Making Paint Pigment from Rocks & Soil – Part 1

Colours from the Earth

Ancient and contemporary cultures have always made very basic paints to decorate their bodies and dwellings. They extracted natural pigments from clay, rocks, charcoal, shells, minerals, plants and insects. The pigments were then mixed with a natural binder like water, spit, animal fat or urine.

Nowadays most of our paints and dyes are chemically mass-manufactured and are often transported over long distance to reach the local art stores. Personally I have never enjoyed working with turpentine or with plastic-like acrylic paints. My work is strongly inspired by the natural world and using natural pigments is just another step towards a more sustainable art practice.

Natural raw pigments can be either purchased or you can collect them yourself.
I am experimenting with extracting pigment from soil and soft rocks. Gathering the materials is a big part of the process, wondering around in nature, observing and discovering new and unusual colours.

It is quite surprising how many different colours can be found in just a 45 min radius of my home. The earthy colour palette of my local area contains red, pink, orange, yellow, brown, grey and a greyish white. Black was derived from charred wood. Blue, green and purple seem to not be easily available that way.

Once the pigment is extracted and ground into a fine powder the binder medium can be added: refined linseed oil (oil paint), walnut oil (oil paint), gum arabic (water colour), milk, beeswax (encaustic), egg yolk (tempera), egg white, PVA glue or hide glue. Binder acts as an adhesive that locks the pigment powder in and attaches the colours to the surface – plus the binder also brings out the depth and tone of the pigment. Browsing the internet you can discover a whole range of detailed recipes on how to mix pigment with binder and producing the paint you prefer.


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Making Earth Paints

1. Collect a variety of different coloured rocks or/ and soils. Make sure they are not mixed up with lots of other organic matter like dead leaves or mosses. Top soil is therefore not really suitable. If you collect rocks you may want to collect softer clay-like rocks as hard rocks are difficult to turn into pigment powder. When you collect things from nature be aware of the your impact on the immediate environment.

2. How you proceed now depends on the hardness of your collected materials: experiment which method is most suitable to transform your materials into a pigment powder. Larger clumps of dry soil or soft rocks can be crushed with a hammer to prepare smaller pieces before be ground.
Another way is to soak clay-like rocks in hot water and then work them into a mud with mortar and pestle. The mud needs to be spread out onto a plastic or glass sheet to dry in the sun. The dried out mud is then ready to be ground with mortar and pestle. For crushing and grinding up rocks or soil, wear safety goggles and a dust mask.

3. Use a mortar and pestle until you get a powder. This will be sufficient for textured paint. For fine, non-textured paint you have to spend more time grinding the pigment into a fine dust. To refine the powder keep sieving it through a fine sieve and/ or use the technique of suspending the powder in a jar of water: the large particles will settle almost straight away at the bottom, while the fine particles will stay suspended in the top part. Pour the top water with the fine particles onto a tray and let dry in the sun until all water has evaporated.

4. Mix pigment powder with the desired medium and apply to your paper.
For detailed recipes please check out: Earth Pigments at http://www.earthpigments.com/fine-arts/

 

Some of the Colours found in Byron Bay area (Australia)

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18 thoughts on “Making Paint Pigment from Rocks & Soil – Part 1”

  1. Shelley Krycer
     ·  Reply

    Incredible! I’m very keen to start making my own paint and other art materials. This colour palette is beautiful and I love the textures.
    I can’t wait to get started! Thank you for posting 🙂
    Your art is beautiful!

  2. katrien
     ·  Reply

    Thank you for sharing this! It is highly interesting to me.

  3. Darby-Ann
     ·  Reply

    Awesome! We are doing Genius Hour at school and I’m making paint so this is a great natural source.

  4. lee m burns
     ·  Reply

    I am an American Soil Pigment artist. Check out my book on Amazon Books called COLOR YOUR WORLD WITH GREEN ART . I do not use a binder with my pigments. Once the painting is complete I seal with a clear urethane spray. Read my book. All the best. Lee Burns

  5. Danielle Palumbo
     ·  Reply

    This is so clear and helpful. Thank you so much!
    I am looking forward to seeing what else you
    explain.

  6. Jane O'Connor
     ·  Reply

    Hi Sabine
    I found your site fascinating as I’ve just discovered natural earth pigments myself, having gone on a walk with other students on the Jurassic coast in Dorset (England). It was inspiring. If you’re interested, check out the artist who took us – Frances Hatch. She does the most beautiful paintings in situ on beaches etc., using only the earth and rocks around her.
    Best wishes,
    Jane

  7. Susanne Williams
     ·  Reply

    What a simply wonderful find this evening. Thank you for writing this.

  8. Jared Reichenbach
     ·  Reply

    Hello! I have been doing the same thing! I have also made figures out of rocks. I sanded down a soft rock, and added some water to the filings make a clay-like sunstance. Then I formed a little man and a heart. I painted the heart with another rock, and I used the metal found in rocks to create glitter. It is really amazing looking! I would live to share it with you. Sadly, I haven’t found many people doing this… but I will send you an e-mail with some pictures!

  9. Theo
     ·  Reply

    Wow, this is awesome, will surely give it a try. Thanks for sharing

  10. Theo
     ·  Reply

    Great and amazing artwork

  11. Jing
     ·  Reply

    In tibet, the local artists use mineral pigments through centuries, Tangka is the kind of mineral painting .
    Thanks for sharing your finding .

  12. Natalie Ellenberger
     ·  Reply

    Wow! I am doing a school project and I think this would be perfect!!! Thank you!!

    • chukwudi Valentine
       ·  Reply

      wow.. I have been asked to research and treat this as my Bsc project work…
      can we work together,,
      I am VALENTINE from NIGERIA

  13. Kathleen Smith
     ·  Reply

    Many thanks for so generously sharing this information.

  14. chukwudi Valentine
     ·  Reply

    greetings…
    I am an industrial chemistry student Bsc. level, in NIGERIA.
    I have been asked to treat a project topic on theses rocks used for pigments in paint…
    so please what are the names of these rocks… any one with a suitable reference material should please email me
    chudivally15@gmail.com
    I hope you hear from you
    thank you

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