Making Paint out of Dirt

I like to make my own pigments, using soils that I collect in various places. I have several lovely shades of ochres and reds from Molokai, as well as soft lavendar-grays– and beautiful rich reds and orange colors from my own local mountains.  The first thing one needs is to find a vein of clay.  I have found it in the roots of fallen trees, in cliff-sides, near watercourses, at the beach. When I go hiking and camping,  I look for the streaks of color as I walk along, and often collect potential pigments for my palette.

 This small trickle of water coming out of a hillside in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina yielded a lot of  very nice high quality red clay (which proved to be a wonderful color for the robes of Our Lady in my icons).

Collect a small amount, a few “lumps” to put in a baggie or small jar. Try to get as pure a sample of clay as you can, without a lot of organic matter in it.  I picked these clay pieces below from a roadside drainage ditch in the forest.  Let’s see how they pan out as pigments:

pigment steps 001

Put the lumps in a glass jar. I used a small baby food jar here.  Cover the clay pieces with water.  Let them soak for as long as it takes for them to dissolve into a smooth paste.  Add more water if it dries out.  I often use a small knife to chop up the wet, softened clay, and speed up the dissolving.

Eventually the small but heavy clay particles will settle on the bottom in a smooth, separate layer.  The organic material will generally float to the top.  You might note that the color doesn’t necessarily remain consistent as you process your collected “dirt”.  The rocks as seen dry, in my hand, appear yellowish, but look a dark reddish brown once they are soaking in the water.

pigment steps 003

Carefully pour off the excess water, along with the bits and pieces of soil and twigs etc.

pigment steps 009

This is how you “wash” the pigments.  Add more water, and repeat this step again if you need to, until the water on top of the clay is clean and clear.

Then put more water in, stir briskly to disperse the particles in solution,

pigment steps 010

and pour the solution through some sort of mesh or sieve.  I use a piece of old panty hose for a mesh.  Allow it to drip through into a jar.

When the dripping stops, push the remainingclay gently through the screen/mesh.  The small fine clay particles slip through.  Grit, bits of soil, etc, will remain caught in the sieve and can be discarded.

pigment steps 014

You may have to do this several times.

Allow the pigments to dry out.  They will form a smooth little disk at the bottom of the jar.  Take a small piece out, add some drops of water and use a mortar&pestle to grind thoroughly.

pigment 003

After the pigments are ground to a fine powder–and do take the time to grind well– you can make them into paint by mixing with a “binder”.  Mix with gum arabic for watercolor paints, linseed oils for oil paint, acrylic medium for acrylics, or egg yolk for egg tempera.  Some people use milk proteins, or other binders for their own special materials.  Each pigment will react to each kind of binder uniquely, so you need to experiment some to find the proper balance of powder to binder.  Mix up as much as you need at the time.  Dry powdered pigments can be stored in jars and they last for decades.

Experiment with the new pigment, mixing it with white, with the binder, with other colors, to see how it behaves.  Sometimes it will be a beautiful color, other times it will not be suitable for use at all.  The uncertainty keeps it interesting!  This particular pigment became a cool shade of burnt sienna, with faintly lavendar undertones when mixed with white.  It is grainy, and needs a lot more grinding to smooth it out.  I used egg for the binder to make it into tempera paint.

It is really easy to make paint from clays.  It is also possible to make pigments by grinding up colorful mineral rocks, breaking them into little pieces with a hammer, and pulverizing them. Then you can mix them with the binder of your choice.

Warning:  the various colors of clays and rocks are caused by different minerals and substances, and some of which are toxic.  Be careful with them.  Don’t eat while grinding pigments or painting.  Wash hands thoroughly, and  never “point” the tip of your paintbrush with your mouth.

As I mentioned above, I have collected many different clays from the island of Molokai, Hawaii.  My intent is to use them to make an icon of St. Damien of Molokai, using colors taken directly from the place where he lived, worked, died, and is buried.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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11 Responses to Making Paint out of Dirt

  1. Greg Ward says:

    I had absolutely no idea this process was so painstaking and detailed! Your dedication is awe-inspiring!

    • reinkat says:

      Well . . . mostly I just buy the pigments at the store like normal people. But I do find it kind of fun to experiment and fuss a bit and make paint out of materials that I can collect myself. It really isn’t all that difficult, for example, the soaking part: I just fill the jar with water and go off to work, and the settling of the sediments is all finished when I get home. But thank you for the kind words, much appreciated.

  2. Biltrix says:

    Amazing! Great post. Georgia red clay (it’s better than Carolina clay) used to be very common place for me. I grew up playing in it. As a landscaper — many moons ago — I used to come home from work caked in it every day. After reading this post, I will never look at it in the same way again. Now that I know what God really had in mind when he created dirt, it has transcendent meaning for me. Thanks!

  3. Marjorie says:

    Thank you so much for your post. I found it fascinating and now I want to try making paint too! I am just beginning to learn to make paper and I think it would be so fun to paint my handmade paper with my own paints. So cool!!

    • reinkat says:

      I think so, too! The palette is limited by region, but it gives your work a really personal touch to work with your own pigments as part of the art.

  4. I have been away from the computer, but, on viewing my emails I just had to read this post! Great job and thanks for the tips.

  5. Lovely Blog Kathy! Making your paints out of clay is inspiring and inviting. May your pilgrimage continue into the heart of Christ.

  6. lilyboat says:

    wow! This is fascinating! I didn’t know you could do such a thing with clay!!

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