellent source of yellow hues and has been so important for the creation of colors that it is often referred to as “dyer’s weld.” The distinctive source of these yellow tints is called luteolin.
Another chemical compound, alizarine, is the source of the brightest and most dramatic red paints and watercolors. Physalis plants that beautify central Mexico can be easily refined to produce these intense red colors.

The red roses that are the signature flowers of Pasadena and the Huntington Gardens play a different role in the world of art. Paintmakers – and the few artists who make their own paints – can process the petals to replicate skin tones well suited to portraiture.

The botanical gardens also display many fibrous plants that can be processed into specialty papers for drawings and paintings. Algave sisalana, also used to produce aloe vera, is one example. Jute and sisal, the components of heavy duty ropes, can also be transformed into durable art papers. Their high cellulose content makes them well suited for this purpose.

You can learn more about the building blocks and applications of plants in botanic gardens in an all new educational program called “Huntington U.” Four programs modeled on intermediate level coursework at American colleges will start the first week in October and continue for six weeks. One of the four programs develops detailed knowledge of the chemical composition and properties of herbal plants. Join Huntington U. and you too can become an expert about the role plants and flowers play in creating beautiful works of art.

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