Vegder's Blog

July 16, 2010

Traditional yellow pigments in Japan – Part Two

Before I get to the topic of this post I wanted you to know that I updated our post on ukon somewhat recently. Even though the image below has nothing directly to do with with that topic it is there for a reason. If you want to find out what then go there by clicking on the stamp.

Now back to business: I just love this stuff – research, that is. If it was a job I got paid for… so much the better. But lack of money and funds isn’t going to stop me now that the Internet has come along. You can’t imagine – maybe some of you can – the thrill I get doing these posts. Every one of them is a voyage of discovery. There is so much information and misinformation and gobbledy-goop to sort through and still not get quite right. And yet… in the end something good must come out of all of this. I know it does for me and hope you enjoy a fraction of it too.

So? Why am I saying this? Because I am going to start off this post with Woren, a traditional Japanese colorant I know nothing about. Absolutely nothing. These posts are not so much my telling you what I know, but telling what other ‘think’ they know. Much can go wrong and as I always say “Don’t ever quote me!” unless you are as ready as I am to be wrong. Except in your case you will be both wrong and misguided.

WOREN (黄蓮): Let’s start off with its pronunciation first: In Japan it is called ōren, not woren. Woren is the name which can be found in Western literature on the subject and as best I can tell, even there, there is not much of that. Next, let’s move on to the plant from which this colorant was derived. Here we have Shu Suehiro and his encyclopedic site,,  in Japan to thank. Below are two photos from that site of the Coptis japonica. However, it is probably the root which supplies the dyes. The brownish rhizomes are yellow to orange on the inside. [Have you ever gone searching for pictures of roots of plants? They are few and far between.] The main constituent is berberine.

In an 1895 publication called Useful Plants of Japan: Described and Illustrated there is a listing for a Coptis brachypetala which they refer to as ‘Ōren‘  or Seriba-ōren and states: “The roots are taken and dried for a medicine and a yellow dye.” They also mention several other related plants species with the same properties: Coptis occidentalis (Jap. Kikuba-ōren), Coptis trifolia (Jap. Mitsubaōren) and another Coptis brachypetala (Jap. Hosoba-ōren). But, since it was an article from Cal Tech which I have used to start off this post, and since I generally bow down before their altar, I will stick with Coptis japonica for the present.

Below are two more photos from Shu’s site, but this time of the Seriba-ōren.

For the Mitsuba-ōren we have:

Coptis japonica is also known as Japanese goldthread [one word!] The American Heritage Dictionary defines goldthread as: “Any of several plants of the genus Coptis, having white flowers, slender yellow roots, ternately divided evergreen leaves, and clusters of follicles.” It is from the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family.

You can’t imagine the number of technical, scientific papers I have to plod through to find new or corroborative material. I know you are thinking sarcastically “Poor baby!” Well, yes, I agree. Poor baby! I am just not cut out for such things, but that never really stops me. Anyway, I ran across an article entitled “Electrofusion and Micro-injection for the Introduction of Genetic Information to Plant Cells.” As best I can tell – and I won’t describe the technique – even if I could – some Japanese scientists were able to fuse protoplasts from the Coptis japonica with those of the Euphorbia millii otherwise known as the Crown of Thorns. What’s remarkable is that they got the cells to divide and grow. [Below is the Euphorbia millii from a photo posted at by Manfred Gipp. I cropped it somewhat for out purposes.

The remarkable thing to me is that the plants which developed along the Euphorbia line contained up to 7 times as much anthocyanin, a red producer, as normal Euphorbia. Coptis japonica lines “…produce several times more berberine alkaloid than the parent plant.” If berberine is the main constituent of the yellow colorant then what does this mean? I haven’t a clue, but it must mean something. Besides, I still haven’t worked out how or when they used ōren or how light fast it was. But if I keep digging I suppose something will turn up.

In 1637 Sung Ying-hsing published his T’ien-kung K’ai-wu which Joseph Needham translated as ‘Exploitation of the Works of Nature’. In its section on ‘Dyes of Various Colors’ it says that to obtain a canary yellow one must first prepare an “…aqueous solution of boiled yellow berberine wood and then soak in the [seeth] water of indigo.” I know it says ‘berberine wood’ but still that is clearly the constituent is used to prepare such a lovely color.

