Workshop: Making Paint from Soil

Feel free to use this material and reproduce it for your own use.  However, if you do, please cite the source of the information if you do this, whether it is me as the primary author of the handout, or one of the source references that I cited in putting it together.  Let me know how your paint-making experiments turn out!

Handout for workshop held March 4-12, 2011
By Rhonda R. Janke

 Title:  How to make your own paint from local materials.

 Here I'm demonstrating how to make paint from soil.

Materials for making paint from soil and earth pigment.

Samples of paint.

Demonstrating the muller for making paint

Abstract and Introduction: 

I am interested in place-based art; one way to do that is to create works from local materials.  As a painter, I long to use soil and plant dye from my own garden, and have finally figured out how.  Water-based paint (water color and gouache) making will be demonstrated with both purchased and local pigment materials – or bring your own.  This handout will provide instructions for making your own oil paint, egg-tempera, and encaustic.  Resources for learning more about art material safety and other ways to apply pigment to surfaces are also discussed.  This is a hands-on workshop, and we’ll make paint from local (to Kansas) Osage orange wood, walnut hulls, and purchased indigo dye as well as several colors of soil.  Paint was mysterious and confusing to me until I did a lot of reading and experimenting.  The mystery has turned into empowerment, but hasn’t lost its magic!

My goals and intentions are; 1) to talk a little bit about paint and pigment safety, as it is in the news a lot now, and some facets are confusing, 2) to demonstrate and do a hands-on workshop so attendees will be empowered to make their own paint at home if they choose to do so, 3) provide enough background information that attendees can go beyond what was demonstrated, and perhaps do even more with pigments.  Making paint and using local materials will probably be a major part of my art practice from now on, since it fits with my value system of using non-toxic, local materials, and also fits with my aesthetics of knowing where things come from, and how they are made, in addition to just seeing how they look.


Why make your own paint?

            – Use your own materials

– Can use non-toxic materials/pigments

– A good way to learn more about your materials, have something in common with

historic painters and techniques, have some control over the process if you

understand it.

– Will be more economical if you need a lot of paint and can buy or find bulk pigments.

-Locality: an important environmental issue for those interested in reducing their

carbon footprint.

– Site-Specificity: for artists interested in working with the history and meaning of site.

–  Self-Sufficiency: for those inspired by the DIY (Do It Yourself) cultural emergence.


Why NOT make your own paint?

– Is not economical if you only need a little bit of each color

– Can take some time to make; quicker to buy them already made

– Also takes time to track down the raw materials, pigments, etc.

– The quality of machine ground pigments, mixing, etc. can be higher than home-made

(though less expensive paint may have diluted the raw pigment quite a bit with fillers)

– If you aren’t actually eating, drinking, breathing your paint or solvents or getting a lot

of paint on your skin, toxicity may not be an issue for you if normal precautions

are taken.


How to make paint at home (using your own materials, more or less)


Paint is nothing more than pigment (usually a dry powder) with a carrier, a binder (to make it stick together) and some sort of adhesive, to make it stick to your paper, wood or prepared canvas.

The simplest form is what we call pastels.  They can be made from pigment with either water added, or liquid gum tragacanth [a natural gum from the dried sap of thorny legumes such as Astragalus adscendens, A. gummifer and A. tragacanthus, originally from Persian and Turkistan mountains].  Mix to a dough-like consistency and then role out into sticks that can be dried and used.  In the case of pastels, the adhesive is simply the pigment sticking to the rough surface of the paper, and there is no carrier, as the dry pastel is nearly pure pigment.  If lighter colors are desired, the pure pigment is diluted with calcium carbonate or talc (ref.[10] suggests 2/3 to 1/3 ratio respectively).  The main health risk when using pastels is the possibility of inhaling the dust, especially if the pigment has any toxic properties.

