This time of year is good for experimenting with natural paints and pigments. It’s easy to forget that in the not too distant past, all dyes and paints had to be obtained from the natural world, directly from animals, minerals and plants. The resulting colours may not always have been as bright as those obtained from chemical sources, but they have a beauty and subtlety of their own. As a teenager I got heavily into experimenting with natural dyes – I think I was not only an unusual teenager in this respect, but had remarkably tolerant parents who were willing to put up with the foul smells from pots of plant material bubbling away on the stove. The process for dyes is slightly different, as you usually have to use a mordant or fixative to make the colour permanent, which can also affect the colour obtained, but the idea of extracting colour from natural materials is the same.
I’ve also wanted to experiment with making my own natural paints for some time, being fascinated by paint, and where it comes from, or more to the point where it originally came from, as so much of it now is chemically manufactured. So I’ve had great fun researching and writing this post. When it comes to experimenting with making your own paints, by far the easiest to obtain, especially at this time of year, is from berries. The colours obtained in this way range from subtle blues and purples, to pinks and reds. I found that the juice from berries was best used as it comes, though for some berries (e.g. damsons and blueberries) where the colour is mostly in the skins, they need to be cooked a little first to release it.
For shades of brown, try using some earth or mud. This is the source of some of the earliest artist’s pigments. Depending upon where you live, the colour you obtain will vary from reddy browns, to ochre, to grey or dark brown. You could just use it as it comes, or you could dry it out first, and use it as a powder, with a medium. A red-brown can be obtained from scrapings of rust, ground to a powder. Broken terracotta pots can also be pounded up to make a similar colour, though this isn’t something to do with young children. If you do this, smash it up into small pieces in a plastic bag first, using a hammer, before grinding it to powder with a stone.
In artist’s studios of the past (18th century and earlier) grinding and preparing pigments for paints was traditionally the duty of an apprentice. It was laborious work, as the powdered pigment had to be as fine as possible to create a quality paint. You can see from the rather ‘gritty’ quality of some of my sample colours that I didn’t have the patience to do such a good job!
To bind the pigments and create a paint, various mediums have been used over the centuries. The most popular being egg yolk, or different oils (linseed, turpentine etc.) Milk was also commonly used. For my experiments I used egg yolk to create a ‘tempera’ paint. This was the choice of early renaissance artists, and has remained popular ever since, as it is very stable. It’s glutinous consistency binds and holds the powdered pigments effectively, and creates a gentle eggshell sheen when the paint is dry. It also dries very quickly.
When using fresh plant material, like onion skins you need to place the material in a pan, and simmer it for a while. Some plant material yields its colour much more easily than others, and while onion skins will release their colour very quickly, some material needs to be cooked for hours, making it less economic to do.
Part of the beauty of working with natural pigments is their very unpredictability. Using just blackberries, I got a whole range of colours. My 3 year old managed to get a lovely elusive blue, which I failed to match until I tried it on a different paper, when it suddenly magically appeared. Blueberry juice, when first painted on, appeared pink, but as it dried turned purple. I also managed to obtain a blue shade from them by mixing with distilled vinegar. This of course is where science meets art and chemistry comes in. I don’t pretend to understand how any of it works, but presume it’s all something to do with the process of oxidation, and the mixing of acids and alkalis (??) When looking at the sample charts I have reproduced here, do bear in mind the inaccuracies of colour reproduction that can be found in both photographs and computer monitors! You’ll have to take my word for it that the colours were in fact much brighter and more beautiful than I had expected them to be or can be shown here.
Of course I have no idea how permanent or fugitive some of these pigments are, and this was a well-known problem for many artists of the past. Lots of famous paintings look very different today from how they would have appeared when fresh and new. Sometimes the change is subtle, but at other times it could be quite dramatic. Many of the great artists liked to experiment with the latest materials, sometimes not always successfully. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous of these artists – his Last Supper, painted using an experiemental technique, soon began to deteriorate, and survives today in a heavily restored, fragmentary state. JMW Turner was also prone to using his newest, brightest pigments to obtain the effect he wanted, even though some of them already had the reputation for impermanence. It didn’t seem to bother him greatly, but must have been somewhat disconcerting for some of his customers as they watched their paintings fade!
The limitations of a restricted palette also demand that you become more imaginative in the way you use the colours. Deeper richer tones can be obtained by layering the paint for example, rather than simply reaching for another colour as we might do today. I did the flower painting below with the paints I had made – I could have done with a greater variety of greens, and a reliable blue, but I was generally quite pleased with what I could achieve so easily.
The following is a list of suggestions for obtaining natural colour for paints. There are of course many more you could experiment with, but I’ve tried to keep it to materials that are readily available to most people, and safe to use.
Brown – Natural soil or earth – the colour obtained will vary depending on the local geology.
Purple/pink/red/lilac/blue – berries, or beetroot. Try blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, bilberries, rasperrriess, strawberries etc.
Red/Orange – paprika, chilli powder,rust scrapings, terracotta pots. Historically, the best red was obtained from cochineal or kermes (both derived from the blood of an insect). Other reds were created using minerals, or plant material (such as madder) but many of these were fugitive and not as bright . The best red that I achieved was using cooked blackberries, and layering the colour.
Black - soot or charcoal
Grey, use woodash (or mix charcoal and chalk)
White – chalk or even talcum powder
Yellow, try using the outer skin of an onion (though I found the colour much weaker as a paint than as a dye), or crab apples if available (I didn’t try this one), or raid your spice cupboard as I did, and use turmeric which gives a beautiful golden yellow.
Green – was always a tricky colour for artists to obtain, somewhat ironically considering how much of it is visible in the natural world. Most of the best greens were originally obtained from minerals (e.g malachite) or from copper, via verdigris. Of course the alternative, tried and tested by many artists in the past, was simply to mix blue and yellow. The only green I managed to successfully obtain with what I had available, was by mixing black (from charcoal) and yellow (from turmeric), with an egg yolk medium.
Blue – A difficult colour to get is a good bright blue. In the past, the best blue was obtained from the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli – only obtainable from a few places in the world, particularly Afghanistan, and fabulously expensive. This blue produced ‘ultramarine’ (which means, literally ‘from beyond the sea’) and was therefore used very selectively in paintings. Because it was so expensive, it was often used for the Virgin Mary’s robes, hence the reason why the Virgin Mary is often depicted in blue. The best blue I obtained was from using blueberry juice with distilled vinegar, which turned blue on the page over several hours!
When making and using your natural paints, make sure that you wear old clothes, as some natural paints will stain, and especially with younger children, avoid using poisonous plants. The plants recommended here are all harmless, but part of the fun of this activity is experimenting. If in doubt use a field guide so you can identify plants which are safe to use.
Creating your own pigments is not just fun to do, or a lesson in art, but also introduces aspects of history, biology and chemistry. Have fun!
If you want to read some fascinating stories about the history of paint and pigments I can recommend the following book which is one of my favourites: