For thousands of years, artists around the world have used the earth as part of their creative exploration. Since the first humans, people have used crushed plants, rocks and minerals to leave written and visual messages, dye materials and even decorate their own bodies.
There may be other options out there these days, but natural pigments can still be used to create paints and dyes that directly tie your art to our precious planet.
What Are Natural Pigments?
There’s many different sources of natural pigments in the world but they typically come from one of two sources: the earth and plants. When crushed, these materials become a fine powder.
The colors found in natural pigments are as varied as the world itself. A meadow full of wildflowers isn’t all one shade. Even grass is actually several hues of green when you take a closer look.
The earliest recorded use of natural earth pigments dates all the way back to when humans lived in caves. Until synthetic oil paints became a more popular choice for artists in the early 1800’s, natural paint pigments were a standard part of any painter’s supplies. In recent years, artists have found their way back to these organic tools in an effort to be more environmentally-friendly with their work.
Clay and Mud
All earth pigments are made of three elements: a mineral (where the color comes from), a secondary coloring agent and a color carrier such as clay.
Because of its flexible composition, clay is ideal for combining with minerals of all shades and colors to create the effect you’re looking for.
Sedimentary rocks like sandstone and shale are some of the easiest to grind into a powder, so are often a good place to start. If you’re after unique colors, working with harder rocks can be worth the extra processing time.
Charring wood under extreme heat forms charcoal, a type of carbon graphite with a deep black hue. Once ground, charcoal can be added to other earth pigments to darken the color, or used alone as a black or gray.
Examples and Colors in Earth Pigments
Ochres are a type of clay earth pigment and come in a wide variety of colors. Bright red, brown, orange and yellow are usually made from this highly oxidized clay and many examples of Aboriginal, Native American and First Nations art use ochres as their base.
Marine clays form through deposits of sediments and minerals in oceans, rivers and lakes. When you’re looking for green or blue pigments in nature, this is the material you should be looking for, thanks to increased levels of copper in these environments.
Take “ultramarine,” for example. This shade comes from the lapis lazuli stone, which was originally found in the limestone of river basins.
Make Art with All the Colors of the Earth
Alchemy of Color: Turning Dirt & Rocks into Earth Pigment Palettes
Where to Find Earth Pigments
You can turn dirt, rocks and other elements found right beneath your feet into earth pigment palettes. High temperatures and low humidity increase levels of oxidation in the soil, which produces the bright red color you might have seen in outback or desert landscapes.
Dig deeper and you’ll find a range of darker brown tones. After thousands of years of compression, the soil has lost its vibrancy without sunlight and oxygen.
Blue and gray earth can still be found hundreds of miles from current shorelines, highlighting where rivers once ran or oceans ended. You never know what you’ll find with inland exploring, all without having to get your feet wet!
Make Earth Pigments Yourself
Once you’ve found the clay, soil or rocks you want to make your natural pigment powder with, it’s time to get to work.
- Break your materials into smaller pieces using a pestle and mortar, grinding until the sediment is a fine powder.
- Sift your powder through a sieve with the smallest holes you can find. Any leftover pieces should be ground and sieved again.
- Store your powder in a glass jar, ready to use for your next creative project.
While rocks and soil give you rich and earthy tones, natural pigments from plants and flowers can often fill in the gaps when it comes to brighter and more varied color options.
Some of the most vibrant colors in nature can be found right outside your front door. Particularly during the spring and early summer, floral dyes can offer you a smorgasbord of colorful choices.
Think of nuts like plant-created rocks. They’re typically the hardest materials of the plant world, which makes them well-suited for grinding into a powder than some of the other sources you might be using.
Fruits and Vegetables
We’re often told to “eat the rainbow” to get all the good nutrients out of fruit and vegetables. But you can also use that rainbow to liven up your natural pigment supply.
Examples and Colors in Plant Pigments
Think of any color and you can find it somewhere in the plant world. And it all comes down to the season you’re searching in.
Wait until the fall for deep oranges, browns and yellows as the leaves begin to turn. Head back out in the spring and you’ll find bright pinks, blues and purples.
Colors like indigo (the color of denim jeans) have historically been made using a natural dye extracted from plants. The word indigo actually comes from the Latin name of the plant, Indigofera tinctoria.
Where to Find Natural Plant Pigments
The first place to start with collecting your plants can be as simple as getting outside into your own backyard. Try to avoid tearing out any flowers at their root. Instead, grab your gardening shears, and cut clippings from the bigger plant.
Pulling leaves and branches from a tree can damage it. Instead, look for leaves and branches that have fallen naturally. But be sure to choose materials that haven’t had time to dry out yet.
If you’re not able to frolic through a wild meadow, you can still make your own plant pigments.
Head out to your local grocery store and pick up a bunch of flowers with a few different colors to choose from, or take a wander through the produce aisles to see what catches your eye.
Make Plant Pigments
Much like you would with earth-based materials, plants and flowers can be ground and sifted into a fine powder to be used as natural pigments. Boiling or pressing are alternative methods for extracting the color you’re after. From there, you can add a carrier and binding agent to create ink or dye.
For especially runny sources like tomatoes or berries, adding a binder like shellac or gum arabic during the extraction process will keep everything together.
How to Use Natural Pigments
Once you’ve created the pigments, you’re ready to use them in your creative work.
While natural paints are incredibly common, using your new pigments for ink-based work is an alternative way to express your creativity. Ground coffee and tea are ideal for making brown inks, while boiled onion skins produce a rich gold to produce decorative plant-based ink for calligraphy.
Natural pigments in their powdered form can’t be used as fabric dyes. By adding water, you can quickly create the soluble material you need. For example, boiling and blending beets, then straining the flesh to leave only the liquid behind, is perfect for making a bright pink dye.
Looking to stain some wood? Pull out your natural earth pigments, add some water, and get brushing. If you’d prefer to work with a thicker concoction, gently boil the pigment down with water until it becomes a paste.
Use a cotton cloth to rub the stain paste into your wooden surface. Leave the wood to dry for a few days before adding a sealer to lock in the color.
Clean beauty may be on the rise, but natural pigments have been used in cosmetics since the Middle Ages. Flowers and algae have historically been ground into powders to make eyeshadow, lip tints and blush, while saffron and cumin seeds were used to lighten hair in the days before boxed dyes.
Grow Your Creativity with Natural Materials
Making natural pigments takes time. You’ll do a lot of wandering, gathering, elbow-grease and mixing before you get the hues just right.
But when your creativity has been sparked, look at the wild world around you for inspiration and resources to celebrate just how diverse and beautiful our planet is.
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