Natural DIY sustainable watercolors for children

Make your own children’s watercolor paints from plants!

As, I learnt and grew more into natural, toxic-free and sustainable living; I was quite set on creating alternatives to traditional, non-natural toxic paints for my artwork. I wasn’t always an artist, I reconnected to this dormant artist within me four years ago, and since then I have only been working with my own natural and non-toxic handmade watercolours. For obvious reasons, I’m not thrilled when it comes to store-bought children’s arts and crafts supplies. I decided to explore and do my best at finding the best alternative for many of these supplies and making them at home with my son. Not only is it safe for him, but we also have a great time doing something together besides playing and cooking!

Making paints from natural resources is an excellent way to introduce your child to the beautiful world of color. Not only is it meditative, therapeutic and rich for your child, but also calming for you. Before you start making colors and painting with your child, take time to delight in the colors of nature around you.  Be dazzled by the incredibly amazing and vibrant color palette of nature,  the extraordinary number of shades and tones in your visual path. Notice the effect nature’s sight, smell and colors have on you and your child. Connect to the natural world around you and open up your awareness of color as part of your life!

As Maxime Lagacé said “ By discovering nature, you discover yourself”!

I will not go too deep into the philosophy of nature and its effects on us because this post is all about to share with you my method of making sustainable non-toxic watercolors for children.

How to make natural plant based watercolors for children

Kaolin and Clove oil

The great thing about this DIY recipe for homemade children’s paint is that you primarily require only 3 ingredients.

1. Natural Clay: Kaolin or white cosmetic clay (weiß tonerde)

2. Plant material of your choice and availability (flowers, berries, leaves, bark etc), organic kitchen waste or you could simply use store bought powdered herbal pigments (beetroot, spirulina etc.)

Natural sources of pigment

3. Water

4. Glycerine (food grade optional)

5. Vinegar (optional)

6. Essential oil (optional)

This way, not only do you know what goes into your paints, but you can change  the ingredients you don’t have. For example, if you don’t have Kaolin, you can use arrowroot powder or corn starch.  For pigments, I like to extract them from what’s around in our backyard, kitchen or local park,  rather than buying powdered herbs from a store. Store bought botanical pigments could be rather an expensive affair! Besides, the idea is to go foraging for pigment source with your child and getting them to connect with the natural world!

Kaolin is the best clay to use for making homemade, non-toxic children’s paint. Firstly, kaolin clay is fairly inexpensive and, secondly being white  it won’t change the color of your paints. Not only Kaolin acts as a filler but it also thickens the paint. Once dried it re-wets easily too.

Making process

Its best to extract pigments from withering flowers, fallen berries, leaves, herbs whatever you can find in nature and knowing that they are not poisonous . Next, crush the plant material  using  pestle and mortar, this task can essentially be designated to the little helpers!  Then add minimum amount of hot water to pull out the dye. Allow the crushed matter to sit for a while before straining it through a sieve and putting it to use.

Red dye extracted from Red chards

To  1/4 tsp of clay  add concentrated freshly extracted dye (approximately 3ml). Stir  the contents well avoiding lumps to be formed. If the color is weak add more extract. Just experiment and adjust amount of the dye as you like.  To make the paint more spreadable and soft  add a couple of drops of glycerine to your mix . You could also add a drop or two of white vinegar or essential oil (thyme or clove oil) as a preservative.  This step can easily be done by children, who I am sure will thoroughly enjoy !

Not only is this a safe and fun way to keep children entertained and busy, but it provides much needed creative and developmental stimulation as well.  Such as this flower made by my son using the naked stalks of redcurrants after we had finished removing the berries for making marmalade and some color.

Creative play

Once the colors are ready its time to paint with them!  If your child is very young (2-3years), begin by introducing only single color. This gives the child time to explore the world of color. Adding in  a second color at a later stage becomes a magical experience for the child.    If too many colors are added too soon, the painting will  become completely brown or gray. This does not serve the child’s learning. I am speaking from experience and have understood this concept from Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy.

My son’s painting using two colors : Flame of Forest and Avocado

Not only are these watercolors great for children but even adults can try painting with them too. I am sure you are going to enjoy !

Painted using dye extracts of recurrants, spinach, marigold and flowers of flame of forest

“Art has the role in education of helping children become like themselves instead of more like everyone else. “-Sydney  Clemens

 

Natural Plant Inks

Its been quite long since I wrote my last post but I am back again!   I had started my blog  Lost in Colours with an intention to raise awareness of the ecological issues involved in art materials, and to provide  non-toxic, low-impact solutions. Hopefully,  I can be more regular in sharing not only my insights on this topic  but also my struggles and joy of creating sustainable art!

