Sunday, 19 August 2012

Elephant No. 322: Painting with Bleach

Years ago, I did a sort of bleach tie-dye for the lining of a coat I made, but I think that was my first and last experience with bleach dyeing. I don't like the smell of bleach and, contrary to what you might think, bleach rarely removes all the dye, making the final colour results somewhat hard to predict. However, several members of my fibre guild seem to like bleach dyeing—also known as discharge dyeing, since the colour is discharged or removed—so I thought I'd finally try it again for today's elephant.

Bleaching has been used on fabrics for millennia. In its earliest form, the process involved simply spreading cloth out on a "bleachfield" to be whitened by the combined action of sun and water. Bleachfields were large, open areas used specifically for bleaching fabric, and were common in mill towns across Europe. 

Een bleekveld in een dorp ("A Bleachfield in a Village") ca. 1650.
Joos de Momper (1
564–1635)/Jan Breughel (1601–1678)

After the discovery of chlorine by Swedish chemist Carl Scheele in 1774, bleachfields became redundant. A few years later, French scientist Claude Berthollet realized that chlorine could be used to bleach fabrics, and was the first to make sodium hypochlorite, which he named eau de Javel (Javel water) after the French city in which it was produced. Sodium hypochlorite is what is commonly known today as household bleach.

Other scientists were also quick to examine the possibilities of the newly discovered element.  French scientist Antoine Germain Labarraque discovered that hypochlorites could disinfect hard surfaces. Scottish chemist and industrialist Charles Tennant produced a bleaching powder made with calcium hypochlorite.

Other bleaching and disinfecting agents would follow, including hydrogen peroxide, produced by Louis Jacques Thénard in 1818; and sodium perborate, used as a laundry bleach. Most bleaching agents today are chlorine-based, and those that aren't are usually based on peroxides.

Most bleaches are oxidizing agents, although some are reducing agents. An oxidizing bleach works by breaking down the chemical bonds in the "chromophores" that make up a dye molecule. This changes the molecule into a different substance, which either lacks a chromophore, or which contains a chromophore that does not absorb visible light. A reducing bleach works by converting the double bonds in a chromophore into single bonds. This removes the chromophore's ability to absorb visible light.

In a similar way, sunlight bleaches things with high-energy photons. The photons disrupt the bonds in a chromophore, eventually rendering the substance colourless. Because sunlight is particularly effective on colours in the violet or ultraviolet range, blues and purples are often the first to bleach out in works of art.

Today, bleach is used primarily to whiten and to disinfect. In addition to harsher bleaching agents, hydrogen peroxide is used as a "colour-safe" bleach, which removes stains without breaking down chromophores. I suppose that's why some bleach artists soak their fabric in hydrogen peroxide to stop the bleaching action.

In artistic terms, bleach is most often used to create effects on fabric. Binding fabrics in tie-dye or shibori patterns, then immersing them in a bleach bath is one common method.

Discharge dyeing using a tie-dye technique.

Placing lace, leaves, cutouts and other shapes on fabric, then spraying the fabric with bleach is another common method.

Black fabric with evergreens laid on top, then sprayed with bleach,
by Lois Ericson.

Mudmee tie-dye from Southeast Asia involves dyeing fabric black, then bleaching certain areas, then redyeing using a tie-dye technique.

Shirt dyed using a mudmee technique, which combines discharge
dyeing and tie-dye.

Many artists also draw or paint directly on fabric with bleach.

Design drawn directly on black fabric with beach gel pen.

For today's elephant, I decided I wanted to paint a design using bleach, rather than tie-dyeing or spraying bleach over shapes such as lace or leaves. It took me a while to find instructions that didn't require all kinds of fancy chemicals and thickeners and such, but the basic procedure for painting with bleach is ultimately very simple:

1. Paint your design onto fabric with chlorine bleach, either diluted or full-strength.
2. Immerse in water as soon as you're done painting.
3. Soak in a neutralizing solution of vinegar and water, or hydrogen peroxide and water, for about ten minutes.
4. Wash fabric with soap and water and let dry.

There are numerous variations on this basic technique. Many sources suggest thickening the bleaching solution with something called "monogum" or other commercially prepared thickeners. You can also buy discharging paste, colour removers, special neutralizers and so forth. For fabrics such as silk and wool, bleach is not the best idea, as it tends to break down protein-based fibres. But for cotton or synthetics, bleach is just fine, and you don't need a lot of fancy materials.

For a bare-bones version of this technique, the video below was helpful for me. I would add soaking in a neutralizing solution to this technique, and perhaps water down the bleach a bit, but it's a good place to start. And if you want to try spraying bleach over shapes, or discharge pastes, or tie-dyeing with bleach, or any number of other iterations, an online search using the terms "discharge dyeing" or "bleach dyeing" will bring you vast numbers of tutorials and instructions.

To try this technique, I bought a 100% cotton t-shirt in a dark olive for four dollars.

