make your own paint
a visual guide
The Earth is described as RED in many creation histories. That’s because IRON OXIDE, the mineral that turns red when exposed to oxygen, is everywhere. Magically, it can also turn yellow, pink, green, purple, and even blue.
If you want to make your own paint, you may not have to look far for some mineral earth or crumbly rocks that will make rich colors. On the west coast, where there’s much more exposed rock, it can be easier to find oxides than on the east coast, where most of the land is covered in soil. Stream banks and road cuts are often the best place to start looking.
Here are the guidelines I follow when I gather minerals for paint. I’ve arrived at these after about a decade of exploring earth pigments, mostly solo, and I still have a lot to learn. The more I meet other people love earth colors, the more I can see the shape of my unknowns. But here is where I am now:
1. I have a SPECIFIC project in mind before I start gathering. I know either that I want to paint at a certain time in a certain mood, or that there’s a definite project that calls for that particular paint color.
If I see a great color when I’m out walking, I try to resist gathering it “just to have it.”. If I can’t think of how I would specifically use that color for personal use, I leave it there and remember where it is so that I can come and get it when I need it.
Not hoarding color feels so important. I means that when I go to gather, I can say thank you to the rock for giving me what I need to bring my project to fruition, instead of just taking what I want because I like it and want it to be mine. It’s taken me some time to arrive at this, and to recognize the difference between having jars full of colored earths sitting inert in my studio versus needing to go out on a mission and connect with the land in an active way when I actually need color. I keep some basics around, like walnut ink and mineral paint left over from past projects, but the feeling has shifted tangibly for me.
2. I do my best to know the cultural history of the land where I’m gathering. Which Native nations recognize/ed this land as homeland? Is this a ceremonial site? What happened here pre-colonization? What happened here during contact with Europeans? What’s happening here now? Is there a specific cultural use for these pigments? This isn’t always easy to discover, and in many places, it’s an on-going effort.
3. Who lives at the site where I want to gather pigments? How will my gathering impact them? I look around for plant roots, insect nests, and mammal homes.
4. I gather half or less than half of what I find. It’s usually WAY less than half, because the deposits are much more than I would ever need, but sometimes there’s just a little bit of a particular color.
5. I thank the rock and the place and leave an offering of something that’s significant to me and won’t have a negative impact or draw attention to itself (for me it’s often some dried nettles I’ve gathered and prepared). I like doing this because while part of me has resisted leaving an offering because it felt like a forced act, I’ve come to actually get that embodied acts of thanks drive the message home to me better: it’s an exchange, not a taking. A relationship, not a random score of material bounty. And relationship is what I want, the reason I do this.
Now here’s a my visual guide to making paint. Enjoy!
That’s it! Here’s my short form:
1. Don’t hoard — gather for a specific purpose.
2. Learn about the history of the land.
3. Be sensitive to the beings who live there.
4. Gather less than half.
5. Give thanks.