I once had a kitchen window with an awful view: Dirt. That was all, just plain ol’ dirt. Nothing even growing in it. The little bay window made no sense to me at all. It was the backwoods equivalent of having a window that opened onto a brick wall.
It turned out to be the best view I ever had.
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I’d stand at the sink, looking out into the high vertical bank of bare earth. Over time, I began to notice veins of beautiful color winding through the reddish orange clay of Cullowhee, NC. I thought, I just have to paint with that.
The idea simmered in the back of my mind for a while. I’d recently graduated from nearby Western Carolina University with an English degree, so launching into a wild tangent didn’t make much sense at the time, but eventually I gave in to my curiosity and started working with EarthPaint, which has become my life’s work.
Before I go into detail about the process of making EarthPaint, I want to share the best thing this project has taught me about art. When I started out, I scoured the internet for anyone who could show me how to do this. Aside from a few scholarly articles about paleolithic (cave) art, and a guy who was dyeing shirts by rubbing them in the mud, no one was trying to do exactly what I was.
So I made it up as I went along. And what I learned is, when there is no one to tell you how to do something, no one can say you’re doing it wrong. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Since I was trying to paint with dirt, everything I thought I knew about art quickly evaporated. I’ve developed more complex and precise techniques over time, but when I started out it was such a crude and uncooperative medium that I had to give myself permission to take chances and fail miserably.
Once I had released some of my more tyrannical expectations, I experienced a level of creativity I had never known before. I learned not to take myself so seriously, and get out of my own way. The creativity that had always been there finally had room to stretch out, get some sunlight, and GROW.
If nothing else, I hope what you take from this is: don’t be afraid to take chances, stretch limits, and approach your art – whatever form it takes—with the same joy and curiosity as when you were a child, blissfully unaware you knew nothing at all. This may be a guide, but it’s not a rulebook.
So break the rules. Make your own!
Ok, now let’s get to the EarthPaint. I hope this inspires you to try something new!
Where to find pigments in nature
It’s time to lace up your hiking boots—hope you don’t mind getting a little muddy! You’ll want a few items, depending on where you go: a satchel with several plastic zipper bags, a small trowel or spoon. You can find small plastic zipper baggies in any department store with a craft section, usually with beads and jewelry. A walking stick can be useful for clearing away dirt and leaves, but you can usually find a good stick in the field. That’s really all you need.
Oh, and a lightweight waterproof windbreaker: the best time to collect samples is in the middle of a damp, grey day. Rocks have a deeper color when wet; when dry, a dusty surface obscures the colors beneath. A little rain washes away the dust and exposes more of the rockbed.
A good place to start looking is in an area with a little erosion: washouts, ruts, etc. Excavated areas are nice too—I once found a lovely sparkly green next to a highway outside of Waynesville, NC. Bear in mind that construction sites can be hazardous, and if you are planning to be on private property get permission first.
Don’t do anything dumb like hang out over a cliff to reach some shimmery cream-colored sand. (Just because I may have done something like that, doesn’t mean you should).
I once pulled my car over in Franklin, NC and pranced into a muddy field – wearing a dress and high heels, of course—to scoop some lovely mauve dirt into an old fast food bag with minimal burger grease on it. (That was before I started keeping little baggies in the car).
Go at a leisurely pace. If you’re on a trail you’ll want to stray from it a little, but for the most part you can always collect any samples you missed on the way back. Scan the surface and stop to inspect if anything catches your eye. Try not to get holed up in one spot unless you find a good one.Even then, we’re not strip mining, so you really don’t need to dig much past the surface.
You’ll have better luck in areas where a lower layer of earth is naturally exposed. If it’s an earthy patch of one color, or a clump of small crumbly rocks you can scoop them into plastic bags to keep the samples separate. Otherwise, you can keep all the individual pebbles and rocks together.
If you’re like me, you may feel most alive when your pockets are bursting with wet, muddy rocks.
Depending on your location, you may even be able to collect a basic color palette. I’m fortunate to live in an area of the Appalachian Mountains that is especially mineral rich—there are gem mines everywhere and an abundance and variety of minerals and gemstones that is world famous among gem enthusiasts. We have rubies, sapphires, amethyst, garnets, quartz, and many, many others.
