Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Making Paints with Natural Materials

This article was published in SchoolArts Magazine some time ago, but I am reposting it because it could be useful for students working at home during our quaranteaching time.

Earth Art through the Ages
by Leah Fanning Mebane

I get so excited when preparing this activity because there are so many varied points of interest that capture the fascination of all ages of children. You can focus on one project or delve into many areas, including making your own Earth-based art supplies, re-creating pre-historic cave paintings (and the fascinating stories behind them), saving the Earth with eco-friendly art, the ancient history of Earth-based art, Aboriginal art, and more.

The Inspiration
As a professional oil painter and art teacher, I had always painted in the techniques I was taught in art school, with heavy-metal-laden paints full of toxins and an off-gassing jar of mineral spirits near by. After 15 years of painting like this I was offered the opportunity to create 25 large scale paintings for a one-woman show in 9 months. The show would open one week before the due date of my first child. It hit me that I would need to paint every day throughout my entire pregnancy. This propelled me to once and for all get rid of all toxins in my studio. 
I dove into extensive research on the ancient techniques of painting that are completely non-toxic, natural and to my surprise, the highest quality paints in the world. I studied the cave paintings all the way to the Old Masters of the Renaissance and realized they were all using the same earth-friendly paints!

The Reason
Using natural earth pigments (which are the most archival and radiant pigments available), mixed with a natural binder such as oil, eggs or milk, allows anyone to create their own high quality, natural and beautiful paints. A general assumption is that earth pigments only come in different shades of brown. They actually come in a huge rainbow of hues – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, white, gold and more. 
These paints can be made by children ages 3 and up and I’ve always relished that spark in their eyes as they exclaim, “We’re making paint from dirt!” Most people don’t realize how simple paint is – simply pigment mixed with a “binder” – and how satisfying it is to make it from scratch instead of the disconnect of squirting some neon paint out of a bottle.

The History
Starting at least 100,000 years ago, ancient people from all over the world, including Egyptians, Native Americans, ancient Buddhists, Medieval monks, and Renaissance masters used earthen pigments to make their paints. Humans on almost every continent ground up earthen clays and minerals and mixed them with a binder such as honey, blood, tree sap, grease, eggs or oil. 
About 100 years ago, this tradition almost disappeared with the introduction of synthetic pigments and petroleum-based paints. In addition, with the invention of ready-made tubed and bottled paints, toxic preservatives were added to paints. The most common preservative today for “non-toxic” children’s paints is surprisingly formaldehyde. I’m on a mission to bring back this ancient and eco-friendly practice of making your own high quality and sustainable paint.
Here are several simple DIY natural paint recipes….

Natural Milk Paint
Natural Earth Pigment (purchased online or harvested from nature and ground to a fine powder)
Milk powder

1.    Mix 1 part pigment : 1 part milk powder (with whisk or slotted spoon)
-Mix slowly to avoid dust being created in the air
2.    Add 1 part water : 1 part powder mixture
-Adjust amount of powder and water to desired thickness
-For more watercolor effects, add more water
3.   Mix what you’ll use in each session. If there is leftover mixed paint, store in the  refrigerator.

Natural Egg Tempera Paint
Tempera painting predates oil painting as a professional painting medium. It was used by medieval monks in their Illuminated Manuscripts and has been used throughout the centuries. It produces a crisp, luminous, water-soluble, and fast drying paint. 

egg yolk
Natural Earth Pigments (purchased online or harvested from nature and ground to a fine powder) 
Optional- gold mica powder makes a beautiful gold paint

1  Separate the yolk from the white Break open an egg, separating the yolk from the white. Keeping the yolk whole, dry it by passing it back and forth in the palms of your hands with a paper towel.
2  Remove yolk from the sack:  Hold the yolk over a dish or jar with your thumb and forefinger, and pierce the sack to allow the contents to flow out. Discard the empty sac.
3  Mix with pigments:  Mix yolk with earth pigments in a bowl, and use water to thin the paint. Optional: A drop or two of Clove Oil can be added to slow spoilage if it will be stored. Tempera paint does not store well once mixed, so paint away!
More Ideas for Nature-Based Activities

Aboriginal Art: Paint flat rocks with Earth Paint – copy Aboriginal patterns and incorporate a lesson about their history and annual sacred pilgrimages to collect natural pigments.

Cave Paintings: Re-create the famous pre-historic paintings of hand prints, animals and symbols with Earth Paints (incorporate lesson behind the mysterious meanings of these paintings).

Make your own natural paint brushes (and nature walk):
Soft plant stalk like yucca (pictured here), iris, cattail stem, mullein, etc.

Note: Carefully plan this nature walk to include areas with access to interesting potential paintbrush material. As you start your walk together, explain that pre-made paintbrushes have been around for a few hundred years, while our ancestors have been painting for over 100,000 thousand years with nature-found brushes. See if children naturally gravitate to use the cattails, grasses, or mullein that they see.
1. Break or cut plant stalks into pieces about 4 - 8” long. Yucca is my favorite!
2. Try breaking up the fibers at one end of the stalk by mashing it with a rock or chewing on it. Try to separate the fibers into a brush-like end. I like to use my thumb fingernail to scrap the green coating away.
3. Encourage children to get creative and find other nature objects to paint with– examples: attach pine needles to end of a thin stick, use one single plant fiber or pine needle for details, use large seed pods or nut shells for stamping, etc. 

Nature Prints:
fresh leaves (maple are my favorite), Earth Paint, newspaper
1. Paint one side of leaves, lay face down on paper.
2. Place sheet of newspaper on top and rub with your hands.
            3. Lift up newspaper & leaves.
4. Make wrapping paper, greeting cards, book covers, decorative bags or a banner.

Leah Fanning Mebane is the owner of Natural Earth Paint (, a professional artist ( and mom of 5 year-old, Django. She lives in Southern Oregon, and enjoys harvesting earth pigments in the wild and making natural paint for the world! Her business, Natural Earth Paint, makes and sells earth and mineral pigments and natural art supplies for children through fine artists.

Leah Fanning Mebane, 541-890-6533


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