Today I’m making handmade watercolor paint from some of our native clay. The technique I’ll use is the same as I would have used to make a rough paint from rocks. Soft rocks actually work better than clay. So if you don’t have clay but have access to a crushable rock, use that.
This is a very basic way to make paint. It can get a lot more complicated, but the more advanced techniques are definitely not necessary while you’re trying to learn how to get started. There are definitely ways to get more refined paints, the most of the process (except the sieving) will still be similar to the steps below. So it’s a good starting point to learn this art.
If you fall in love with using your local colors, look into how to levigate (wash) pigments, create lake pigments from plant parts (precipitating chemical reactions), and separate the lights and heavies. This is all a lifetime learning process. If you have any advice or technique tips to share, please do so.
Workshops and Foraging
If you are the person who likes to learn hands-on with a live guide, I do hold workshops here in Kingston, Arkansas. (Or I will once the pandemic subsides …) We start with the foraging for rocks.
Before You Start
You’ll need a few things to make handmade watercolor paint. Some, like the muller and pans, are optional. Some you may be able to find substitutes for, like the pantyhose and palette knives. But the gum Arabic is essential unless you’ve harvested gum from cherry, peach, or plum trees. And in that case you’re not likely to need this primer, ha. You’re probably already an advanced paint-maker. If you’d prefer to start with media ready to go, I sell my own formula.
Wear eye protection when smashing rocks. Wear respiratory protection when working with powdered pigment or smashing/grinding rocks and clay. Clay and sandstone contain silica, which can cause serious respiratory issues if you inhale the dust. If you have sensitive hearing, you may want to use ear plugs during mulling or hammering.
- Most critical is the media. I use raw gum Arabic, honey, and boiled water. It took a little bit of experimenting to get a good ratio for the mix, but I settled on a formula that seems to work. Click to read my method of making watercolor media.
- Maybe you’ll want a muller [ad] (glass tool used on a plate to mix pigment with media), but when I first started making the paints, I didn’t have one. I used the alternative technique offered below that I use when the pigment won’t crush enough to get a smooth paste when mulling. I use a tempered glass chopping board [ad] for the plate.
- If you don’t have a muller or think you will need to strain your paint, grab an old pair of panty hose so you can cut off segments of it to use for filtering.
- Something to put your finished handmade paint in. Artists of antiquity used whatever little dish might have been handy. Seashells were commonly used. I buy pans [ad] and half-pans [ad] from Amazon. I’ve also made my own from polymer clay in a pinch. Tiny sample sized jars are nice, too.
- Something to store the paint pans in. I use small mint tins [ad] with hinged lids. I also get those from Amazon. You can use anything you want to stay organized.
- If you don’t want your pans sliding around inside your tins, if you use the tins, get some tiny little magnets [ad] to put inside the pans before you add the paint. I’ve tried adding magnet strips to the bottom but they inevitably come off.
- Disposable plastic pipetters for filling pans or adding media
- Palette knives [ad]. I use plastic so the magnets don’t hop out of the pans onto them.
Let’s go make some handmade watercolor paint.
“Rocks, clay, and soil hold the soul of the Earth.” ~ Madison Woods
Gather the material
The clay I’m using came to the surface when we had a landslide on our property in 2015. My husband brought me a bucket full using front-end loader on the tractor, so I have plenty on hand!
I’ve used it to make some fired pieces and the color turns a deep terracotta. Curious as to what color paint it would yield, I got to work.
Most rocks, slate, shale, and clay can be used to make paint and some of the colors are very nice. We have a lot of different sandstone colors here, so that’s where the bulk of my colors come from. Some rocks are too hard to crush without mechanical help, so I stick to the things I can break down easily enough to avoid wrist pain.
Sometimes rocks are dirty. They lie around on the ground and in the creek or in the mud. So that’s to be expected. So I clean them before I use them by scrubbing them down with a brush.
Clay can be cleaned too, and I have some that has been washed and filtered. It’s put aside for sculpting. But I wanted to use the clay just as it was in the ground to see what color it gave, including all the little ‘dirty’ bits.