Something the Chippewas (チペワ) and the Japanese had in common… perhaps:

I know that I go far afield sometimes in these posts, but this time I got to the Chippewas through desperation. There is so little to be found about woren or ōren or whatever it should be called. It took some creative searching just to find the information about the native born American tribes. That said – according to a number of sources like Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moreman the Chippewa used the roots of the Coptis trefolia or goldthread for a yellow dye. Moreman notes that the Ojibwa (オジブワ) and Potawatomi (ポタワトミ) used it too for that same purpose. These tribes were said to use this root to dye baskets, porcupine quills and skins. Porcupine quills were said to take the dye most easily while other objects had to be dyed several times before the required color was acceptable.

In 1933 Melvin Gilmore at the University of Michigan wrote Some Chippewa Uses of Plants, however he didn’t go into a lot of details about how they were prepared. This raises a major question about the material I am trying to assemble here and in all other posts about pigments. There are far more questions than answers. While Gilmore should be credited with his contributions he is not without critics. One is W. D. Geniusz who wrote in 2009: “…consider the following entry on goldthread… written by Gilmore: ‘The roots were used to make a yellow dye… Gilmore provides no more information. From this passage, it is clear that Gilmore has not tried this recipe, and it is probable from similar passages throughout his article that he has not tried any of these recipes. Goldthread does indeed make a nice yellow dye, but so do many other plants that are much easier to gather. The roots of goldthread are very small, and an awful lot of them are needed to make a dye.” Two things are made clear by this passage: 1) Now we know why goldthread is called goldthread and 2) we know why it is hardly ever used anymore.

There is a Potawatomi web site that says the fabric is dyed yellow by cooking the cloth with the roots.

Just in case someone out there reading this thinks I have been overly redundant by mentioning the Ojibwa in the same breath as the Chippewa then here is a quote for you: “The terms Ojibwa and Chippewa are often confused, frequently being used interchangeably; as a general rule, Ojibwa is preferred by the Canadian people while the U.S. tribe is called Chippewa.”

Okay. So why was yellow an imperial color in China? And… what’s this got to do with traditional Japanese pigments. Hmmm?

Not only is it is difficult to know exactly what colors were produced or how they were made, but it is often a more complex question as to what they might have meant – if anything. In China colors were often visual codes for social ranking. Buddhism developed its own meanings. While black is associated in the West with death and mourning it is just the opposite in the China where white was the funerary color. [I am not going to argue the point of whether or not white is a color. Here it is.]

Colors in Japan don’t seem to have the same baggage that colors in China did, but that’s not the point. The period of  great cultural borrowing by the Japanese had pretty much come to a close by the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1368. So the point isn’t the symbolic significance of different colors, but what went into the production of colors such as yellow in both lands? That is what I am trying to figure out.

Besides, nothing is absolute. Well, at least not in history. However, there was a period – during the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, to be exact – covering about 550 years – when the wearing of yellow – particular yellows – was a tightly controlled royal prerogative. Mary Dusenbury noted in her Flowers, Dragons and Pine Trees that “Yellow was an imperial color in both the Ming and Qing, an important rank signifier for the emperor and members of the upper nobility. The particular shade and type of yellow dye differed in the two dynasties.”

Below is a detail from a larger painting from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. It is a portrait of the Ming Emperor Chengzu (成祖: 1360-1424) posted at by Stout256. To his right is the Ch’ing dynasty emperor Kangxi (康熙帝: 1654-1722) posted at the same location by Shyoon1. Note the differences in the yellows. There are many reasons for this. The first one and the one which is supremely important here is that cannot know what theses paintings looked like precisely on the days they were finished. Most pigments change over time. Remember that the next time you visit a museum.

In Chinese Dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the Present by Valery Garrett the courtly yellow variations are addressed: “The colors of the robes were carefully controlled and certain ones were restricted for use by the emperor and his immediate family. Bright yellow, representing central authority, was reserved for the emperor, although he could wear other colors if he wished or as occasion demanded, such as when worshipping at the ceremony at the Altar of Heaven when he wore blue robes. The heir apparent wore ‘apricot yellow,’ while sons of the emperor wore ‘golden yellow’, jin huang, which was, in fact, more of an orange. First to fourth degree princes and imperial dukes wore blue, brown, or any colour unless ‘golden yellow’ was conferred by the emperor. Lower-ranking princes, noblemen, and high-ranking officials wore blue-black.”

