• Brooke Rowlands

Earth Pigments

My path to a more sustainable art practice......

With the lock-down came not being able to spend time with friends and family and more time spent indoors. For me that wasn't really an issue being indoors more. Since I work from home as a full-time artis it was like any other day, but the level of anxiety just went up. I did what most of you did, and I ordered my groceries online to be delivered, washed my hands constantly, and used alcohol/sanitizer on literally everything. With this new level of disinfecting everything, I began to think about my art practice and all the toxins that I've been exposed to over the past 17 years. It got me thinking about ways to cut down the level of toxins that I bring into my workspace. I knew things I could omit like resin, harsh spray fixatives, and other things, but I wanted to do more.

Fast forward a little bit and at the end of Summer my husband and I went on a camping trip to the South East part of Oklahoma, Broken Bow. We spent the weekend exploring the land and just unwinding from the stresses of being in the city and the rising number of Covid cases in our state. At that time there was another spike of cases and we were both ready to get out of dodge. So, we packed up our tent and headed out to what I consider the most beautiful part of Oklahoma. If you've never been, let me tell you about it....There's mountains covered with trees, rivers to kayak, trails to hike, and the most beautiful birds sing daily. If you're lucky, you might catch a Bald Eagle flying overhead while you sip your coffee. It's amazing.

While we were there relaxing, nature did what it usually does and inspired me tremendously. I began thinking about earth pigments, and how the oldest form of art is still present and vibrant in caves that are thousands of years old. How since the beginning of time men and woman have used the earth to create paint, ink, charcoal, dyes, pottery....the list goes on and on. This train of thought hit me like a tons of bricks, and I began researching ways to make my art practice less toxic and more eco-friendly.

I purchased several books (I'll list a couple below), that went over how to make handmade paints and the like, and when I tell you a light went off in my head, it was like a lighthouse signalling me home. All my life I've been drawn to the outdoors. Any chance I'd get to be outside was taken, and most likely I've had a pocket full of rocks or little bits of soil to bring home. If I was at a beach, you'd better believe I'd have shells with me. It wasn't until the global pandemic hit that I started really looking at my art practice in ways I never thought imaginable. Throughout my entire are career (going on 17 years) I've always incorporated nature into my artwork....why not actually add nature?!

I decided I wanted to forage for my pigment, and so that's what I began doing. It feels like this woke up a creative side of my brain that has been sitting backseat for quite some time now. So many ideas, possibilities, and creative inspiration have been circling around that I now get to explore and combine my love of "treasure hunting".

One of the most common pigments used in paints is ocher. For centuries ocher has been behind the earliest cave paintings, renaissance painters, and the like. It's rich in iron and can range from the lightest sand to the reddest clay. Here in Oklahoma we have an orange/red clay that can only be found in this region. However, other parts of the earth carry their own unique palette of colors. You can really get lost researching geological mines, and ocher sites around the word.

Since flying overseas really isn't an option I recently purchased pigments from a company in France - several pigments that are to die for. Colors that I can't find organically here in OK I can order the raw pigments from a handful of amazing companies.

The process behind making your own paint takes time, and is meant to be a process. For me, its therapeutic and meditative. It allows me to move at a pace that nature allows. Once you foraged your bit of earth your next step is to break down the pieces small enough to grind down in a mortar and pestle. This process takes several passes to make sure the pigment is a fine powder. Grind, sift, grind, sift, until you've come up with a loose powder. *Safety is still a concern, and you should always wear a mask and gloves when working with pigment dust.

Once a fine powder results, you'll need to mix it with a binder. Typically for watercolors this binder is Gum Arabic. Adding a little bit of honey and clove oil and mulling the mixture will give you the consistency you'll need to then store it in a pan or shell to be used as paint. Each pigment reacts differently as well, so this step is a learning process.

It's simply amazing, and so worth the effort, I promise you. From start to finish.....

Foraging your own pigment is meant to be sacred and respectful. The time you spend in nature reflects your art. Foraging only what you need, and being mindful not to disturb that land's natural ecosystem is what makes this process so special.

I've already created a handful of works that are now in my shop, and I can safely say that I will never go back to store bought paint.... This is just too much fun and rewarding for me to ever go back.


Here is a list of books that I've purchased that helped me on my journey.

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©2019 by Brooke Rowlands.