In my very first location in Cullowhee, North Carolina I found ochres in red, yellow and orange (one sample was almost crimson), a chalky bluish-grey, off-white, earthy browns, and several different forms of mica: the kind that flakes apart in transparent silvery sheets, soft rocks of mica schist that crumble into natural glitter, and a fine mica sand that looks like gold dust.
For a good, dependable black, a fire pit usually has chunks of natural charcoal that work very well. Finished artwork can be made from a limited palette such as this as long as you have a range of dark to light tones. After all, subtle colors can be enhanced through contrast.
Once you’ve returned to the studio with your treasures, it’s best to sort them into basic color families. For especially muddy finds, you’ll want to use an old colander or strainer and a hose before bringing them inside. If you do your hunting near a stream you can do this in the field.
If you open your sack to find the stones have dried, before you start to think you just grabbed a bunch of ugly grey rocks, remember: they look totally different when dry. Some rock hounds will actually lick rocks to reveal their true colors. I don’t recommend that, however. It’s not an ice cream cone!
I fill a spray bottle with water and hold the stones in a cloth rag to wet them and gently clean the surface. A toothbrush also works well. While the rocks are wet they will be easier to sort by color. I like to store them in mason jars, setting aside the brightest ones to work on first. For this stage I like to use upcycled portion cups left over from food packaging: yogurt and applesauce cups, plastic dishes from TV dinners, etc. It works best if they can stack into one another. Glossy cardstock works well to funnel the processed material into small containers. (Finally, a good use for packaging, junk mail, and all those wasteful political mailers!!)
Other places to find natural pigments
I supplement the colors I find locally with trips to a number of rock shops in the area. There are also many gem mines here that are open to the public, where you can sift through a bucket for treasures. Some are a little touristy so a some research is advised. At a “salted” mine there will be stones seeded in each bucket: you’re likely to find some nice stones, but they will not all be from that particular mine or native to the region.
I look for opaque stones with strong, consistent color. Translucent minerals will have pale color when processed down for pigment, but these stones are still usable if they have strong color: I like to leave these a little bit rough to show any crystalline or reflective properties. Some of my favorite stones are: jasper, which comes in a variety of colors; lapis lazuli, a royal blue prized since before the Pharaohs; malachite, a brilliant green.
Other sources for stone are the various artisans who work with stone, like sculptors, tile masons, and sometimes even jewelry makers. I can often score a few great fragments that are not usable for their purposes but great for mine. A sculptor once gave me a grocery bag full of bright white alabaster dust that has been a staple of mine for many years. I have ordered malachite chip beads online, but it is one of very few minerals that has a fairly uniform color across most specimens. Most minerals will have a lot of variation even within the same sample, so I prefer to inspect each one by hand for color and consistency.
I will discuss the process I use to transform rocks into pigment in Part 2 (coming soon to EmptyEasel!) In the meantime, here is a list of some of the tools and materials I use for this process, which you might want to collect if you’re planning on working with earth pigments yourself:
• A heavy granite mortar and pestle
• A hammer. A sledge hammer is best but a smaller one will do
• Stacking plastic cups and small wide-bottomed containers
• Metal screening (various gauge mesh)
• Fine-mesh sheer fabric
• Mason jars with lids, various sizes, including at least one large one
• Baby medicine droppers
• Small funnel
• Plastic zipper bags: quart-sized and smaller (find these wherever beads are sold)
• Glossy heavyweight paper (upcycled)
• Dry paint brushes, both soft and firm bristles. (Big, poofy makeup brushes are great, as well as a few cheap house painting brushes. This medium is very rough on brushes, so don’t use your best ones).
• Spray bottle with water
• Jar or cup with clean water
• Plastic pans or trays (smooth on bottom)
• Cloth rags
Safety Equipment: Goggles and particle mask are strongly advised
WARNING: The grinding phase of this project should be done outside or in a well-ventilated area. Always use protective gear like safety goggles and a particle mask. Be aware that some minerals (such as malachite) are toxic or contain harmful substances such as lead or mercury, so do some research. There are many groups on social media for rock hounds. Ask questions: there are some very friendly and knowledgeable folks out there who love to talk rocks.
Join me for Part 2 of Making Art From the Ground Up when I will discuss in detail my process for making my handmade mineral pigments! And, in Part 3 I will talk about the techniques I use to create original works of art in EarthPaint.
Special thanks to Laura Zepeda for this incredible look into her process! For more from Laura, please visit her art blog.