What you see is what you get! With exceptions! Numerous, numerous exceptions!

I was going to try to discuss how we perceive colors, but found the obstacles too daunting. Not only are there philosophical and scientific issues involved, but then again there are technical ones too. For example, whenever I am trying to share particular points with you – highlighted by visual examples – I always forget that what you are seeing on your screen is not necessarily the same as what I am seeing. Sometimes that is a matter of computer setting like the number of pixels being displayed while at other times it is a matter of whose monitor you are using. Some are clearly better than others. Some are brilliant, some are pitiful.

This is where the limitations of the Internet become glaringly clear. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Internet, but it is not the end all, be all. For example, I was going to discuss (briefly) the 15th century use of blue pigments. In northern Europe a copper based blue was popular while in Italy, those who could afford it, used lapis lazuli to create exquisite blues. One artist particularly came to mind: Lorenzo di Credi (ロレンツォ・ディ・クレディ: 1459-1537). Not only were his blues exquisitely remarkable, but they were also different than those produced by his peers such as Leonardo (レオナルド・ダ・ヴィンチ). The Problem: Try to find an good to great reproduction on the Internet which will convey what made Lorenzo so special. Besides the examples I wanted to use aren’t posted (adequately) on the net and even if they had been would they have been placed in the public domain?

In northern Europe there were artists like Rolandt Savery (ルーラントサーフェリ: 1576-1639) who relied heavily on copper blues – especially noticeable in his paintings of the sky, or, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ピーター・ブリューゲル: ca. 1525-1569) who was a generation older and used the same paints. The Second Problem: No matter how greatly the Italian colors differ(ed) from those of northern European artist there is no way to truly convey this via the computer even when placing disparate images next to each other. Only a visit to a good to great museum will give you a chance to see what I am talking about. And, even there you will probably have to move back and forth between various rooms to get the point.

SEKIŌ (石黄) ORPIMENT: This is the first time we have dealt with a yellow which is inorganic. Both of the images below were posted at by Rob Lavinsky. The example on the left is from Hokkaido and the one on the right is from Honshu.

Cenino Cennini and early Italian painting – and then some

The earliest European handbook for artists is by Cennini and dates from the 15th century. He wrote: “The color known as orpiment is yellow. This color is an artificial one. It is made by alchemy, and is really poisonous. And in color it is a handsome yellow more closely resembling gold than any other color. It is not good for use on a wall, either in fresco or with temperas, because it turns black on exposure to the air. It is very good for painting on shields and lances.” Later he warns against getting it anywhere near your mouth. In later times its pigment came to be known as King’s Yellow (As2S3). If it weren’t already noxious enough it could also be produced in combination with arsenic.

Another piece of orpiment provided by Rob Lavinsky.
This one is from Nevada.

There is an excellent book on the restoration of Indian miniature paintings by K. K. Gupta who gives an clear description of orpiment and its problems. “Orpiment is a yellow sulphide of arsenic and can be obtained naturally or prepared artificially by heating sulphur and arsenic together in a covered crucible. It was known in classical times and the name seems to be a derivation from the Latin word auripigmentum (golden colour or paint). Lumps of the natural pigment are quite hard and are first pulverized into small pieces and then ground. It is not ground very fine as this would reduce the richness of the colour. It often contains a proportion of realgar, a red form of arsenic sulphide. In its natural state it has mica like sparkle, which sometimes gives the illusion of gold. [¶] Orpiment is very poisonous. Also it cannot be used to modify the tones of greens containing verdigris because the sulphur of the orpiment reacts with the copper of the verdigris. For similar reasons it cannot be mixed with lead white. It also has a corrosive action on binding media. It was widely used, but now has fallen completely out of favour because of its poisonous nature and foul smell.”

