I’d like to begin collecting and using natural materials in my art practice. A major theme in my work is humankind’s interconnectedness with nature, and while I am expressing this theme through imagery and technique, it would be even more powerful if expressed through medium as well. Using materials that I make myself from plant or earth matter would be a way to mark place and time on my work, and to further connect my work with human history, natural cycles, and absolute reality.
I had a hard time finding any information online about making natural art materials, and there were no classes on the topic in my area that I could find, so I thought that a series of blog posts about my foray into this topic might be beneficial to others looking for this sort of information. To get myself started, I checked out a handful of books, which I have reviewed below:
The Natural Paint Book: A Complete Guide to Natural Paints, Recipes, and Finishes
The focus of The Natural Paint Book by Lynn Edwards is on paints and finishes for your home – walls, floors, and furniture. I didn’t realize that when I got the book, and while it’s not exactly what I was looking for, it is useful for basic recipes that can be used in art-making as well as in the home. These recipes include homemade wood stains, glazes, watercolors, egg tempera, and gesso, among others.
The book also has good explanations of the ingredients that make up each medium – pigment, oils and waxes, solvents, and binders. The purpose of each ingredient is discussed, as is safety and precautions that need to be taken when handling these ingredients in the home. I also found the section on the history of paint to be informative and interesting.
The thing that was really missing for me was more detail on pigments. The book talks about earth and mineral pigments vs. plant and insect colors, but does not go into any detail at all about how to collect and process pigments – which is what I am most interested in.
There are also sections in the book about decorative techniques, design suggestions, and one chapter called “The Home as a Personal Sanctuary” that goes into feng shui and color therapy. There are some intriguing ideas for stenciling, stippling, and other techniques, but nothing very useful for my purposes.
Although it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, this book did pique my interest – I had never thought about the possibility of making my own paints and finishes to use in the home. I am particularly interested in the idea that you can make your own floor and furniture wax, as well as the fact that you can stain wood with tea, vinegar, and even steel wool. Why buy all these specialized products when it’s so easy to use common household products to make it yourself? I am curious to try some of these. Thinking about it now, I do have a side table that needs to be refinished. Maybe there’s my chance!
Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes
When I found Wild Color by Jenny Dean, I knew it was about making dyes rather than paints, but I thought there might be some crossover, and maybe information on what plants I could gather that I could then use with the paint recipes from The Natural Paint Book. I also thought I could experiment with using dyes in my artwork – I already work on raw canvas, which could be dyed or I could use the dye as paint.
There is an extensive section on plants used for dye in this book. Each page describes the plant, which part(s) can be used to make dye, where and when it is found, how to cultivate and harvest it, and the dyeing procedure. There are also color swatches that demonstrate the color you can get from different dyeing methods and different parts of each plant. I would have found it helpful if the plants were organized by country, or at least by continent. The plants in this book are found all over the world. There are several that are native to North America, and some that could be bought at a supermarket or grown in a garden.
The rest of the book is very informative, as well. There is a section that goes into the history of dyes, and a section on dyeing techniques, with information on how dyes react on different fibers (such as silk, cotton, flax, etc.), how to prepare fibers before dyeing them, different mordanting methods, preparing your plant parts for dyeing, and much more.
For someone who has never made their own dyes before but wants to start, this book would be a great resource. This could be a way for me to add color to my work, though it may not be possible in my small apartment (it is not recommended to do this in the kitchen, as some plant parts are toxic). It would also require me to buy large buckets and pots to use exclusively for dyeing, which I don’t have the storage space for. I am definitely interested in trying to make dyes, but I may have to wait until I have a larger space.
Earthen Pigments: Hand-Gathering & Using Natural Colors in Art
Now this is more what I was looking for. Earthen Pigments by Sandy Webster was the most useful book I found up to this point. Unlike the previous two books, this one’s focus is on materials for art-making, and it does provide information on finding and processing pigments.
This book is all about making art mediums from earth and mineral sources (as opposed to plant sources). There are photographs and descriptions of places where Webster has found pigment sources, and she explains how to find them in your local area. Webster clearly explains how to gather, process, and store the pigments in a way that is specifically directed at artists. From this book I learned about one technique for recording pigments found in nature that I never would have thought of – the Japanese art of making shifu threads! I definitely want to try this.
