Anthotypes, colouring and food colouring

An excerpt from Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants. Pigments and coluring normally thought of as food dyes can also be used to make photographs.

Writer / Malin Fabbri
Photography / Malin Fabbri and Nancy Breslin

Anthotypes by Malin Fabbri including colouring and pigment reference sectionIn the food industry, plants are still widely used as a natural colorant to foods. Specific colors are associated with specific flavors, for example, you would expect your strawberry ice cream to be red, or at least pink. Would green strawberry ice cream appeal to you? The color of the food can thus influence the assumed flavor. When food is processed it often loses its color and a colorant is added so the consumer perceives the product as more natural. Food is also often dyed so that it will remain the same color throughout its shelf life and not fade with time or through the exposure of oxygen.

Daylily a good example of use of anthotype colours and pigment
“Peter” by Nancy Breslin, 2009
Nancy used the flowers of begonia (Begonia semperflorens), crushed them using a mortar and pestle, no water added, and sponge brushed the emulsion onto Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. paper. The print was exposed for 24 days.

Some of the plants we use to make anthotypes are also used to color food or skin. Seeds of the annatto plant (Bixa orellana) are used for decoration by Native Americans, and by the industry for food coloring, flavoring and even cosmetics. When you are tucking into your strawberry ice cream, you are very likely eating beetroot (Beta vulgaris). The betanin, obtained from the root, is commonly used to color food. Apart from ice cream, it can be found in sweets, sauces, and jams.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is another popular coloring agent and also used to protect food products from sunlight and – as in mustard – from fading. Next time you reach for the cookie jar, look for the code E100, which is the name of turmeric when used as a food additive. It is also likely to be found in dairy products such as yogurt and sweets, cereals and sauces. If you find E160b on your food wrapper, it is turmeric in combination with annatto (a reddish dye made from the seed of achiote) in disguise.

You have probably eaten saffron, the spice made from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), many times in rice. It is also used as a fabric dye in China and India.

The next time you see a pair of lips painted bright red, consider this: a coloring substance called crimson or carmine dye is made from an South American insect called cochineal (Dactylopius coccus). The females are collected and dried. Carminic acid is extracted from the body and eggs to make the dye. The dye is then used in cosmetics. This does not inspire kissing! And, even more shockingly, it is also used in foodstuffs that are colored red. If you thought this was an old fashioned way of coloring foods that no longer applies, think again! Natural food dyes are growing in popularity, due to consumers’ concerns about using synthetic dyes. Take a look at your yogurt, ice cream or juice container, if you find E120, think twice if you are a vegetarian!

If your fish tastes a little woody you may be eating red sandalwood or red sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus). The wood makes a brownish red, used to color foodstuffs such as anchovies, but you won’t find an E-number attached since it is considered a natural ingredient.


Sometimes the actual plant can also be eaten. Daylily (Hemerocallis) can be found in Asian markets as gum jum or golden needles and is used to make daylily soup. So, there are several uses of the pigments in plants – other than making photographs.

Anthotype means – loosely translated – flower print. “Anthos” is Greek for flower and “type” stems from the Latin “typus” meaning figure, image, or form, and from the Greek “typos” meaning dent, impression or mark. The anthotype process is just that; a flower making a print on paper.

This process is probably the safest one there is – providing you use safe plants – and the most environmentally friendly process around, using no harmful chemicals.

Malin Fabbri has written three books on alternative photographic processes. In 1999 she began, and continues to be it’s editor.

Learn more in the Anthotype books
Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants
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Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants

by Malin Fabbri

9 of 10   Rated 9,8 - based on 224 votes

Make prints using plants - an environmentally safe process!
The most comprehensive resource on Anthotypes.
NEW Anthotype Book 2022!
Anthotype Emulsions, Volume 1 – The collective research from photographers on World Anthotype Day 2022
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Anthotype Emulsions, Volume 1 – The collective research from photographers on World Anthotype Day 2022

by Malin Fabbri

Anthotype research from over 100 artists from all over the globe on 60 different plants, powders and dyes for anthotypes!
NEW Anthotype Notebook 2022!
Anthotype notebook
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Anthotype notes – Document your anthotype process

Notebook by Malin Fabbri

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50 pre-defined pages for you to document your anthotype process.

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