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A short tutorial on how to identify pigment rocks.

There are many different sources for pigments, but the main source for my Paleo Paints is rocks. While rocks may be plentiful and easy to find wherever you are, not all of them are good for, or easy to work with, for making pigments. Sometimes there are good pigments to be found in very hard rocks, but the ones I like using the most are soft enough to be able to grind down into fairly fine powders that can easily be washed and separated for nice, smooth paints.

But do I go around whilly-nilly testing just any rock, plucking them off the ground or out of the creek at random? No. Or, rather, not *usually*. Sometimes I do. But there is at least a little method to my madness. I’ve never tried to explain it to anyone before, though, so feel free to comment with questions if I didn’t answer yours.

Here’s my How-To for Identifying Pigment Rocks

Total Time Needed :

10 Minutes, once on location.

Total Cost:


Required Tools:

– your hands– your eyes– rocks– water

Things Needed?

– rocks– water

Steps to Testing Rocks:

Felkins creek is where I gather a lot of my pigments. Our own little creek feeds into this one.

Find a source

Go to a place that has rocks. I go to our creek. Sedimentary rocks are most often the kind that makes good pigment rocks for me here at Wild Ozark. Sandstone rocks are a good start. Shale works, too. Look around at the rocks.

Pigment rocks after prying out of the dirt.

Look for color

When the rocks are wet, like if they’re actually in the water, the color is easier to see. But you can still find color in dry rocks too. The ones in my hand have a nice terra-cotta color to them even though they’re not wet. We will wet them in the next step, though. Head over to the water.

Very rich in deep, rusty red pigment.

Test your rock

Wet the rock you want to test and then rub it on a larger rock. Does it leave a nice streak of color? The more easily it leaves color, the richer your resulting pigment will be. If it only scratches the larger rock and doesn’t leave color, then throw it out. If it scratches white, unless you’re testing limestone, throw it out. You want a test that produces lots of easy color. Have fun! Watch for my online course!

Want More?

I’m building on an online course to help people learn about their local pigments and how they can use them to make watercolor paints. Would you be interested in such a thing? It would consist of 15-minute sessions focused on a single part of the paint-making process, starting with pigment collection and ending with actually using the dried paints. The tuition can be paid in one total for all units, (undetermined how many units at this point), or pick and choose individual units. Students can join live Zoom meetings weekly or email questions for additional help anytime. Email me if interested 

Madison Woods is an artist and paintmaker from Kingston, Arkansas.
Author/Artist Info
In the summer of 2018 I began making watercolor paints from the rocks, clay, and other resources of our land here in the Ozarks. My artwork is made exclusively with these paints. I call them Wild Ozark Paleo Paints, because they’re made in a way very close to the same way paints were made when man first put a handprint on the wall of a cave. My specialty is painting nature, specifically the nature that surrounds me here in the remote hills of northwest Arkansas.

My Portfolio is at MadisonWoods.art

Click here to join my mailing list.

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15 April 2021 4:57 am

My jaw is on the ground. I live on a ginormous sandstone karst formation and it would NEVER have occurred to me to grab those rocks and test them for color. And I mean NEVER. The yellow and blue you show are beautiful! I love rocks and if there’s one… Read more »

16 January 2021 7:18 pm

I have made regular watercolor paints and now I want to venture into more rock based paints. Our local creek is near an old brick factory site so I want to try and make some pigments from the brick remnants. Your website is very interesting and informative, so thanks!

2 October 2020 5:35 pm

It’s the finding water here that would hold up the process, Madison. 🙂

Judiann Edwards-Burrus
Judiann Edwards-Burrus
2 October 2020 12:47 pm

Madison, it sounds like a great idea to offer an online class. Personally, I can’t do them due to our slow server, no microphone and camera, but it would be really nice for those who can. Good luck. I’ll share on Facebook, and hope you get a lot of feedback.

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