I already had bleach, and I already had vinegar, so I was pretty much good to go. I must admit that I rarely use bleach on anything. I invariably end up accidentally ruining some item of clothing or a good towel, so my bottle of bleach more or less lives in the laundry room and never comes out unless something really needs disinfecting or whitening.

Before I started, I slipped a plastic craft sheet inside the shirt, so that the design didn't bleed onto the back of the shirt.

Next, I sketched out my design on the t-shirt using a piece of chalk. It doesn't have to be tailor's chalk or anything fancy—I used cheapo schoolroom chalk.

I was now ready to paint, so I poured a solution of one part bleach to about two parts water into a small glass jar. I worked near my kitchen sink, so I didn't bother filling a bucket with water for the first rinse. I did, however, prepare a bucket with a solution of one part vinegar to four parts water. An alternate neutralizing solution is one part hydrogen peroxide to ten parts water. The idea is to neutralize the oxidizing action of the bleach.

A few words of warning: although this is a simple activity, it's not without its hazards. Be sure to work in a well-ventilated area, for one thing. Inhaling bleach fumes makes me wheeze, so it can't be good for your lungs. And vinegar reacts with bleach to create toxic fumes. This means that, even if you rinse your shirt in water before dunking it in the vinegar bath, there will be some residual bleach in the shirt to interact with the vinegar solution. Also, remember that you are working with chlorine bleach. Splash that stuff around and you'll have white spots everywhere, so wear old clothes and cover any surface you're worried about.

Once I was ready, I simply painted my design with the bleach. It was interesting to watch the design develop almost instantly.

Thinking that this looked rather boring, I decided to add a bit of shading, then flicked bleach at the shirt with a brush to create a random spatter effect. One thing I found rather odd was the way the bleach reacted to itself. In general, the green of the t-shirt bleached out to a very pale orange—which was weird enough—but it actually turned a much darker, almost fluorescent orange when more bleach hit the same area.

Once I was happy with the design, I rinsed it in warmish water. I don't think the temperature of the water matters.

I then immersed it in the vinegar-and-water solution for about ten minutes.

Since the design was now set, I washed it with soap and water. I washed it by hand, since I wasn't sure how fragile the fibres might still be. Once the fabric dries, the fibres should be fine, but I read that some fibres—rayon in particular—can be very weak while wet. I didn't think I wanted my t-shirt to shred before I could photograph the final piece.

This is what it looked like while still wet.

It took me about 45 minutes to draw my design and paint the t-shirt, and an extra half-hour or so to prepare my work area and the bleach and vinegar solutions. It's obviously not a time-consuming activity, and the results are interesting. It's also fun to watch the design appear.

Since I don't love working with bleach, I'm not likely to make a habit of using this technique. I'm also not completely convinced that the fibres on the t-shirt haven't been irrevocably weakened. Now that I've tried "dyeing" with bleach again, however, I may just use this type of thing again—once I see how well the t-shirt holds up.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Some of the most interesting studies on how an elephant's mind works comes out of research undertaken on elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. 
One of the most astonishing findings is that elephants can apparently recognize individual elephants simply by their calls. Karen McComb, an animal psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, undertook a study designed to see how many elephants a single elephant could recognize. McComb played a call that all elephants make, which is known as the "contact rumble". The low-frequency message can be heard by elephants several kilometres away, and essentially says, "I'm here. Where are you?"
The results of the study suggest that elephant matriarchs are able to determine the identities of at least 100 other individual elephants by voice alone. Dr. McComb's colleague, Dr. Graeme Shannon, described it as being akin to putting 100 people behind a wall in the far distance, having them shout something, and expecting a human to identify each person correctly.

Another playback experiment at Amboseli suggests that elephants can tell the difference between human languages. Elephants in the park commonly run across the Maasai, who speak Maa; the Kamba, who speak their own language; and tourists and rangers, who usually speak English.

Interestingly, the elephants become more agitated and alarmed when they hear Maa. This is likely because the Maasai and elephants have a somewhat contentious relationship. Elephants will sometimes kill Maasai cattle and, more rarely, Maasai individuals. When this occurs, young Maasai warriors go out and spear an elephant, killing it.

Researchers played Maa, the Kamba language, and English to elephants, and began noting their reactions. Because the study is still relatively new, it is too early to be sure how well elephants can tell the difference between languages. Dr. Shannon did note, however, a curious incident with one of his assistants. As a Maasai, the assistant began talking to the elephants in her native Maa. The elephants suddenly grew nervous and agitated, raising their heads and taking defensive postures.

Noticing the elephants' response, the assistant switched to Swahili. Immediately, the elephants calmed down, relaxed, and resumed feeding. Although Dr. Shannon is reluctant to suggest that this is a definite response by the elephants to language, he did feel that there was certainly something going on in the elephants' heads.

Alert elephant, Serengeti, Tanzania, 1999.
Photo: ©

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)


  1. Bleach~~oh, yeah~~it’s amazing ,anyone who isn’t like it? I will say no !!
    Especially the unusualT-shirt,I like it to death~~~

    1. Thanks so much! You should definitely try your own t-shirt like this (if you haven't tried this already).:)