This is the story of my journey into the world of being a watercolor painter. My angle on this is a bit different than most other artists I know, in that all of my paints are made from pigments I’ve gathered myself. I call these paints Paleo Paints. By working with the rocks, bones, and pigments of my surroundings, I feel as if I am working with the soul of the Ozarks.
Many of you who have followed me for a while will have already seen these paintings, and you might remember the stories that go with them. I’m sorry for the repetition you’re about to endure if that’s the case. But I’m beginning to forget some of the details of my earlier paintings and I want to start writing about them now before too much is lost. Eventually, I want to use the information to make a book. I don’t have a name for it yet, but it’s tentatively titled “Soul of the Ozarks”.
Writing this series of posts will help me to gather up all of the previous posts I’ve made over the past couple of years about making the paints, and the making of each of the paintings. Some of the entries will be short. If I don’t have the story behind it, the post will just serve to add the documentation of each painting in sequence of the timeline in which they were created. Once I get caught up, then I’ll have all of the posts I need in an easy to retrieve format, which will make the book much easier to write. Of course, anyone will be able to just read the posts rather than buy the book, but that doesn’t bother me. There will always be a certain audience who prefers to hold the book over reading it on the computer.
And besides, who knows if there is even an audience for such a book to begin with? I’m doing it because I want to do it. Maybe one day I’ll have a grandchild or great-grandchild who wants to follow in my footsteps. It would be so awesome to be able to hand them this book to give them a starting point more solid than the one I had. There’s no expectation of fame or fortune, but the goal is to leave a record; to document the journey I’ve taken. I’m only sorry I didn’t take better notes of all the failures, too. Because sometimes knowing what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does. I plan to make better notes going forward, though.
The First Painting
In the summer of 2018, I made my first set of watercolor paints from sandstone rocks I’d gathered on the driveway. Some of my colors came from various plants I’d extracted and made into paint. At this point, I didn’t realize that plant pigments (for the most part) are fugitive.
Except for a couple of sources I’ve found, the colors don’t stay true for very long. But the colors from rocks are permanent. I made my first set of paints and waited patiently for them to dry out so I could try them.
The paints weren’t dry yet, but I had a flight to catch. So, I brought them to Qatar, where my husband worked and I would be visiting for the month of July. Not good at painting yet, but not bad for a first attempt. I was just excited the paints worked.
Trials and Errors
Of all the colors in the image above, only the sassafras and sandstone proved to be durable. After I learned about ‘lightfastness‘ of pigments, I began testing them. Nowadays, when I make a new color from a plant pigment, I’ll paint a swatch and cut it down the middle. One side of the strip stays inside, in a dark and protected place. The other half is taped onto the window outside where it can get full sun and air exposure, though it is protected from rain.
I don’t usually test the pigments made from rocks or other earth-based pigments because those are generally considered permanent.
Sometimes, once a test strip is hung, I can see within a day that a certain pigment is fugitive (meaning it will fade or oxidize). Some of them disappear completely within a few days, which was shocking. The green that I used in this painting came from a plant called perilla, and it makes a beautiful shade of green when it’s fresh. But over time it oxidizes to a brownish. I still have the original painting in my storage binder, and kept in the dark and protected like that, it remains a nice green.
The yellow from tumeric faded, too. The black-eyed susan was a sort of purplish gray, and it too faded on exposure but is still holding nicely on the protected original.
Keeping Good Notes
I did not keep good enough notes at first, and still forget to do so. Now, after trying to reproduce the yellow from sassafras leaves, I am not sure the yellow I used is actually sassafras and not the elderberry leaf instead. I had forgotten to label the paints and guessed at which was which between the elderberry and turmeric. I don’t remember exactly how I made the extract from the sassafras leaves and nothing I’ve tried since has given me that nice clean yellow. I am able to get a lightfast yellowish-orange from them, though. And the root bark of sassafras makes a gorgeous orange that is lightfast.
A Re-Do of the First Painting
When I returned to Qatar in February 2020, I brought a newer set of paints and tried to paint that scene again. I found that I’m still not very good at doing buildings or urban scenes, ha. Not only that, but now I can’t find the second painting anywhere. It would be nice to have it on hand to compare the first painting to the later one. So not only do I need to keep better records through my Journey Into the Soul of the Ozarks, I need to also keep better track of paintings. Instead, I painted some quail. I’ll post about that painting later on when I get to it on the timeline.
The Making of the Paints
At this point along my path, I only knew how to make rough paints and hadn’t figured out anything about refining them other than running the powders through a sieve. So the paints were pretty gritty, hard to wet, or simply direct extracts of the leaves mixed with the media. I still managed to make art with them, though, and that’s something I consider an accomplishment. The difficulty of getting the results I wanted could have been a big obstacle. Instead, with my really stubborn nature, it presented a challenge like none I’d ever faced. It certainly didn’t dissuade me from continuing to try for better paints and better art. I’m glad my first painting at least showed me the promise of the paints!
If you’ve read this far, thank you for coming along with me on this first leg of my journey as a watercolor artist. It’s only the beginning!