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What is a Natural Pigment? How place and process connect.

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Everything you need to know about what natural pigments are, how they are made, and why they matter to contemporary artists and collectors.

Tens of thousands of years ago, one of our ancestors picked up a piece of charcoal that was left over from the previous evening's fire and rubbed it against a stone. A black mark remained in the wake of this movement, and in that single gesture art was born. The black dust created from this charcoal was a form of pigment.

Read on for my guide to understanding what pigments are, how they are used, and why contemporary artists are now looking back to pigment origin stories for inspiration.

How are natural pigments used?

Why do natural pigments matter to contemporary artists and collectors?


What is a natural pigment?

In the world of art, pigments are finely ground particles that provide color, opacity, and durability when mixed with binders (more on binders in the next section). The history of pigments is a fascinating journey that spans thousands of years, mirroring humanity's quest for vibrant hues to express creativity and beauty. Since the Paleolithic era, the creation of colored pigments has become more and more complex; as human technologies evolved, so did the creation of pigments.

Since the Industrial Revolution, most of the pigments used in artist's supplies have been created in labs using isolated chemical compounds. We call these pigments synthetic, because they are man-made. Natural pigments, on the other hand, are those derived from natural sources such as minerals, plants, and even animal materials. These pigments don't require a fancy lab for production, they can be created relatively simply. For example, various colored rocks can be crushed, ground, and sifted to create unique colors. Plant materials can also be ground up and used as natural dyes (think staining you might produce from tea, coffee, or the famous indigo plant). These pigments can then be made into shelf-stable powders through a relatively simple process called laking. Laking at home can produce some unexpected colors, and I have gotten some beautiful and some not-so- beautiful results from experimenting with this process. More of those adventures in another post!

Since pigments are the starting point for creating colors, understanding their origin is vital to the process of art making. If you don't understand your raw materials or where they come from, how can you appreciate the final product?

How are natural pigments used?

Sourcing pigments is only one step in the paint-making process, and this is where I get really giddy excited about pigments and how they can be used. Binders are substances or mediums that hold together the pigments and allow them to adhere to a surface. Binders are exciting because they allow you to create whatever type of art material you want out of your pigment.

For example:

  • Binder gum arabic + pigment = watercolor paint

  • Binder linseed oil + pigment = oil paint

  • Binder beeswax + pigment = crayons

and the possibilities go on!

By changing the type of binder you use, the art material and application changes. So your pigment can be used to make whatever material you most want to use. In my experience, different binders can have various impacts on the final paint color. For example, the same pigment used in watercolor binder will have a slightly different color temperature than the same pigment used in oil paint binder. But in my opinion this is part of what makes the process of handmade paints so dynamic.

Why do natural pigments matter to contemporary artists and collectors?

People in every field are starting to come around to the fact that our interactions with the world around us matter. As our lives have become increasingly digital, our relationships with the physical materials in our lives has become more important. People want to know who made their clothing. People want to see the farms where their food is grown. Artists are no different. Many contemporary artists are striving to have a closer relationship with their materials and where and how those materials are being sourced.

Like many products of our modern world, synthetic pigments are manufactured because it saves time and money. It also has the unintended consequence of divorcing the process of color making from the action of creation, and with that something important has been lost. Here at Growing In Process, I use a variety of pigments and paints, both home-made and manufactured. This allows me to combine meaningful hand sourced natural pigments with the vibrancy of modern paint colors. For my last collection, I used the dirt from around the root system of a fallen tree to create oil and watercolor paints that were imbued with meaning. You can learn more about that collection here.

Take notice of the world around you--pigments can be found everywhere! Next time you are on a hike, collect a crumbly rock or a uniquely colored flower (but please follow responsible foraging and collecting guidelines). Try your hand at mixing up a new color from these forest treasures. Even if your experiments fail to produce the color you were expecting, viewing the natural world in this way will open up your understanding of place, process, and meaning. Your relationship to color and the natural world will forever be changed.

If you haven't joined my email list, make sure you hit "connect" below to sign up for email updates. I'll soon be announcing the release date of my upcoming collection Stone & Bloom, which utilizes natural pigments for both watercolor and oil abstract paintings. There's so much more I could share about the process of creating natural pigment paints--if you have any questions, drop a comment below!



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