Orpiment and Ozone

In a 1988 report from Cal Tech on the effects of ozone on traditional Japanese colorants it said that orpiment “…was the only inorganic pigment that showed severe color loss after ozone exposure.” It also noted that in the late 17th century when black lined woodblock prints were being hand-colored that they believed that orpiment was probably one of the pigments which was applied. However, it would seem that by ca. 1715 publisher may have learned their lessons and used orpiment much more sparingly if at all. Yet when the first nishiki-e or multi-colored (brocade) prints came into production it is possible that orpiment was still available and utilized. ¶ During their testing the fine scientists at Cal Tech applied orpiment to samples of silk. Remember that many of the colors used in woodblock printing may have come directly from their use in the textile industry. Another thing we learned is that when this pigment discolors it actually becomes more stable by going from As2S3 to As2O3, arsenic oxide. This conversion takes place even in the absence of ozone.

When Claire McBride was a Getty Trust postgraduate in paper conservation at Cornell she wrote a brief history of orpiment: “Known to the Greeks as arsenikon and related to the Persian zarnikh which is based on the word zar, the Persian for gold.” China was a major source. Then McBride cited earlier work published by Rutherford Gettens and George Stout:  “Mentioned by Pliny and Vetruvious [sic] and found in Egyptian works, Persian and across Asia. It seems to have had little known use in Northern Europe where lead tin yellow seems to have been one of the dominant yellows in a European palette.”

How an orpiment experiment gone bad nearly killed Jean-Jacques Rousseau or something like that –

Pastel portrait of Rousseau by Quentin de la Tour
posted at commons.wikimedia by Maarten van Vliet.

Rousseau (ルソー) in his Confessions wrote about how enjoyed watching a friar conduct scientific experiments. So, when he got home Rousseau decided to conduct an experiment of his own: “In imitation of him, I attempted to make some sympathetic ink, and having for that purpose more than half filled a bottle with quicklime, orpiment, and water,the effervescence immediately became extremely violent; I ran to unstop the bottle, but had not time to effect it, for, during the attempt, it burst in my face like a bomb, and I swallowed so much of the orpiment and lime, that it nearly cost me my life. I remained blind for six weeks, and by the event of this experiment learned to meddle no more with experimental chemistry while the elements were unknown to me.”

In the Turba Philosophorum, an early text on alchemy it says that the male element is lead and the female orpiment.

Political correctness – this ain’t!

A brilliant correspondent of mine wrote me today to tell me about a ballad by Francois Villon (フランソワ.ビヨン: 1431-63) he had once read – in French –  in which orpiment was mentioned. However, here it was spelled orpigment. Below is a partial text followed by our correspondent’s English translation. Warning! This is not for the faint of heart or those easily upset by what they perceive as bigotry.  So… don’t read any further unless you have the personal ability to detach yourself from Villon’s quote. Besides, he has been dead a long time and I don’t want you taking it out on me. I am just the messenger.

En reagal, en arsenic rocher,
En orpigment, en salpestre et chaulx vive;
En plomb boillant, pour mieulx les esmorcher;
En suif et poix, destrampez de lessive
Faicte d’estronts et de pissat de Juifve;
En lavaille de jambes à meseaulx;
En raclure de piedz et vieulx houseaulx;
En sang d’aspic et drogues venimeuses;
En fiel de loups, de regnards et blereaux,
Soient frittes ces langues envieuses!

Now brace yourself for those of you who don’t read French. Here comes the English translation. (And remember it is not my fault.)

But first, here is a an image of what someone thought Francois Villon looked like.
It was posted at commons.wikimedia by Cruento. I had tried to find the
appropriate photo of Ronald Colman from the movie “If I Were King”,
but failed. So, this will have to do for now. Now… finally… the English translation.

Let them be fried, these envious tongues,
In arsenic rock and realgar,
In quicklime, saltpeter, and orpiment,
In boiling lead, the better to scorch them,
In soot and pitch, soaked in lye
made from  turds and Jewesses’ piss;
In washwater from ulcered legs,
In toe jam and old stockings,
In vipers’ blood and poisonous drugs,
In gall of wolves, foxes, and badgers.

YAMAMOMO (楊梅 or 山桃): Myrica rubra, mountain peach, Chinese bayberry, Japanese bayberry, etc. This is so confusing.