An interesting invention called “myco-styx” were created by Mirium Rice.  She has written three books on mushrooms as pigment sources for dye and paint, and in her third (see ref. [5]) she describes making paint sticks using powdered mushroom pigment mixed with either white beeswax, slate powder/pencil clay, or a gelatinous mushroom; Pseudohydnum gelatinosum.

Pigments are generally derived from either earth/soil/rock, metals, plants, mushrooms, insects, shellfish or are created synthetically (most modern paints).  Some famous pigments are also burned or heated versions of earth, for example burnt umber.  Some, such as Egyptian Blue, are created by combining quartz, calcium carbonate, copper carbonate and soda ash and then heating to 900 to 100 degrees C.  Plant dyes are usually made into paint using an intermediate step called a “lake,” [from the French word lac] which is the dye precipitated onto a clay or other base such as aluminum hydroxide.

Pigments with toxic properties should probably be avoided in pastels and all of the other forms of paint too, especially pigments that contain mercury, chrome, cadmium, arsenic or lead.  This includes pigments such as white lead, Naples yellow, chrome yellow, emerald green, cobalt violet, vermillion, and cadmium red and yellow.  Pigments with copper, cobalt etc, would be moderately toxic if ingested, but are not known carcinogens or mutagens.  The safest materials are the “earth” colors, made from soil, which often obtain their characteristic color from some form of iron, magnesium or sulfur.  See the searchable database [ref 16] for more information.  Plant based pigments can be made from concentrated dyes, and are often, but not necessarily safe.  However, plant-based pigments are not very light-stable, with a few exceptions, so unless you choose to make your work ephemeral on purpose, read up on the plant-based pigment you want to use, or try it and subject it to a sun-fast test.  There are a lot of references out there on plant dyes which are not included in this handout, as that would be a whole workshop in itself!

The next simplest is water color paint. There are several water-based paints, but the simplest is a transparent mixture of pigment with gum Arabic, also called gum acacia [made from a leguminous tree found in the Sahel region of Africa; Acacia senegal and Acacia seyal].  In this case, the water is the carrier, and the gum accacia is the binder and the adhesive.  More elaborate mixtures can be created, which more closely resemble the recipe given for gouache below.

After water colors, gouache [from the Italian word Guazzo, which means water paint, splash or body color] is probably the simplest and most convenient to use.  Both can dry and be re-wetted as needed, but this also means that paintings must be thought out in advance, as one cannot add layers without re-wetting the layer below, which can lead to unexpected effects.  I found a recipe on an artist’s website [ref 9] and used it with satisfying results.  I could not find the materials locally (except the honey and glycerin) but all can be found on various websites.  The recipe I used matches up pretty well with the one presented by Mayer [refs 1 & 2].  I used oregano oil as a preservative, which works ok for all except my walnut hull paint, which wants to grow mold, so I keep my paint in a pill-box in the freezer when not in use.

Recipe for gouache:

Binder (for about 1 oz. of paint)

2 TBL gum arabic (acacia) powder

5 TBL distilled water

Mix in blender, or add powder to boiling water.  Strain if lumpy.

Mix in separate warm  bowl:

3 oz. honey and water (1:1)

3 oz glycerin [colorless viscous liquid used in paint, pharmaceuticals and food, C3H5(OH)3]

1 tsp oxgall [used as a wetting agent, yes, this is gall from an ox]

3 tsp dextrin powder [starch product derived from corn]

Mix two solutions together, and then add 1-2 drops clover or oregano oil as a preservative.  Keep in frig until mixing with pigment.


Start with 2-4 TBL dry pigment

1-2 TBLS binder

1 tsp calcium carbonate as filler to bulk up the paint (this is what makes gouache opaque)

Mixing can be done with a spatula, palette knife, muller and glass plate or mortar and pestle.  See Clemon’s fact sheet for more details on mixing and testing finished paint.

