How to create handmade watercolor paints from foraged pigments.
What is better; paints made from foraged natural pigments or mass-produced store-bought paints?
Everything is derived from nature, unfortunately, today we are living in a world that is driven by consumerism. Imagine walking through a forest or climbing a mountain, and foraging for pigments to make your own paints just like how it was done in the bygone era, instead of going to an art supply store and purchasing a mass-produced tube of paint. It is indeed very convenient getting paint supplies from an art store but is it as salubrious as what nature has to offer us? The answer is simple No!
The labels on paint tubes never provide us with information about how something was made, the origin of raw materials, who produced it and under which conditions, what it contains and what impact did it have on our environment during the manufacturing process! Honestly speaking, no one even thinks about any of this because modern society today has become disconnected from nature!
After dabbling with store-bought colors for a little while I came to a realization that art supplies are notorious for remaining tight-lipped about the content of their paints. You don’t know what chemicals are in your paint unless they carry extreme health risks warning on the label or if you are a nerdy scientist like me who will go down to the bottom of it! These kinds of warning labels indicate they are toxic to you and should, therefore, be handled with care. I am yet to come across a label that indicates the toxicity of the contents of a paint tube to our environment and other life forms. This means, in art studios all across the world, artists often have no inkling of what they are using to produce art or the impact of those materials on the environment. Hence, I embarked on a creative journey of making my own watercolor paints from foraged pigments and practicing sustainability in creating art as well!
“Connect with the earth”
Making a connection with pigments in their wild habitat!
Working with natural pigments is a transformative process that establishes a unifying relationship between you and the Earth. Getting familiar with pigments in their wild habitat and how to ethically forage them has the potential to profoundly shift your art practice.
The beauty of nature inspires reconnection with our own essence. It awakens the senses, allows us to tap into what is sacred in all things present in nature, and experiences our own connection to all we behold.
Given these realities, as a serious practitioner of creating sustainable art, I am on a journey looking for better ways to practice my art, art that does not require me to consume, pollute, or create demand on our fragile ecosystems!
In this post, I will share with you my passion for making watercolor paints from foraged pigments. What is remarkable about this process is that each landscape is unique: your own land’s color palette will depend on its geological features.
As you forage for pigments and transform them into paints, you know exactly what goes into making a paint, where it came from, and lastly, they can all return back to the earth without having any destructive effect!
The ancient craft of Pigment Making
Natural pigments are literally everywhere, and if you travel and spend time in nature, you can find a wide variety of colors. Most of these are colors of the earth; colors of soil, clay, sand, or stone. To date, I have collected quite a few pigments from my travels in the last couple of years. It is a joy creating art with nothing but dust! Art that you can connect with!
Foraging for natural pigments in the wild?
Before you head out and begin collecting pigments you must develop consciousness and make a deep connection with the Earth. While foraging for pigments in nature make sure you are abiding by the laws and are not causing any ecological damage. Pigments can often be found in exposed edges of streams, rivers, and lakes; the water will expose clay banks and stones, making it easy to find pigments.
Anywhere that a lot of rocks are exposed is potentially a good site to pick up some pigment stones. Because you require pigments that are easy to process, especially when you are starting out, good pigment stones are fairly soft. You can sometimes tell a good pigment stone by rubbing it against a hard surface. If it produces something that looks like paint or clay on the surface, it is likely a very good candidate for making paints.
Rocks such as sandstone, shale, muscovite, etc. can also be processed, but the processing is a lot more tedious. Harder stones may be worth processing, especially if they have unique colors. Clays can make good pigments, but not always; you can dig them out, let them dry, remove any large or hard rocks or organic matter and grind them after levigation. Each geology and ecosystem has something different to offer you, and it requires a lot of experimentation.
Materials like soot and charcoal also make for great pigment sources. Soot produces more of a warm black, while charcoal produces a cool black. Charcoal black is obtained by carbonizing (charring) wood. It is very stable as are all carbon blacks and is absolutely lightfast and compatible with all other pigments. I collected some wood charcoal from a bonfire on a trail run in Upper Austria and transformed it into beautiful granular black paint. However, one must remember that incomplete combustion of wood results in the formation of toxic hydrocarbons. Read here for more information.
One of the best candidates for paint is the ochres. Ochre is the specific term for a pigment that comes from iron oxides and iron-based minerals, clays, and soils. So generally, ochres are common minerals found world-wide that contain varying amounts of iron and oxygen.
Preparing Your Pigments
To prepare your pigments, you will need to ground the pigment candidates finely while not breathing in any dust. Before proceeding you must adhere to safety regulations. Connect with the energies of the earth during this process and embrace the time it takes to do this. I use the following approach:
1. Breaking rocks into smaller pieces
First, break the rocks into pieces that can be finely ground using a mortar and pestle. I use a hammer and a thick plastic sheet on which I break the rocks. Break the rocks as fine as you can using this method. This process must be carried outside and by wearing a respirator/NIOSH mask.
Grind the pieces using a pestle and mortar until you have achieved a very fine powder. This process may be a bit difficult if you are not used to it. Therefore, before commencing make this process easy by breaking the pieces into smaller sizes with a hammer.
Sifting is the most critical part of the pigment-making process. The goal is to attain the finest particles possible. You can sift multiple times to get a fine grind by using a sieve with very fine mesh. I use old pantyhose to get finer particles.
The process of grinding and sifting is really an art form in itself, some are easy to do, and some are quite difficult–depending on the material. It requires patience and is a very meditative process.
An alternative method of refining pigments is through the process of levigation. Read here for more information.
4. Make paints
Finally, paints are created by mixing pigments with different additives. Depending on the additives pigments can be transformed into oil paints, pastels, acrylic paints, watercolor paints, and/or tempera.
Handmade watercolor paints are made using a binder that is made from gum arabic, honey, glycerine (optional) distilled water, and clove oil (natural preservative). Read here about the safe working practice during the paint-making process. It is all about experimenting and figuring out what works best for you.
5. Make sustainable art
Once your paints are ready you can start creating art that expresses how you feel, something that you can connect with, art that makes you happy and is sustainable!
I am every bit enthralled by the process of making my own watercolor paints from the found treasures of the beautiful Earth. I hope this post has inspired you to pursue the same creative voyage!
“One must see nature as no-one has seen it before”- Cezzane
A short tutorial on how to make pigments: Foraging natural pigments.
A short tutorial on how to make pigments from rocks
If you want to learn more …
… enroll in my online course exploring the traditional process of making watercolor paints from pure pigments.
Disclaimer: Not every natural material is harmless. This includes mineral pigments and earth colors, which may contain hazardous components. When working with fine mineral dust, it is recommended to use a respirator or dust mask. It is advised that one must consult with the local authorities about the geological features of an area. The author may change the contents of this document at any time, either in whole or in part.