Exploring the Tactility of Color with BioHue

Written and photographed by Sarah Lillegard.

Mid-morning light comes through a window in Judi Pettite’s studio, casting a glow on the boxes of fabric and paintings in progress. Pinned to one of the walls is an installation of dyed coffee filters, the grid of them making a spectrum of color. With a closer look, each swatch is its own creature of texture and variation. As Judi moves through the space, she points to the swatches on the wall and those loosely piled on the ground. Like a rancher referencing the names and histories of their livestock, Judi can recall what plants were grown or where they were foraged to make the pigment on each swatch. Her relationship with them is experiential, and the installation is a manifestation of that—a visual mapping of process, potential, and place.

This tactile connection is at the heart of Judi’s on-going project and business: BioHue. Working with natural and sustainable materials, BioHue offers artists pigments, watercolors, and, soon, pastels. All of those coffee filter swatches are a component, or the imprint, of the pigment extraction process. From years of experimenting and exploring, Judi has amassed a roadmap of colors reflecting her path of an artist, educator, and material-maker.

Judi’s relationship with art-making began early. When she was four, she started drawing on the walls of her house. Looking back on it, Judi pinpoints that as the moment she started to manifest her desire to make marks, to create. After high school, that creative drive took a more formal direction as Judi attended California State University in Fullerton. While there, she pursued an interest in photography, took her first natural dye class, and became invested in painting. After graduating with her Bachelor of Art and Masters of Art (BFA, MA), Judi taught studio arts at colleges in Florida and California.

In 2002, she decided to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) and entered the Arts and Consciousness program at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA. The focus of the program was what drew her: “I really wanted to explore why people are compelled to make a mark. We have been doing it for 36,000 years. So even though our consciousness has shifted since then, we still have this desire to make things.” Through her MFA work, Judi began to question the nature of her art practice. “I wanted to see if my process could reflect the way that I ate, like the slow food movement: going to farmer’s markets and growing my food. Why couldn’t I do that with my art? Could I grow my own pigments or forage them?” This turned out to be complicated questions to answer.

Historically, art-making had strong ties with materiality. Painters had a relationship with the dyers, sharing information between the two professions. This shifted in 1952 with the advent of synthetic colors and the development of a range of artificial colors for artists and dyers to utilize. The information about the process and use that was previously shared became siloed. “It became standardized in a way that artists and dyers could rely on it,” Judi says. Artists can now find the pigment they want and trust that it will consistently meet their expectations. While that standardization is convenient, it has created an expansive information gap about how, where, and what the pigments or paints are made of. Tracing the progression of natural to synthetic, Judi points out, “Something that brought back natural dyes (for textiles) were tourists asking for them. I think that’s where the pendulum began to swing back. In terms of art, it’s a little harder. That’s the wall I came up against when I was trying to find other artists working this way.”

Through research, Judi was able to connect with people in Europe who were still making their own pigments, and so in 2007, she traveled to Germany and France. While in Germany, she attended a bioplastic convention to learn about natural binder for paint. From there, she moved through France visiting the Bleu de Lectoure facility for woad, the national ochre park in Roussillon, and the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave paintings. With these experiences to inform and connect her, Judi launched BioHue as a holistic concept for her work: “Whether it takes the form of paint or workshops or my visual art practice, I settled on BioHue because it means ‘living color’ and that is what I respond to.”

For the next eight years, Judi worked in the Bay Area at colleges and art centers, teaching studio art, art history, and managing galleries. “What I loved about teaching art history was getting to bring in this perspective of ‘why do we want to make art’ and trying to connect past and present.” Teaching was an opportunity for her to encourage process and play, moving from linear thinking to more non-linear connections. But by 2015, Judi was craving a change and wanted the time and spaces to further explore the BioHue aspect of her art-making. Within a few years, she found a home in Placerville that connected the dots. She quit her job and jumped into the void.

Now rooted in the Sierra Foothills, Judi is committed to investing in the ecology of her community through BioHue. This slow, region-based growth recently included the opportunity to collaborate on an indigo crop with PT Ranch in Ione, CA. After receiving 1000 indigo seedlings from Fibershed’s True Blue Project, Molly Taylor of PT Ranch contacted Judi about harvesting and processing the plants. Together they harvested two crops with Judi processing them at her home along with her intern Elissa Allen. This fall marked the end of the second crop, which is now spread across Judi’s driveway on tarps and in tubs. Soon it will be separated in a 3-screen sifter and put into a compost barrel to start the fermentation process for Sukumo. From there, the plants that were grown in Ione and processed in Placerville will become a pigment for artists and makers to create with— a blue than can be traced back to the hands that harvested it. When Judi talks about the paints she’s made from indigo and woad, the joy and wonder are evident: “It has a life that commercially produced paint doesn’t have for me anymore. It’s so intimate a process that it’s kind of like a child: I love it no matter what it does.”

Always running adjacent to the harvesting and processing of natural materials is Judi’s experiences as an artist and arts educator. Her fluency with paint helps inform her products. She understands how painters expect the medium to respond and so can make inks and pigments that hold up to those expectations. To counter that, Judi points out how the workshops she teaches around the Sierra Foothills and Bay Area offer the opportunity to see the material in a new way: through the lens of people who may be knitters or printmakers or mycologists or college students. As Judi is discovering, people from a variety of backgrounds are interested in learning about natural pigments—pigments that help form a connection with the environment in a way that conventional art materials don’t allow. With each workshop, each bottle of ink put to paper, BioHue is a small step closer to Judi’s dream of changing the nature of fine art materials.

To learn more about BioHue, classes, and events, please visit the website or follow her on Instagram @BioHue. BioHue products are available online through the Fibershed Marketplace, Botanical Colors, and A Verb For Keeping Warm, where she also regularly teaches pigment making classes.