Somewhat related to water color and gouache, since they are also water-based paints are the casein and egg tempera paints.  I haven’t tried them yet, but according to Mayer, the casein paints can be made with pigment added to casein powder, which is simply a dried product made from the whey (liquid) after making cheese.  Sometimes ammonia is added to solubilize the casein, which would make the paint stink a bit.  Egg-based paint, also called tempera [related to the verb “to temper,” not referring to temporary] paint, is usually made from pigment mixed with just the egg yolk.  A disadvantage of both of these paints is that they need to be made fresh every day (or maybe put in the freezer like my gouache?).  An advantage is that once a layer of paint is dried, another layer can be applied without dissolving the first layer.  One could probably refine Mayer’s basic instructions by consulting “” [ref 12] or another website.

Making oil paint is done by simply blending raw pigment with suitable oil.  According to Mayer, there are dozens of types of oil, but only three have qualities required of oil paints; linseed [from flax seeds], poppy seed, and walnut.  I’m not an oil painter (yet), but am intrigued by the possibility of making my own oil out of walnuts for this purpose.  Turpentine [derived from pine trees] or other solvent is required as a thinner, but I don’t think I want to make my own turpentine!  The reason that only certain oils work for painting is because as the oil dries, it doesn’t simply evaporate, leaving raw pigment the way that water color does, but it slowly polymerizes, which seals in the pigment particles.  Some oils do this better than others.  This is why light reflects differently off of oil paintings too.  Casein and egg tempera paints also seal in their pigments through a similar, but different process.

A final way that home-made pigments can be used is through the technique of encaustic, which is a melted wax procedure.  Beeswax is mixed/melted with a small amount of dammar crystal (obtained from the Dipterocarpaceae family of trees in India and East Asia) and carnauba wax if you want to make it a little shiny (from the leaves of the palm Copernicia prunifera from Brazil)  To add color to the wax, a small amount of raw/dry pigment can be added, soil, clay, spices like turmeric, or pigment that is already made into oil paint.  I won’t go into the details of encaustic technique, but basically melted wax is applied to the surface, then re-melted with a propane torch, electric heat gun or electric light, then another layer is applied, etc. The re-melting step is required for each layer to adhere to the layer below.  I really like encaustic, even though it is a little hard to control, because the only thing I need to buy from off my farm is the dammar crystal and carnauba.  I can paint on scrap lumber, and incorporate all kinds of found objects, stones, soil, etc easily.

I won’t cover any other techniques, such as mural painting or fresco, which can also be made from scratch.  Many of the references (especially Mayer) cover this in enough detail to try it at home.



References: (starter list – there are many more out there)




[1]  The Artist’s Handbook of Materials & Techniques, by Ralph Mayer, 1957. Viking Press.

[2]  The Painter’s Craft, Ralph Mayer, Viking Press (3rd Ed. 1975)

[3]  The Craftsman’s Handbook, by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr.  1969 reprint of Dover Publications edition from 1954 (translated 1933).

[4] Revised and Expanded The Painter’s Handbook, by Mark David Gottesegen.2006.  Watson-Guptill Publications, New York.

[5]  Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments & Myco-StixTM by Miriam C. Rice. Mushrooms for Color Press, 2007.

[6]  Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color.  Phillip Ball. University of Chicago Press. 2001.

[7]  Color: A Natural History of the Palette.  By Victoria Finlay.  Random House Paperbacks.  2002.

[8]  Natural Dyes: Thickening Madder, Weld and Woad for Screen-Printing of Turkish Inspired Textile Prints. By Matt Kritis, M.S. Thesis, Kansas State University, 2010.


Fact Sheets and Web Resources:

[9]  Making Gouache Paint,” by David Clemons, posted Jan. 21, 2010.  Accessed Oct. 31, 2010.

[10]  Fact sheet “Making Professional Pastels” at

[11]  Fact sheet “Making your Own Water-Based Paint” and “Pigments from the Earth Parts I and II” at

[12]  WetCanvas     Note:  This website has some really useful stuff if you are willing to sort through the various user groups and threads, and a person could potentially get a specific question answered by posting it to the appropriate group.  Seemed like most of the discussions I read were helpful and polite.  The website seems to be linked to the Dick Blick website, who may have started it, or is at least a major sponsor.