Later I’ll try it with the cleaned clay and see what color that one yields. I suspect it will be more gray. Maybe it’ll even give me the blue-gray I need for the goshawks I want to paint.
Let the rocks dry thoroughly before you start breaking them.
Larger rocks can be broken outside using the surface of an even larger rock. This will spare your counter-tops and chopping blocks. I know this from experience. You can even use a hand-held rock to break the smaller rocks into smaller pieces. Very low-tech!
Break the rocks into small chunks so that you can hold several in the palm of your hand. Bring those inside to your mortar and pestle. Making handmade watercolor paint involves a lot of using your hands!
Get a heavy-duty stainless mortar and pestle. This one has dimples on the pestle and the inner surface is brushed. Works great!
While I use stainless for most of my grinding, if you are working with light colored rocks, like limestone, it could leave a grayish cast to your pigment. For those, I have a small porcelain mortar and pestle to use. I’m not sure whether it’s the pH of the rock causing the issue, or not. I don’t notice this problem with the other colors.
Grind to smaller pieces
Make a finer powder
Put a little of the powder in finer mortar and process until you’ve reached a fine dust.
You can skip this step if you like your paint grainy, or if the dust is powdered enough to not be grainy.
If your sieved pigment is still too grainy, try reducing it more in a smooth pestle. I didn’t need to do this for the creek shale or the clay, but I do for almost all of the other color rocks.
Make the Paint
Mulling Handmade Watercolor Paint
Put a little pile of powder on the mulling board.
- Make a little well in the center
- Fill the well with media (watercolor media is made from gum arabic)
- I let the liquid soak into surrounding pile a bit before mixing with my palette knife
- Use a muller to get the powder suspended and stable in the media
- put in pans
How to Mull
I haven’t found a very good explanation of this online, but there were some videos that show it being done. Maybe there are some on YouTube, but I haven’t checked there yet. This is what I’ve discovered. When you put the pile of pigment on the board, wet it good with your media but not so much that it will run off of the board. Mix it a bit with your palette knife. Take the glass muller and use it to spread the pigment all around in a circle. It’ll sound gritty.
Once you’ve started spreading your pigment paste, if it’s too sticky, add a few drops (of media) with your plastic pipette. When you get it spread out, then scrape it off the muller and scrape the glass so that you’ve reconstructed your little pile in the middle. Do it again. Repeat until the paste begins to feel like butter. That is when it is done.
But you can get acceptable colors without mulling so much, or at all. And here’s a tip. Your glass plate will not do a very good job until it gets good and abraded by all your initial attempts. You could mull with one of your abundant pigments for practice and it will get a start on scratching up the glass for you.
An alternative to mulling
Some paints never crush finely enough. And if you don’t have the muller you’ll need another method to get the color mixed into the media.
Put your pigment powder into a small jar. Add enough media to wet the powder plus have a little extra. This will ‘extract’ the color into the media. You’ll need to agitate it often for a day or so.
Filter the liquid through pantyhose. It doesn’t just pour through, though, so it has to be twisted and pressure applied.
If you do it this way, store the liquid in a jar in the refrigerator. Use a plastic pipette, or dropper, to fill the pans. As the pan dries and the level shrinks, keep topping it off with your stored fluid. This actually makes a much nicer pan in the end as opposed to scraping it off the mulling board directly into the pans. It does for me, anyway. Perhaps there is a trick to it that I haven’t learned yet.
I hope you try your own hand at making some handmade watercolor paint from the resources surrounding you. I collect rocks, clay and soil from everywhere I go now. Eventually there will be a palette to represent the ‘soul’ of all of my favorite places.
My collections are named “Soul of the Ozarks”. Whenever I make a set of paints, I usually make enough to sell some of it, but the batches are never very large. Keep an eye on my shop to see when new sets are listed if you’re interested in buying some.
Here are My Handmade Watercolors
When I have extra paints to sell, I list them at my online shop: https://shop.wildozark.com/product-category/pigments/
Paintings from Handmade Watercolor Paint
I have been using my handmade watercolor paints to create art!
Paleo Paint Workshops
If you’re interested in workshops on how to make watercolor paints, starting from the foraging of rocks, check out my workshops.