Till date I had only been using pigments from Earth in my art work. My journey into foraging for natural pigments from plants  began last year after being inspired by a local artist whom I met while camping  along the coast of Algarve in Portugal.  Her eco-printed fabric had me thinking and I started exploring plants other than pigments of earth as a source of colours for my  sketches. I couldn’t really explore and experiment much after returning home to Austria as nature had begun to go into sleep mode.

Butea monosperma : Flame of the forest tree in Auroville, India

I embarked on making botanical inks early this year when we traveled to India. During our month long trip  we stayed for about a week  in the southern Indian town of Auroville. There stood in the courtyard of our guest house  a beautiful Palash or  Flame of the Forest tree in full bloom. Looking at that tree I remembered stories from my parents how they used to collect  flowers of this tree for making natural colour to play Holi.  The Indian festival of colours that heralds the arrival of spring.

Alas! the natural colours have now been substituted by non-sustainable chemical colours and this beautiful tree is now long forgotten!   I collected  fallen flowers from the ground along with my son, and made  my very first natural ink in the communal kitchen of our guest house. Palash flower gives a vivid orange-yellow dye that mixes well with other colours too. I even did a quick illustration with it, and loved capturing the memories of it in my travel sketch book.

After returning from India I had to patiently wait for  nature to wake up from its winter sleep to begin experimenting with the natural resources  in Austria. Till date I have experimented making inks from tea, coffee, onion skins, spring flowers in various colours, avocado pit, redcurrant, chards  etc. I don’t follow any particular recipe, but do so by using trial and error method. There were a lot of failures, but I believe that’s the only way to learn and get better. I’m sure there are many books out there on botanical inks and articles written about it online, but being old school as I am,  I wanted to learn everything myself, looking for a recipe has never been my way of working. It definitely took me much longer than it would have if I did some research.  The satisfaction I felt by allowing myself to be creative while making use of sustainable materials  is  indescribable.

Natural Plant based inks

Nature isn’t just a source of artistic inspiration; its also an incredible source of art supplies. Observing the colours of nature and being in nature is exhilarating!  I strongly emphasize upon using materials that are of the earth, are safe to work with and that can safely be returned back into the earth.  Understanding the natural colour palette of your region , and creating art with materials that you have made with your own hands and from plants that grow around you, can be incredibly enriching,  and connective experience. There is something sublime about walking out onto the land and gathering fallen leaves, harvesting flowers, berries, and digging up muddy roots to extract their colour. Bringing more beauty into the world doesn’t have to be deleterious to our environment or to our own personal growth.

Making ink is just one more way to enjoy the beauty and excitement of our natural world. Personally, I’ve barely scratched the world of natural dyes and inks, and am still in the process of learning , exploring , and experimenting.

Following are  recipes of some of the inks that I have made and use in my work.  Please remember that you can always tweak them to make them work for you:

Rooibos tea ink

I took 1tsp of loose Rooibos tea and allowed it to steep in approx. 15 ml of boiling water for 20 minutes or so. I filtered the tea and added a pinch of baking soda (sodium-bi-carbonate) and boiled the tea for a few minutes. To thicken it you can add a bit of powdered gum arabic . If you don’t have gum arabic you can use it as it is too.  To keep this ink for long add add 1/2 a tsp of vinegar and a pinch of salt as a preservative  (optional).

Flame of Forest Ink

I collected fallen flowers (about 200gm) and boiled them in water with a pinch of sodium bi carbonate. I don’t have an exact measurement for amount of water used, it was  just enough to cover  flowers in the pot to have a  concentrated ink. After cooling I added a bit of alcohol as a preservative. You can also add vinegar and salt as an alternative preservative.

Tea ink

Loose florals painted with fresh black tea ink

I followed the same procedure as described for Rooibos tea but without the addition of sodium-bi-carbonate. Its best to be used fresh as it takes no time to make this ink.

Onion skins. Strongly coloured skins are best, from red or bright orange onions. They boil down to a rich gold coluor that creates a subtle gold wash that can be built up through layering. It’s a distinctive gentle red gold that often dries a darker color than when you paint it on. Its great for staining papers and giving them a vintage look.

