seeing ice in color

dragon ice sculpture with blue lighting
Blue gels and a dark background give this dragon head ice sculpture a striking look.

*updated 12/15/11



There are several ways to color ice and some work better than others.

Lighting
The carving above is blue because it has blue lighting. The shades of blue are mixed so that there is variation in the color across the sculpture. Many different shades of color gels are available from lighting companies. The eye spot is a laser pointer. The background is black velvet. Precise control of the light is tricky.

Sand
If you reverse engrave a logo (engrave the mirror image from the back side), while the logo is lying down on it’s front side, colored sand can be added to color the logo. Before you change the position of the ice, you gently add snow over the sand, then pack it, add cold water, and let it freeze. This method is most effective in a freezer and very complex logos can be recreated if a cnc machine is used. This method can also be used for other designs like butterflies. If you look around, you can find a wide variety of sand colors. If you add a small amount of water to the sand before you add the snow, the color will be more saturated. Unfortunately, the sand is opaque, not translucent.

Glitter
Essentially, glitter is substituted for the sand in the above procedure. Not as many colors of glitter are available as sand, but the reflective glitter adds an extra element.

Paint
Tempera paints can be used like sand in the reverse logo procedure above. Unfortunately, because of the liquid nature of the paint, it’s hard to keep it in place if the color is displayed vertically. It tends to leak out because the frozen paint melts at a lower temperature than the ice.

Gelatin (Jell-o) and Paint
Again, the reverse logo technique is used. This technique gives you the color flexibility of tempura paint and avoids the problem of leaks. However, it’s not the easiest technique and requires practice and timing. If plain water gets below the paint while it’s freezing (easy to do) then you will have white frost in front of your logo that WILL NOT go away. The procedure is called the Maxfield Color Technique and is detailed in Ice Sculpting the Modern Way, by Maxfield, Finch, and Garlough. It’s a very useful technique and offers plenty of precision and color flexibility. The gelatin/paint can be translucent, unlike the sand. Somewhat annoyingly, I used to wonder if I could do some sort of color effect with gelatin, but I never took the time to find out and I didn’t think of adding paint to the gelatin. Oh well, snooze, you lose.

Gels
This involves cutting out the appropriate shapes of plastic lighting gels and freezing them into the sculpture, usually by sandwiching them between pieces of ice, but the reverse logo technique can be used as well. If you have a design, the gels can be scotch-taped together. Cutting the gels precisely can be very time consuming, but the gels are translucent. Unfortunately, you’re generally limited to two dimensional color effects.

Printing
Similar to above, you can sandwich a printed design into a sculpture. If you have a Clinebell machine and some patience, you can freeze printed items directly into a block. Dave VanCamp of Ice Visions in St. Louis has mastered this technique. He prints logos on 11”x17” transparencies at a local OfficeMax and then freezes them into his blocks. My own experience with this technique has been pretty favorable, as long as I can get the transparencies printed. The large transparencies frequently jam color copiers and you’d better call ahead to see if they have them if you don’t have your own blank transparencies. When you set the copier, set it to print the most saturated colors you can get. This technique gives you the best control of the design itself, but the color is not as vivid as with other methods and you’re stuck with two dimensional color effects. Also, you have to use more than one transparency for larger designs and if you look closely, you can see the clear plastic and sometimes bubbles trapped against it. Finally, whatever is printed needs to be pretty water resistant.

Dyes/Food Coloring
This is the most obvious method of coloring ice, and one of the most troublesome. Dye is added to the water while the ice block is freezing. If it’s done right, the block of ice looks like a giant popsicle. If it’s done wrong, the freezing ice pushes all the dye out as it’s freezing (the dye molecules don’t fit into the crystalline structure of the ice, so they’re pushed out.) Apparently there are some “secret” techniques involved here, but one way to do it is to add milk in with the dye. The large molecules in the milk are able to hold the smaller dye particles and the ice is unable to push the large molecules out during freezing. But the resulting block is a lot like a giant creamsicle. A major disadvantage with this sort of coloring is that when the ice melts, the dye gets all over. When you cut it with a saw, they dye gets all over, etc. This sort of ice is used most effectively (at least in the U.S.) in the large scale winter ice displays at the Gaylord Hotels in Nashville, Orlando, and Dallas. In this case, pieces of colored ice are combined with clear and white ice to form large sculptures. These displays are kept at below freezing temperatures for weeks, so the dyes in the colored ice don’t melt out and make a mess.

Photoshop
Well, this would be considered cheating and it doesn’t do anything for a sculpture at an event, only for the photos later. But you can make a sculpture just about any color you want with the sophisticated controls available in this software. I’ve used it to make sculptures look as if they had similar lighting so that I could match the color scheme of my website.



You might also find photos and info related to this entry on the ice carving secrets facebook page and you can comment there as well as below. Thanks!

Earlier comments
The following comments were on the original blog entry. After some technical difficulties etc., the blog was reconstructed, and this was the only way to keep the original comments. Unfortunately, the hyperlinks from the original comments are gone in some cases. You can add your own new comments at the bottom.

darren
I would really like to see a complete pic of that dragon.
Thursday, April 12, 2007 - 05:44 PM

Dawson
Darren,
Later I'll add a gallery of photos that I took of that sculpture. I have to update some software or I would have added them already. However, you might be disappointed because the sculpture was not a full bodied dragon. It was only from about the shoulder up. But I do have several different colors and some other interesting effects to post. Keep an eye out for it; it will show up in the pics section. Thanks!
Thursday, April 12, 2007 - 11:54 PM

nick
as far as transparencies go, i have had great luck with a local printing shop called digital printing (much more advanced than kinkos...). at digital, they are able to print copies as large as a block of ice (or larger) and
aply a spray of h2o sealent, which works fairly effective as long as the transparencies arn't overly rubed againsted the ice. i have used this method for frezing transparencies into blocks and back snowfilling.
Sunday, November 18, 2007 - 01:49 AM

Laurie
We use gelatin and cake icing colors (available at Hobby Lobby) to color our ice sculpture logos. I like to add a drop of white coloring to make the coloring a richer tone. We were having some problems last summer with the frost developing under the color as you mentioned. Finally figured out what was causing it for us. Our freezer was warmer in the summer time and was melting the ice under the color. We now move the sculptures to be colored to another freezer that is kept at 15 degrees and we no longer have this problem
Sunday, January 6, 2008 - 11:52 AM

seeing it in color
10/17/06
icezard
im nowhere near as good but i was just messing around, and half way through making some ice hands ( i hung up some gloves upside down and filled them lol ). wen i let it freeze fora while there wa still water in the middle so all i had to do was break a small hole in the top and drop some fodod coloring in and in the end i had a pertty cool result, ill post pics wen im done lol.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - 10:01 PM
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