The fruit from the site operated by Shu Suehiro at

The fruit is edible. In 1895 the Agricultural Society of Japan published a book which stated: “…this tree yields great quantities of fruit in warm regions. They are round about the size of a thumb. When ripe they are dark red colour and rich in a sweet juice. There are the varieties with white and yellow fruits. Mansfeld’s Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops describes the taste as “sour-sweetish” and notes its use as canned stewed fruit or as an ingredient in the production of juices or liqueurs. In a book on Japanese foods from 200o the authors described the taste  somewhat differently: “There was a small mound of glistening dark red candied arbutus, appropriately called yamamomo (mountain peach). The fruit a small nubbly red sphere with a cherry-like stone has a vague strawberry-like flavour, and matures in mid-summer.” The seed takes up about half of the the size of the fruit. In some countries it is sold as a juice product under the name Yumberry. Catchy, eh?

The fruit is a drupe. Love that word. The Oxford dictionaries define drupe as “…a fleshy fruit with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed, e.g. a plum, cherry, almond, or olive” or, of course, yamamomo which also has a waxy coating. Not all birds are able to digest that high-energy waxy coating. In a 1944 book by Harry Bennett called Commercial Waxes – Natural and Synthetic is a technical discussion of the conversion of the waxy fruit coating into commercial candles. “Bayberry wax is obtained from the berries of the myrica shrubs on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The berries are heated in water until the wax melts. The latter is then skimmed off and purified by remelting and filtering. [¶] Commercial bayberry wax is a greenish white, fatty material, more unctuous and brittle than beeswax. [¶] Chemically, bayberry wax is really a fat consisting of stearin, palmitin, myristin and olein (glycerides).” It melts at between 102 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit, has a faint odor and is bitter to the taste. It is used in candles, soaps, ointments, polishing leather, etching and as a medicinal.

As a plant the Myrica rubra is said to have very deep roots without any evident taproot.

The Myrica as a genus – There are somewhere between 35 to 50 small trees and shrubs in this group. It can be found on all of the continents except Australia and Antarctica. Most are evergreens, but some are deciduous. It can grow in nitrogen poor soils because of the Frankia bacteria which lives in a symbiotic relationship on the roots and captures and converts what nitrogen is available. The flowers are catkins, both male and female – generally on different plants. Below on the left  is a photo, courtesy of Shu Suehiro,  of the yamamomo catkin and one the right is one by Heineken posted at of a pussy willow catkin from Turku, Finland – just for comparison.

As a dye: In 1889 J. J. Rein wrote in The Industries of Japan: Together with an Account of Its Agriculture, Forestry, Arts and Commerce “Its bark, which is called Shibuki, contains an astringent pigment, which is used to colour and make durable fish-hooks and nets.” He also noted that it was highly prized for its tanning qualities. The 1895 publication mentioned above adds “The bark has the name Momokawa or Shibuki contains much tannin and used for a brown dye.” This we know can be used to obtain a brown for fabrics, too. Félix Régamey wrote in the same year that the decoction of shibuki gives “…a beautiful reddish colour, [which] possesses astringent properties preservative of fabrics. It is much used for colouring of fishers’ nets.” Several older sources also refer to shibuki as yobaihi. Shibuki (渋木 or しぶき) is translated literally as ‘astringent tree’. Clearly from the appearance of certain Japanese web sites the dye is and was used for coloring fabrics.

At last a yellow reference –

In 1880 the Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science reported that “Besides the tannin, which give a bluish black precipitate with ferric salts, the bark contains a body giving a yellow precipitate with acetate of lead. This dissolves in water, more easily than in alcohol, and still more so in ether. By this means it can be obtained free from tannin.”

Myricetin, C15H10O8 is a flavonoid. (For more about flavonoids see our entry at The best and some of the most technical information I have found so far on shibuki as a dye was provided by Arthur George Perkin, an accomplished scientist in his own right. He was the son of William Henry Perkin (ウィリアム・ヘンリー・パーキン: 1838-1907) who is the man who gave us aniline dyes and a great leaping off point for organic chemistry.

Perkin fils wrote “Myricetin dyes mordanted woollen cloth…” to red-brown if chromium is used, brown-orange with aluminum, bright red-orange with tin and olive-black with iron. Myricitrin, which is myricetin bonded with H2O, “…forms pale yellow…. soluble in alkalis with a pale yellow tint. Aqueous lead acetate gives and orange-yellow precipitate, and alcoholic ferric chloride a deep greenish-black coloration. In appearance it cannot be distinguished from quercitrin, and the shades given by the two substances on mordanted woollen cloth are practically identical.” With chromium one gets a ‘Full brown-yellow’, with aluminum ‘Full golden-yellow’, with tin lemon-yellow and with iron brown-olive. Arthur Perkin then added “The dyeing properties of myrica bark are generally similar to those of other yellow mordant dyestuffs.” He did note that shibuki worked better than fustic, another yellow dye derived from a tree.

