Painting with Earth Pigments
“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”
- Linda Hogan, Chickasaw poet and environmentalist
At its simplest, I paint with earth pigments and water. Earth pigments are natural colors derived from minerals in the earth that have been used to create paint for hundreds of thousands of years. In southern Louisiana, I gather earth pigments from handfuls of rocks, bricks, soil, and clay. These are ground and processed to create fine powders and then mixed with a binder to create paint.
Although earth pigments feel novel to some people, they are part of how humans have always created art. If anything, the invention of plastic-based paint is novel as it is a relatively recent invention from the 1930s (less than 100 years old!). The contemporary resurgence of painting with earth pigments is perhaps a reaction to the imbalance of the plastic era. Today's intentional choice to use earth pigments, despite the myriad paints available, is often rooted in concern about, and regard for, the earth.
Why Make Paint with Earth Pigments
There are many reasons to paint with earth pigments. For me, using earth pigments requires me to think intentionally and forces me to move beyond transactional ways of thinking about materials. To be clear though, I'm not a purist in my practice and I carry no judgement for others' material use. This is a process that resonates with me and that I enjoy, but it's far from the only way to go about things. Here are some of the reasons why I choose to use earth pigments in my practice:
Using earth pigments helps me connect to my environment. It opens me up and sharpens my ability to pay attention to the earth. In turn, this makes me feel more responsible for it. This reciprocity is the basis of any good relationship and is one of the greatest lessons earth pigments can teach us.
Earth pigments carry history and can at once connect us to everything that came before us. It's important to ask: Where is the soil from? How has it been treated? Who has claimed it? What does it represent and to who? The earth can tell us so many stories if we slow ourselves down enough to listen. She can answer today’s big questions with through-lines to the past, because she’s been through it all.
One of the pigments I’ve made into paint is this beautiful, crimson clay that I extracted from an old brick fragment. Tracing the history of that brick yard, I learned that the red clay became a brick through prison labor which then became a school that was one of the first to desegregate but is now left blighted and crumbling in an under-funded neighborhood in New Orleans that is also a food desert, lined by a river too polluted to touch. That history is connected, and the land holds the memory of all of it, I think.
Using earth pigments creates zero waste! I store my pigments and paints in recycled containers. Because they're so precious to me (and take me so long to make), I rarely waste a drop of paint. Any pigment leftover on my brushes is rinsed away with water without introducing plastic or chemical-based paint into our water system.
As an added benefit, earth pigments are also non-toxic. This is an added benefit for me as an artist-mother. It’s simply easier to have my young children around natural materials.
Whatever reason people decide to work with earth pigments, one thing is indisputable: The colors are absolutely gorgeous. From quiet peach to startling bluish black, the earth provides us with a breathtaking palette that is naturally harmonious. Using earth pigments allows artists to honor that with organic colors and flowing compositions.
A Note on the Honorable Harvest
Painting with earth pigments calls on artists to work with intentionality from the very start of the process. When I forage materials, I try to adhere to the principles of the Honorable Harvest as described by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer is an indigenous scholar, and she advocates for using ancient models to forge new pathways to sustainability, including viewing the earth as kin rather than just a resource. The Honorable Harvest can be applied to using earth pigments, but is more broadly an ethical guideline for existing on earth in a way that honors and sustains all life. Some of the key points are:
Never take the first of something that you see. Never take the last.
Ask permission before taking, and listen to the answer.
Take only what you need, and use everything that you take.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Be grateful and share the gift, as the Earth has shared with you.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
I see my roles as artist and citizen of a capitalist republic as inextricably bound. With the honorable harvest as a guide, I explore the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, as well as possibilities for a new way forward.
How to Make Paint with Earth Pigments
Making paint with earth pigments is an intentional and fulfilling process. I follow these five steps to create the materials for my paintings.
Step 1: Forage responsibly.
Following the principles of the Honorable Harvest, I forage materials from the environments I’m exploring. I collect rocks, minerals, or soil one handful at a time (or less) during walks in nature or in my own backyard. Sometimes, though, I find earth pigments in unexpected places, including construction debris on the roadside or most recently via donations from a soil scientist. Researching and sharing the history of the land is one part of this responsibility.
Step 2: Clean the earth.
I clean any organic matter or unwanted particles from the materials. Then I allow them to dry thoroughly.
Step 3: Grind + Sift
I process the materials into smaller pieces. Large pieces may require a hammer (and eye protection!) for this step. Depending on the material, I may sift through ground pieces to remove anything that will not be used in the final product. For example, I may use some sections of striated rock for paint but return others to the earth. I then further grind the materials in a mortar and pestle, turning them into a fine powder. Always use a dust mask for this step.
Step 4: Levigate
Once the pigments are powdered, I separate the finest particles using the process of levigation. After shaken with a small amount of water, the course pigments settle while the fine pigments are suspended in the water. I then separate and pour each layer out, laying them out to dry completely. Both layers can be used to make paint, but the highest-quality paint will come from the fine particles that were suspended.
Step 5: Mull
Finally, I mix the pigment with a binder to make my paint. A binder is a medium that adheres the pigment together and to a surface. You can use linseed oil, egg tempera, or gum Arabic to create watercolor paints. Mix the pigment and binder together using a process called mulling, which means suspending pigments in a medium. For this step, I use a glass surface, glass muller with a flat bottom, and a palette knife.
Ways to Keep Learning
Earth Pigment workshops are in the works for Spring 2022! This is a great learning experience for those who would like to explore earth pigments more deeply and practice making your own paint. Add your name to the waitlist and receive more information when this opportunity is available.
Read more about the honorable harvest and other lessons we can learn from the earth in Dr. Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass.
Explore artistic ways of using natural materials in Nick Neddo's book The Organic Artist.
Follow along behind the scenes in my studio on Instagram @heatherbirdharris.
Published March 2022. Photography by Jason Kruppa (@kruppaphoto) and Heather Bird Harris.