There are detailed recipes for a variety of art mediums, including watercolor, gouache, egg tempura, wax crayons, chalk pastels, printmaking ink, and others. They all seem very doable for any artist. I found it fascinating that I could create my own wax crayons and pastels! I really want to try this.
Webster also includes personal stories and examples of how she uses her earth pigments to record time and place in her work. Her own illustrations of the supplies and processes for making the mediums are peppered throughout the book. I found this to be a really sweet, personal book; it is inspiring to get this information from a fellow artist. There are recipes in this book I can’t wait to try for myself. This will be a very useful book for me.
The Organic Artist: Make Your Own Paint, Paper, Pigments, Prints, and More from Nature
The Organic Artist was written by Nick Neddo, who is interested not only in making (and in teaching how to make) his own art materials, but also in Stone Age technology and survivalist skills. In The Organic Artist, you will learn how to make not only materials such as paint, crayons, and paper, but also tools such as pens (a few different types of pens – quill, bamboo, felt-tip, and more), clay and bone inkwells and paintboxes, paintbrushes, brayers, and more.
The section most interesting to me was the one about making ink. Neddo explains how to make ink from a few different sources, such as coffee, berries, and acorns. Making ink seems simpler than making dye, so if I wanted to add colors to my work other than those found in stone and earthen matter, I could use ink. However, I don’t think Neddo’s methods would be possible for every artist. His method for making walnut and acorn inks involves letting a crock pot run outside for “several hours to several days”. After reading that, I did a quick search online and found other methods that require simmering materials on the stove for a few hours. So I don’t need a dedicated crock pot to make ink – that’s good!
The section on making paints acted as a good compliment to what I learned about making paints from Earthen Pigments. The Organic Artist goes into more detail about finding and selecting materials to obtain pigments. Neddo has a bit of a different paint-making method than Webster does, and I think it’s helpful to see both because (1) it shows that there is not just one right way, and (2) you can take what you like from each method and leave the rest, or try both and see what works for you.
I have never made paper before, and I like that this book includes a chapter on paper-making, not only the process of making the paper itself but also setting up your paper-making work area and making a simple mold. It seems very doable for many artists.
In general, a lot of the projects in this book may be a little out of reach for many artists. Most of us do not have access to animal matter to make our own hide glue and bone inkwells, or (for those of us in cities) an open area where we can have a fire going to make our own charcoal sticks and fire our own clay vessels. I, for one, can’t leave a crock pot running outside for three days. However, there is a lot of interesting information in this book (did you know you can make a simple paint using saliva as the binder? I’m kind of fascinated by that little tidbit). This book filled in some gaps left by the other three books, and opened my mind to going further with making my own art materials than I ever thought I would. I probably won’t be making my own charcoal or paint brushes any time soon – I have quite a lot of those already – but it’s intriguing to think that it’s possible. We’ve lost touch with so much of the knowledge of our ancestors, and making the tools that they would have made to make the very first artwork is really exciting to think about.
Before I looked at these four books, I had no knowledge whatsoever about how to make art materials from the natural world. These books really taught me a lot, and each is a great compliment to the others. The one book that probably wouldn’t be necessary for most artists is The Natural Paint Book. There are a couple of recipes in that book that would be interesting to try and could be used in art-making, namely: tea and vinegar stains. But most of the recipes are either found in the other books, or would not be used in making art.
I would like to experiment with using dyes in my paintings, and I think that Wild Color will be a great resource to dive deeper and really get a good understanding of how to make and use dyes. I identified a number of dyes in this book that seem relatively straightforward to make with plants widely available in the wild or the kitchen. This book seems to have all the information I need to get started.
If I were to choose the most useful books for someone just starting out making natural art materials, I would recommend The Organic Artist and Earthen Pigments. I feel that both are necessary, as they each have slightly different recipes and methods for making the same or similar art materials, so if one doesn’t seem to be working for you, you could try the other. Each book also has instructions for making certain materials that the other does not. Both books are easy to follow and contain relatively simple methods.
I am excited to get started in experimenting with making my own natural art materials, and I now have some very useful information to set me on the right path. I wish you well with your own experiments! Have you made your own art materials or tools before? Do you have any resources to add?
This post contains affiliate links, which help to supplement my income. Thank you for your support!