Pink ink from Red  Chards

I discovered this ink serendipitously when I was cutting the ends of chards for cooking.  However, instead of throwing the organic waste I crushed them using a  pestle and mortar, and added boiling water to extract the dye.  Voila! I had a beautiful ink at my disposal.

Currently, I’m experimenting with berries, walnut leaves, marigold flowers, nettle leaves, purple basil, thyme etc.

I hope that my article will inspire and encourage you to try some of the tried and tested processes,  so that we can work in a way that is more responsible for people and our planet.

 

Art or Environment-What matters to you the most?

It’s a delightful feeling when you get excited to create something, and then venture forth and share your creative endeavour with the rest of the world.

I am talking about the current trend of handmade watercolours. I too am a watercolour paint maker and an artist who uses them. I started using handmade paints when it came to my notice that some of the commercial ones were quite toxic, not only to the humans but also to our environment.

I have also observed that many of the handmade paint makers use pigments that are of toxic nature and market them as non-toxic. Which I think is probably more due to ignorance rather than deliberate. Which makes me think, how many handmade watercolour paints that are out in the market carry correct label and information for the end consumers?

READ THE WARNING LABELS: Toxic Supplies

I have mentioned this in my previous posts that the next best thing you can do before you buy your art supplies is to inform yourself. Always read the label of your supplies and choose environmentally friendly and/or non-toxic supplies. Toxic art supplies and materials are those that are harmful if inhaled or ingested, or that cause harmful reactions when in contact with skin. These chemicals are dangerous to flora and fauna for the same reasons. By knowing what materials are toxic and by limiting their use, you can help improve the overall environmental impact of your studio or art practices.

Following is a detailed list of toxic inorganic pigments used for making watercolour paints:

Whilst some of the inorganic pigments have been very well studied  for their toxicological effects, data for others is not available and should therefore be treated as toxic. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss every pigment in detail. The following list only serves as a reference guide.

Highly Toxic Pigments /Known or Probable Carcinogens

Antimony white (antimony trioxide)

Barium yellow (barium chromate)

Burnt umber or raw umber (iron oxides, manganese silicates or dioxide)

Cadmium red or orange (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide)

Cadmium yellow (cadmium sulfide)

Cadmium barium colors (cadmium colors and barium sulfate)

Cadmium barium yellow (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide, barium sulfate, zinc sulfide)

Chrome green (prussian blue, lead chromate)

Chrome orange (basic lead carbonate)

Chrome yellow (lead chromate)

Cobalt violet (cobalt arsenate or cobalt phosphate)

Cobalt yellow (potassium cobaltinitrate)

Lead or flake white (basic lead carbonate)

Lithol red (sodium, barium and calcium salts of soluble azopigment)

Manganese violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)

Molybdate orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate, lead sulfate)

Naples yellow (lead antimonate)

Strontium yellow (strontium chromate)

Vermilion (mercuric sulfide)

Zinc sulfide

Zinc yellow (zinc chromate)

Moderately Toxic Pigments

Cerulean blue (cobalt stannate)

Cobalt blue (cobalt stannate)

Cobalt green (calcined cobalt, zinc and aluminum oxides)

Chromium oxide green (chromic oxide)

Manganese blue (barium manganate, barium sulfate)

Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide)

Viridian (hydrated chromic oxide)

Zinc white (zinc oxide)

Needless to say, art is  a great contribution to the world. It has been existing since thousands of years and it is here to stay! It inspires us, boosts our creativity and has a calming effect on us. However, sometimes the process of creating art can end up hurting more than benefiting. Working with watercolours or any other kind of art supplies, which are of toxic nature, often have serious detrimental effects on our environment.

I take great care and do my best in having reduced or when possible negligible environmental impact with my art practices. Which is why I don’t use any paint that contains heavy metal ions. My watercolour palette is rather very limited consisting primarily of  ochres (no known toxic effects at least), a couple of ultramarines (toxic if ingested) and a sparingly used pan of quinacridone red.

It is important to remember that protecting our planet is just as important as bringing beauty to it. By making a conscious choice in selecting your art supplies will help reduce the environmental impact of your studio practices. We only have one planet, and while your art helps to add beauty to it, we all can help protect it at the same time.

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make!”-Jane Goodall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: This article concerns itself with the common sense safety aspects of art materials and art safety in general. The intent of this article is merely to raise individual awareness of some of the issues involved and to encourage the reader to take steps in learning more about the factors involved with the hazards associated with artist’s materials. The author may change the contents of this document at any time, either in whole or in part.