Did you ever hold a dandelion under your chin? Forget the dandelion. I was only using that as an attention getter. When its reflected light made it appear you had been slavering too much butter on your popcorn it was only an illusion. Chemistry seems to work the same way. What seems apparent is barely so. For example, A. G. Perkin wrote: “In but rare cases is the yellow dye present responsible for the yellow tint of the flower, for this, usually in the form of glucoside, is more or less colourless.” This is a point which should be kept in mind whenever reading any of these entries on different pigments. It is through the marvels of chemistry that we get such things and before there was an established scientific method it was through the marvels of empirical knowledge acquired by seemingly endless experiments of trial and error.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (ハリエット.ビーチャー・ストウ: 1811-96) and bayberry wax – In Ms. Stowe’s 1878 Poganuc People – Their Loves and Lives she wrote: “Come, Dolly,” she said, briskly, as she counted the last toll, “we can t wait another minute.” “Well, Dolly,” said Mis Persis, “tell your mother I m a comin this year to make up her candles for her, and the work shan’t cost her a cent. I’ve been tryin out a lot o’ bayberry wax to put in em and make em good and firm.

Louisine Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) had a poem devoted to Peter Rugg the Bostonian published by Scribner’s in 1891. Here are two stanzas I liked well enough to share with you – but be forewarned, it is only because I am such a sucker for early New England imagery. I am not commenting on the poetry itself. But first a little about the legend of  Peter Rugg who like the ‘man who never returned’ of Kingston Trio (キングストン.トリオ) fame is cursed to travel the roads near Boston forever, but never to reach that city. He asks the way of everyone he passes and despite their encouragement his efforts are always futile.

Lost! lost in bayberry thickets
Where Plymouth plovers run,
And where the masts of Salem
Look lordly in the sun;
Lost in the Concord vale, and lost
By rocky Wollaston!

Small thanks have they that guide him,
Awed and aware of blight;
To hear him shriek denial
It sickens them with fright:
“They lied to me a month ago
With thy same lie to-night!”

The Swiss Family Robinson (スイスファミリーロビンソン) and their bayberry experience – “We passed a small brook, large plantations of manihot or cassava, and potatoes, and further on a grove of trees, from the branches of which hung curious clusters of berries exactly like wax. We picked several, and found that the warmth of our hands made them stick to our fingers. [¶] ‘Are they of any use papa? asked Fritz. ‘They do not seem to be good to eat.’ [¶] ‘They are not useful as food; but what if we should be able to make wax candles for our winter evenings?’ This great pleased Fritz; and he gladly assisted me in gathering as many berries as we could get into a sack for the ass to carry.”

Later in Chapter XVII, Candle-making – “CANDLE-MAKING – today!” exclaimed the boys when they rose the next morning; and they gave me no rest till I promised to attempt to make candles of wax-plant berries.  [¶] We filled a sauce-pan, and placing it over the fire produced in a little time a considerable quantity of beautiful, green wax. While melting the berries, we prepared a number of wicks from threads of sail-cloth, dipped them quickly and carefully in the wax, and then hung them in the air to dry. This operation we repeated two or three times, till the wicks had taken sufficient wax to form candles, which, although they were far inferior in roundness and size to those at home, threw around us such a clear, bright light, that we were overjoyed with the result. [¶] There would be no occasion now for us to go to bed at sunset…”

Don’t go there… Don’t even think of going there! Now that I have warned you I will go there for you. And the ‘there’ of which I speak is the world of folk medicine, pharmaceuticals, etc. I think I can safely say that no mineral or plant or animal substance that has ever been used for a pigment or its support has not been ingested in one way or another in the hope that it would cure everything from neurasthenia to dropsy. Ancient legends tell of the miraculous powers of ground up rubies or pearls or anything else which could be swallowed – like mercury. And we all know where that will get you. Mad as a hatter, eh?