Quote:  “was founded in 1998 in an effort to better leverage technology to assist visual artists in sharing information and making new contacts and friends. From its humble grass-roots beginnings, the site has grown into a valuable resource – a veritable gold mine of information, serving painters, sculptors, illustrators, and other artists. We currently deliver over 4 million web pages each month, to over 170,000 unique visitors!  Our online community is comprised of artists of all levels, ranging from Sunday painters to artists who exhibit in some of the finest galleries in the world. Whether your interests lie in learning new techniques, experimenting with alternative or cross-over mediums, gaining critiques from fellow artists, or getting the scoop on exciting new industry products, WC has something for you.”


Art Safety Resources


[13]  The Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc. (ACMI) Quote from their website: “Is an international association, composed of a diverse and involved membership, and is recognized as the leading authority on art and creative materials.  Founded in 1936, ACMI was organized to assist its members in providing the public with art and creative materials for children and artists that are non-toxic.  The Institute’s members are art and creative material manufacturers, and currently there are over 210 members.  Of the 60,000 art and creative material formulations evaluated to date, 100% of the children’s products and 85% of those meant for the adult artist are certified as non-toxic.  All products in the program undergo extensive toxicological evaluation and testing before they are granted the right to bear the ACMI certification seals.  [Note:  I checked out this website and it doesn’t seem to be well-used or up-to-date.  Not sure why.]

[14]  ARTnews (October 2010) was “A False Sense of Security” by Suzanne Muchnic (pp 90-93).   This article points out (as others have) that conventional art materials potentially contain a lot of toxic ingredients.  The new and interesting piece to me was that the law only requires a “toxic” label if the ingredients have actually been tested, and the vast majority of synthetic pigments haven’t even been tested!  A law passed in 1988 requires labeling ingredients that might have long term, as well as short term effects (like carcinogens or nerve toxins) but they state that only 900 of the over 100,000 chemicals used in commerce have been tested for cancer effects.  The law doesn’t prohibit manufacturer from labeling untested chemicals as nontoxic.  You can find this article at

[15]  It is self described as:“The Art Inspector is a third party certification agent that examines the environmental impact of art process and practice. Art Inspector works with interested agents such as curators, artists, collectors, and others in order to pre-qualify artists who pass a standard of environmental stewardship.”  Deanna Pindel posted this website on face-book, and Sharon Sisken also knows of them.  I was skeptical as to whether this website was serious or a spoof, and they said it is a bit of both, but at least draws attention to the issue of studio safety, which has long been ignored.


[16]  Health & Safety in the Arts – A searchable database of health and safety information for artists.

This is a great website and resource, with a lot of detailed information, charts, etc of 127 different pigments, several solvents, etc.  If you only have time to look at one website on this entire list, this one is the most helpful.

[17]   Safe Practices in the Arts & Crafts: A Studio Guide, by Gail Comingsby Barazani, published by the College Art Association, 1978

[18] Artist Beware, Updated and Revised: The Hazards in Working with All Art and Craft materials and the Precautions Every Artist and Crafts-person Should Take, by Michael McCann.  2005.  The Lyons Press.


Paint and Materials Sources


[19]  Dick Blick – was mentioned in the ARTnews article as making efforts to be “green” and publish safety data about their materials.  I did not find anything exemplary about their practices or materials beyond what is required by law, and their MSDS (material safety data sheets) were not very informative or helpful.  Some of their paints are labeled with ACMI safety rating, but many are not.


[20]  Daniel Smith – has dammar crystals and some other supplies, good selection of raw pigments.  They have a line of paint called “Primatek” that uses only “authentic mineral pigments” such as malachite, lapis lazuli, rhodenite, etc.  There are 38 colors in their water color selection and 11 made up as oil-based paint, and the prices don’t seem any more expensive than their synthetic colors.

