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Making Media for Handmade Watercolors

The binder is what makes pigment stick to the paper. Watercolor binder is made from water-soluble tree gums. This particular listing uses gum Arabic, which is harvested from one of two types of acacia trees that grow in Africa.

It can also be made using the gums from peach, cherry, and plum trees. I haven’t done any studies on how these gums affect the stability or permanence of pigments, however, the ability to use a locally foraged ingredient rather than one imported from far away, is a temptation. Eventually, I’ll do some comparison studies and research this option more.

When I make my own watercolor binder, I usually make several bottles and sell the extra. One bottle lasts me for several months if kept in the refrigerator after opening.

Watercolor Binder Quality Control

I test each batch to make sure it performs to my own expectations. Things I’m concerned about include whether it dries without being tacky, wets easily enough (different pigments have different personalities, and some might need more time to wet… or ‘wake up’), minimizes cracking, etc. But the most important things I note: are the colors vibrant as expected, and will it smudge after it dries (it definitely should not). If those two criteria are met, I am happy.

I pay attention to quality when preparing my watercolor binder media. Too little or too much of the ingredients makes a difference in results.
I pay attention to quality when preparing my watercolor binder media. Too little or too much of the ingredients makes a difference in results.

How to Use

When making paints using dry pigment powders, you’ll need to get a feel for how much binder each different type of pigment needs. If your paints crack when drying, try adding a little more binder during mulling. Pour thin layers at a time into the pans and let each layer dry thoroughly. To make sheer paints with a little more gloss, I make a thinner paint. Sometimes I also pour up a pan of just the media so that I have a pan on hand if I want to add a little gloss to highlights in my paintings.

DIY

Here’s my general recipe if you’d like to make your own. If you make enough volume and use heat sealing lids, you can preserve them in a water bath just as you would can jelly or preserves.

Using powdered food-grade gum Arabic:

Makes one cup:

  • 5T powdered gum Arabic
  • 1/8 c honey
  • 2 drops clove essential oil (not fragrance oil)
  • 1 cup water

Boil the water. Put all of the other ingredients in a bowl. Once the water is boiling, add a little to the bowl so that you can stir the ingredients with a fork into a paste. Try not to let it make lumps. Slowly add the rest of the water while stirring. Bottle it while hot and refrigerate once opened. My bottle of media lasts months in the refrigerator.

Using whole gum Arabic tears/resin

  • Start with a quart jar
  • Add 1″ layer of raw gum Arabic resin
  • Fill to curve of neck with boiled water
  • Agitate to dissolve the resin once the water cools enough to handle
  • Strain

In another container, add 1/10 volume with honey, fill the rest with your gum Arabic solution.

Add 1-2 drops of clove or cinnamon essential oil.

Not very scientific or precise, but my marks on the jar at least keep me consistent. Making media for handmade watercolor paints.
Not very scientific or precise, but my marks on the jar at least keep me consistent.

Usually, I make this in the evening. I fill the jar with gum chunks to the bottom mark. Add sterilized water to the second mark. Let it sit overnight to dissolve, and turn the jar every once in a while to help it all get wet.

The next evening, add more water if necessary to meet the second mark. The photo shows it right after I took it out to add the extra water. As the gum dissolved, the volume settled a little. Then add the honey.

After that, add a dash of essential oil of cloves. Supposedly this helps to keep mold and bacteria from growing but I don’t know if it works or not.

Then filter it all through the same sized sieve used below for sifting the powdered pigments. Store the media in a clean jar in the refrigerator and use as needed. If you have any gum left undissolved in the bottom of the ‘dirty’ jar, don’t throw it out. Just leave the lid off and let it dry out. Use the same jar just as it is, residue and all, for making the next batch.

So there you go! This is my way of making media for handmade watercolor paints. Let me know if you try it how it worked for you.

Here’s my tutorial for making a basic handmade watercolor paint:

7 thoughts on “Making Media for Handmade Watercolors”

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  1. Thank you so much for this information! I’ve been hooked on making paints these last weeks as well. I’m currently trying out different recipes and still struggling with paint that is either too dry/runny/glossy/sticky. But it’s been so nice to play with the ratios of the binder and learn. I love how you do it simply with marks now you have figured something out that works for you.

    I’m curious why you are not using glycerin in your medium (as I’ve seen in many others), you don’t feel you need it? And do you often use a 1:1 ratio of pigment to medium?

    Thank you and I’m very inspired by the painting you make with your handmade watercolors.
    Hedwig

    1. Hi there Hedwig! Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. My method for making paint is a lot like my method of cooking. I just start with a known set of ingredients, try things out and adjust accordingly. As for the ratio when it comes to adding the media to the pigment, that, too, depends. I do it with a pipette dropper. Make a little mound of pigment, put a big dent in the middle, and fill it with the media. I like to see the pigment soak it up quickly… that usually means it’ll make a nicer paint. When it just sits there in the middle and doesn’t absorb, it usually means I’m in for a long mulling session. So I add media, let it soak for a few minutes while I do something else, then if it soaked it all up I’ll add a little more before setting to the pile with my palette knife for the initial mix. I like the end result thin enough to pour out in a slow fall from the little jars, but thick enough to allow me to pick it up with the palette knife. Each pigment varies in how much media it will take to get to this end.

      As for glycerin… The one time I tried it gave me a sticky paint that took forever to dry. But that’s not the only reason I’m not using it. My ultimate goal is to make a paint from 100% Ozark ingredients. The only input I can’t procure here in my area is gum Arabic. So, I am working on the gums of other trees (cherry, peach, plum) to see how well they do. Glycerine is one I definitely would have a hard time producing myself or buying locally. Everything else, if these alternative gums work out, I can get for myself, if necessary, right here at home. I’m a fan of self-reliance in a pinch and it irritates me when I can’t do something I love just because I can’t get the materials. But I also like being able to support other local small businesses, so buying the honey and potentially the gum, is a nice way to keep it local.

      I’d love to see what you’re working on! I’ll head over to your website this morning.

    2. Thank you so much for your reply! I will definitely experiment more with leaving glycerin out and using more binder to make a runnier paint. This trial phase is so much fun, experimenting with different variables, and how every rock gives a unique color.

      I love your aim to be independent and work with local resources! How amazing if the local gum would work out. So far I have also used honey from the same area as the rocks I have gathered (Israel), and I love this ‘story’ behind the end result.

      I will keep following your blog and your process,
      Cheers, Hedwig (and sorry, my website is not about paint making haha, who knows in the future I’ll share some work).

    3. You’re so right – the ‘story’ is what makes it so special to me, too. I want to collect from everywhere I go and make sets from those places to tell their ‘soul stories’. So far I have some from rocks from central Texas and sand from Qatar. Since I started making paint I haven’t been anywhere else to gather, but sooner or later I surely will. Good luck on your journey!

    1. Thanks, Janet 🙂 I’m trying to write down what it is that I’m doing just in case. Who knows, I could get some minions one day to help me! I keep trying to recruit the grandkids to bust rocks for me, lol. Somehow it seems to be ‘work’ to them once it’s not just for fun anymore. It’s always fun to me, but just imagine if I had 10 hands instead of 2! Hope you’re having a great day!

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