Seaweed in art: from dyes, to cyanotype, to poetry

by | Sep 21, 2023

We’re very pleased to be able to share with you an exciting excerpt from Vincent Doumeizel’s new book ‘The Seaweed Revolution’.  It explores how seaweed has shaped our past and can save our future. It’s a fascinating read and has reinforced, for us here, the importance and benefits of the seaweed in our seas.

This excerpt is a look at seaweed in art, from dyes to cyanotype to poetry.  It puts forward a few reasons to be hopeful that seaweed will provide sustainable alternatives to unsustainable or polluting products.

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In the future, many other applications of seaweed will certainly make it possible to replace unsustainable or even polluting products. For example, there are some great recent initiatives concerning inks, both for standard and 3D printers.

In the Caribbean, sargassum, which has filled the sea of the same name, is compressed into high-density blocks – the natural glue of the seaweed making them compact – to create

building bricks. In Brittany, an inventor has perfected a similar technique using beached kelp to obtain a very beautiful material that is twice as strong as oak.

In terms of dyes and paints, the stakes are also high. Paint is usually oil-based, and 95% of it is derived from the petrochemical industry. This has significant ecological and health consequences. Also, seaweed can provide paints that are 98% plant-based, which are more locally sourced, odourless and much less polluting. Seaweed has long aroused great interest in this field for its ‘antifouling’ capability. In order to avoid being entirely covered with parasites, seaweed has developed a set of techniques in symbiosis with other organisms.Certain bacteria hosted by seaweed, for example, produce a substance that prevents unwanted guests from clinging to their surface. The same substrate is integrated into dyes and used to prevent the adhesion of foreign bodies to painted surfaces, particularly on ships or other marine infrastructure.

In construction an architecture, seaweed is also important. The famous ‘seaweed houses’ with their impressive roofs on L.s. Island off the coast of Denmark are actually made from Zostera, a type of seagrass. However, seaweed is also used. Here again, we must look to Japan for the finest examples. Since the sixteenth century, the technique known as shikkui, generally used to plaster large wall surfaces and the grouting of stones in Japanese castles, is composed mostly of slaked lime, natural plant fibres and the seaweed extracts Gloiopeltis (fu nori in Japanese) and Chondrus ocellatus (tsunomata) species. These are used as a water retention agent and improve the workability and elasticity of the plaster. From an environmental perspective, this method requires little maintenance, stores CO2 and uses minimal materials. Finally, it is a 100% recyclable, non-toxic, fire-resistant product with good antimicrobial qualities. Shikkui is still used today in the restoration of Japanese historical monuments.

Many sculptors are also exploring seaweed with a view to integrating it into their creations, and some specialise in it. A guitar-maker we met recently is looking to experiment with building a guitar out of Laminaria hyperborea, because he believes it has unique acoustic properties. In 1842, a British botanist named Anna Atkins had the idea of photographing plants to create a herbarium. So she made impressions of seaweed using the cyanotype process. She placed dried seaweed on sheets of sun-sensitive paper, and as the papers reacted to the light, they became coloured and the silhouette of the seaweed appeared in white on a Prussian blue background. These seaweed prints were collected in a book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which is considered the first book of photographs in history.

When it comes to poetry, there are writers the world over who have been inspired by seaweed. The Japanese poet Buson wrote this haiku: 

‘In the spring rain / Coming alive again / Wakame seaweed’, while Kito gave us this one: ‘Green seaweed / in the rock hollows / No one remembers the tide.’ 

The French poet Paul Éluard evokes a ‘writing of solar algae’ and Jacques Prévert recalls: ‘Like seaweed gently caressed by the wind / In the sands of sleep you stir dreaming.’

The British poet Renée Vivien, who wrote in French, travelled extensively in Japan and always associated the woman she loved with seaweed imagery: 

‘We lay our bodies on your beds of dry seaweed’; ‘Never take again the bitter path of the shores / Where the seaweed has the slow swaying rhythms of a thurible’; ‘You are my perfumes of amber and honey, my palm / My foliage, my cicadas singing in the air, / My snow dying to be haughty and calm, / And my seaweed and seascapes.’

The famous nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called ‘Seaweed’, which explores the creative process and in which he describes: 

‘When descends on the Atlantic / The gigantic / Storm-wind of the equinox, / Landward in his wrath he scourges / The toiling surges, / Laden with seaweed from the rocks.’

It would take too long to list seaweed’s contributions to songs, so let’s just mention Frank Sinatra singing: ‘When you’re in love, the seaweed smells just like roses…’ While not questioning the amorous sentiment, this all brings us directly to the question everyone usually asks, when they hear about the potential uses of seaweed… Alas, despite its name, there are no known psychotropic characteristics attributed to seaweed. Its name could not be more of a disservice: it is not a weed, in any sense of the word.

The fact of the matter is, from cuisine to sculpture, to fashion, poetry and photography, we should explore every avenue to bring about this revolution and to connect our art, too, to this original creation that comes from the oceans.


Huge thanks to Vincent Doumeizel for sharing this essay from The Seaweed Revolution published by Hero Press. You can buy the book here or pick up a copy in our shop at Halen Môn. Translated by Charlotte Coombe,

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