[21]  (see quote below) claims to have natural paint products.  I checked out the website and it seems too good to be true.  Many of the vegetable products they claim to making their paint out of are not color-fast or light stable.  I know this from personal experience, and from having read a lot in the area of plant dyes.  This isn’t stated up front, nor are details of how they make their paint explained.  The tone of the website is that these are for craft use, so maybe if they are for kids, and not intended for art that needs to last more than a couple of weeks they would be ok.  I haven’t tried them, so if someone has, let me know. “Glob colors come from a variety of different fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices. GLOB Natural Blends combine organic botanical extracts, such as lemon verbena, pomegranate and basil with our natural pigments. A vast color source for GLOB’s blends comes from anthocyanins, which range from bright red to blue in hundreds of fruits and vegetables from grapes, elderberries, black currants, purple carrots, sweet potato, red radish and red cabbage. These pigments have been used to color food since historical times. In flowers, bright reds and purples are adaptive for attracting pollinators. Perhaps the most obvious color natural color comes from beets. Beetroot cells easily ‘leak’, which is why they leave a stain. Beets create a brilliant scarlet to purple color. GLOB also uses carotenoid (or beta-carotene) color pigments found in orange-red fruits and vegetables like oranges, tomatoes and carrots. Another orange source is the annatto seed, a natural herb that has been used for centuries by indigenous tribes and can be traced as far back as the ancient Mayans. Annatto seed’s deep orange color is used today in cosmetics and to color cheddar cheese! Other color sources include the sticky orange pulp of the gardenia fruit and chlorophyll, which is extracted from alfalfa to make a lovely green.”


[22]  They sell many natural pigments, and have some excellent on-line fact sheets on how to make water-based paint from soil and from soil-based pigments.  When you look at each of their pigment products on their website, they have several paragraphs with historical references, explanations of the chemistry of the pigment, the safety, how to use it to make oil or water-based paints, the chemical formulation/mineralogy, and a wealth of other information to help the consumer to know if the product is safe according to their own personal standards.  I was fascinated by their descriptions for things like “Egyptian blue,” and they all jived well with previous books I’ve read about the history of pigment.  They also sell mullers and many of the other supplies you will need to make paint from scratch.

[23]  A great website to find seeds and plants of medicinal herbs and dye plants.  If you can’t find it anywhere else, you’ll likely find it here along with helpful fact sheets on how to grow the plants, what they look like, etc.  In some cases they sell the dried herb product too.  Located in Canada, so occasionally they can’t ship an item into the U.S.

White beeswax – see   And for Yellow beeswax – raise your own bees!


Examples of Painters who create their own palettes/paints [there are probably more?]

Miriam Rice – mushrooms, see

Linda Fries – see examples at  She uses primarily soils from her local area.  Not sure if she makes water-based or oil-based paints out of them.  She also teaches workshops and has written articles about artist material safety.

Judi Pettite – primarily using plant-based palette. She gives workshops in the Bay area, for more info see  Both Judi and Linda’s work and occasional emails have been very inspirational and helpful to me in pursuing this path towards making my own paint.

Betty Hageman – uses some local materials in her work, including burying canvas (ack – I’m not the first?).  She artist recently had a show in PT (thanks Dawn for the info!).

Historical painters: (as seen in film)  Seraphine,  Martin Provost director, 2008

about the life and paintings of “Séraphine of Senlis”, who is shown making her own paint,  (1864–1942)


2 comments on “Workshop: Making Paint from Soil

  1. […] R. Janke provides a handout on creating paint from local materials, like soils. Interested in making her own paints, she […]

  2. very good article. when I was a kid we could not by artist paint so we painted with wet dirt, tar and juice from vegetables. today I still like to make my own paint with dirt as I like the thick texture and use it for a thick base coat or to thicken up the subject. I like using acrylic mediums mixed with the dirt rather oil products as it is less toxic and Oder free

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