Even in our modern and very scientific age it seems that if something could be smoked, imbibed, chomped or you name it there was someone out there or a whole advocacy group singing the praises of who knows what and its miracle cures. Donovan sang about the electrical banana which was going to be a sudden craze. Divine ate dog excrement in a John Waters film which also starred Tab Hunter. Steve McQueen sought relief for his terminal cancer through such things as coffee enemas and pulverized apricot pits. Nothing helped. But faith in the untested and unproven qualities ascribed to everything from arsenic to zinc never wavers. Yet… in some cases… For instance, arsenic is now used in the treatment of some rare forms of leukemia and in most of the country fluoride is used to fight tooth decay – but not in Port Townsend where I live. No siree! The locals point out – and quite rightly – that fluoride is a poison. And there is no dispute there, but so is almost anything taken the wrong way or to too great a degree.

But I digress… So why stop now. One more point, and, no, I am not going to talk about botox, but rather want to touch on pure faith without the help of the physical world. Let’s look at pure faith for a second. Years ago there was a captivating televangelist/faith healer named Kathryn Kuhlman. She was always talking about the glories of Gawwwd! and how belief in Him would not only bring salvation, but could cure the lame, the blind, the stricken. Kathryn Kuhlman, genuinely seemed to believe that she could cure people through the laying on of  hands. She was the embodiment of Sister Sharon who was the embodiment of Aimee Semple McPherson. Kathry Kuhlman died from complications due to open-heart surgery. Draw your own conclusions.

Now, back to the point: My bet is that all materials, organic and inorganic, used as pigments have also been tried as palliatives or panaceas. We know this is true of Coptis japonica. In an article by Michael Kinski it says there was a Chinese medication in the form of “…pills for calling back the souls of the dead.” Among its ingredients were rhubarb, Coptis japonica, bear’s gall, the dried peel of a type of orange, etc. The other examples are too numerous to mention and range far afield from our topic.

Stay tuned. There is more to come. While researching this post we ran across some new information on enju on our first yellow pigment post and added it on July 18, 2010. Here is a link for easy access:

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. I would think it no great loss if the orpiment had indeed done in that egregious hypocrite J-J Rousseau. His social ideas ultimately inspired the insane fervor of Robespierre and Saint-Just; his cult of sensibility brought about the premature death of the Enlightenment. But when one’s career principally consists of sponging off society dames, I guess one’s aims were never high to begin with.
    I do not know which is the greater crime to lay at his doorstep: the Reign of Terror, or the century of literary smarm and sentiment that followed. I would be happier if the arsenic salts had done their job.

    Comment by uzaemon — July 29, 2010 @ 1:18 am | Reply

  2. The dye from Coptis Japonica is also known as Ouren. The Uemura Dye archive says “The dyeing technique was recorded in the Buyakuryo (), the 8th century AD, Japan. In the list compiled by the Ministry of Forestry, it was recorded that the root and stem of this plant were used as a yellow dye in Thoku, Chugoku and Shikoku regions in Japan.” The plant material was mordanted with Alum & Chromium and produces a series of lovely golden yellows. As well as the Uemura archive, which I mentioned in another comment. I highly recommend Sachio Yoshioka’s Japanese Colour Dictionary it discusses traditional colours and the natural dyes/minerals used in Japanese Art. Yoshioka is a very famous dyeing/conservation expert and the subject of a relatively recent film Murasaki. The book is published by Shikosha, title in Japanese is 日本の色辞典 I bought my copy from

    Comment by Visitor — December 7, 2014 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

  3. Another fantastic resource is Dyed Japanese paper of TsutoMitsuru, 傳統の染和紙. It is the result of years of research into traditional organic dyes which were already vanishing in post war Japan when he began. The book describes traditional dye processes and has pasted in dyed washi swatches, which are fantastic for understanding the original colour schemes of pre chemical dye woodblock prints, although to my knowledge this hasn’t occurred to any professional author. It is out of print now but some larger University libraries in this US have copies. Unfortunately nothing of this type seems to have been published in English and Japanese experts are often reticent to reveal the actual recipes. I have enjoyed reading your blog and I hope I am not telling you anything you already know.

    Comment by Visitor — December 7, 2014 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

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