For most families and individuals, dyeing eggs at Easter means tablets, vials of food dye and vinegar. For Waco artist Rocio Ramirez Landoll, it is more like a trip to the pantry and the garden.
Skins of red and yellow onions, for instance, find a second life as a source for red and yellow. The spice turmeric creates a deep yellow, while dried marigolds and hibiscus blossoms produce a yellow and blue-gray, respectively. Ground coffee? Brown, of course, although plants and minerals sometimes can surprise with dye colors different than the original material.
Landoll is the artist behind elaborate Dia de los Muertos ofrendas at the Art Forum of Waco and Cultivate 7twelve, and paintings and fabric art featured in Art Forum and other venues, but her forte is art crafted from fabric, thread and yarn dyed from natural plants and minerals.
Much of her expertise comes after years of study, research and experimentation in her native Mexico, where she sometimes worked as a costume and set designer for film productions.
In a recent demonstration for the Tribune-Herald that mirrored an earlier one she gave at the Art Forum of Waco, Landoll showed how some natural substances, supplemented by some salt, vinegar and baking soda, can create subtle colors for dyed Easter eggs. Thread, rubber bands, mesh and leaves can add even more artistic effects, even though the gentler palette of natural dyes might produce well-camouflaged eggs on an Easter egg hunt.
Landoll brings an artist’s eye to the subject rather than childhood experience. The only eggs connected with Easter tradition when Landoll was growing up in Guanajuato were the ones thrown at papier-mache masks of the devil, she said.
While she has extensive experience in natural fabric dyes, she sticks to edible plants and materials when dyeing eggs. That also causes some enjoyable secondary effects.
“When you dye with onion skins, it also smells good,” she said with a smile.
For her demonstration — “Like TV shows, all is prepared,” she laughed — Landoll sets up dishes of yellow and red onion skins (yellow and red), cochineal (red), hibiscus flowers (gray), dried marigolds (yellow), ground coffee (brown).
She hard-boils her eggs first, then puts them in hot dye solutions kept simmering by a hot water bath. For a strong color, Landoll keeps eggs in the dye for a half-hour, although light colors start to set after five to 10 minutes. Natural dyes take longer to make strong shades, and Landoll sometimes soaks eggs overnight in dye solutions in the refrigerator to deepen a hue.
Vegetables and plants can be deceiving when it comes to creating dye. Radishes and their distinctive red color will not produce a dye that is absorbed by an eggshell, she said. Chopped red cabbage will produce blue, green cabbage purple, and chopped spinach yellow.
“Nothing is ever as it seems with this stuff,” said a watching Al Landoll, Rocio’s husband and an artist himself.
Changing the dye’s pH level often shifts its hue, and she demonstrates how to use a tablespoon of baking soda or vinegar stirred into a dye solution to achieve that effect.
Landoll starts with a basic solution of 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon vinegar, which she brings to a boil. To that quantity of water, she will add 4 cups of onion skins, 2 cups of dried marigolds or hibiscus, 4 tablespoons of coffee or 2 tablespoons of tumeric or cochinea, then boil some more before adding eggs.
“You can use wine, too, to dye eggs, but most people prefer to use it another way,” she said with a laugh.
To create patterns before or after eggs receive a dye coat, the artist wraps them with thread or a rubber band, or sticks pieces of masking tape before putting the egg back into the dye. One can also wrap eggs with mesh, then place parsley or cilanto leaves between the shell and mesh before dyeing, to create a leaf silhouette on the shell.
After the eggs dry, a paper towel moistened with olive oil can be used to polish them to make the colors shine, she said.
Even now, Landoll encourages experimentation as part of the experience, and it may be the experience that brings the greater joy in an Easter tradition.
“I think it’s good to play with these things,” she said. “You spend good time with the family.”