by Kristen Pope
photography by Paulette Phlipot
From early cave paintings to ancient Egyptian art, humans have long embraced the use of colorful paints. In some cultures, certain colors were believed to have magical healing properties. Ancient painters sourced an amazing array of colors from plants and minerals. Today, modern artists can experiment with color by creating their own paint using common kitchen and backyard items.
Creating Nature Paint
Step 1: Gather the materials.
Have a natural materials scavenger hunt! Decide on colors and search for natural items in those shades. Be careful to gather only non-toxic plants and materials that won’t irritate the skin (use a field guide if you are unsure).
Step 2: Make the paint.
There are several ways to extract color from natural materials. But creativity and patience are key, as the process of extracting color can be unpredictable. For instance, berries collected from the same bush may produce very different colors—from a deep purple to a light pink or even a sky blue. Two common methods of extracting color from materials include applying heat and pulverizing.
Heating materials helps bring the color out. To do this, combine approximately a half of cup non-toxic natural material with 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for approximately half an hour. Be sure to keep a close watch, adding more as needed and stirring regularly. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain out the solids and use the colored water as a watercolor paint. Or, paint with the softened solids (try it out!).
Some materials can be crushed, ground, or pushed through a sieve to extract color. Experiment with crushing and grinding hard materials, such as whole spices, with a mortar and pestle. Run softer materials through a sieve. Some materials, berries included, can be crushed between your fingers. Drier materials must first be pulverized and then combined with a binding agent (see below) to create paint.
Adding a binding agent:
Binding agents help transform powdery source materials (dry soil, chalk, soot, or ground spices) into a spreadable paint. Historically, egg yolks were used. For this method, slowly mix a small quantity of well-beaten egg yolk with the powdery source material, stirring until it reaches the desired consistency. You can also use milk by applying a few drops to the powder in the same fashion.
Adjusting the shades:
Natural materials can provide an amazing array of colors. It is fun to experiment and see how many different colors can come from one material, whether it is a berry, a spice, or even a handful of dirt. Here are a few ideas that produce different shades of color.
- Add vinegar: Stir in a few drops for different shades.
- Mix and match: Some colors, like green and gray, are difficult to extract from natural materials. To make these shades, gradually mix two colors (such as yellow and blue to create green) until the desired hue is reached.
- Layer: For richer and deeper colors, consider applying several layers of nature paint.
Step 3: Create!
Brushes and applicators:
Experiment with different types of applicators, including fingers, paintbrushes, straw, grass, leaves, and flowers. Make patterns with cotton balls and swabs.
Try painting on different types of canvases, including paper, finely grained sandpaper, and muslin or other fabrics. Try painting on rocks, sticks, and other items. Notice the color differences between the mediums.
Accent your painting with other natural objects, including leaves, straw, grass, pine cones, pine needles, bark, flowers, feathers, seeds, nuts, and berries. Use tacky glue to attach.
Natural materials (see below)
Small bowls or containers for mixing
Mortar and pestle (optional)
Canvas materials: paper, muslin, light fabric, etc.
Applicators: paintbrushes, cotton swabs, cotton balls, sticks, etc.
Egg yolk or milk
Old towels or paper towels
Newspaper or table covering
- Purple/pink/red/lilac/blue – Berries (including blackberries, strawberries, huckleberries, chokecherries, elderberries, raspberries), beetroot
- Brown – Soil (collect soils from different areas for a wider range of colors)
- Red/orange – Paprika, chili powder
- Black – Soot, charcoal
- Gray – Wood fire ash, charcoal and chalk mixture
- White – Chalk, talcum powder
- Yellow – Turmeric, onion skins, dandelion heads
- Green – Grass, leaves
Additional Nature Art Project:
Instructions: Arrange natural materials on canvas to create an image or pattern and affix with tacky glue. For more art projects, visit tetonfamilymagazine.com.
- Always supervise children.
- Do not eat the materials.
- Wear old clothes (some items will stain).
- Perform all activities outside or cover surfaces indoors.
- Make towels available for messy cleanup.