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How to Make Handmade Watercolor Paint from Rocks, Clay or Soil

Today I’m making handmade watercolor paint from some of our native clay. The technique I used is the same as I would have used for the other colors that come from rocks. This is a very basic way to make paint. It can get a lot more complicated, but definitely not necessary.

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. 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 figured out another way. And in that case you’re not likely to need this primer, ha. You can buy the media already prepared, though.

SAFETY

Wear eye protection when smashing rocks. Wear respiratory protection when working with powdered pigment or smashing/grinding rocks. If you have sensitive hearing, you may want to use ear plugs during mulling or hammering.

Media

Muller

  • Maybe you’ll want a muller (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 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.

Pans

  • 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 and half-pans 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 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 to put inside the pans before you add the paint. I’ve tried adding magnet strips to the bottom but they inevitably come off.

Utensils

  • Disposable plastic pipetters for filling pans or adding media
  • Palette knives. 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

The Steps

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.

Clean

Native clay right from the source. It'll make a great handmade watercolor paint!

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.

Dry

Let the rocks dry thoroughly before you start breaking them.

Crack

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

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!

Grind to smaller pieces

  • Sieve
  • Grind
  • Sieve
  • Grind
When you're making handmade watercolor paint from rocks, clay, or anything, you'll need to sieve out the lumps before making the actual paint. If you like the texture and character of the little bits, you can leave them in there too. It's your choice.
When you’re making handmade watercolor paints from rocks, clay, or anything, you’ll need to sieve out the lumps before making the actual paint. If you like the texture and character of the little bits, you can leave them in there too. It’s your choice.

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.

A powder suitable for the mulling step, because the clay will soften and not stay too grainy. If it were sandstone, I would put this in the next mortar and pestle to grind it more. Making handmade watercolor paint.
A powder suitable for the mulling step, because the clay will soften and not stay too grainy. If it were sandstone, I would put this in the next mortar and pestle to grind it more.

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.

A little pile of pigment on the mulling board. I'm making handmade watercolor paint.
A little pile of pigment on the mulling board.

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.

mulling handmade watercolor paint

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 It

Filter the liquid through pantyhose. It doesn’t just pour through, though, so it has to be twisted and pressure applied.

Store It

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.

The finished handmade watercolor paint. I toasted some of the pigment powder in the oven to see if it would change the color. It made it a little warmer and richer.
The finished handmade watercolor paint. I toasted some of the pigment powder in the oven to see if it would change the color. It made it a little warmer and richer.

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.

Here’s the first palette of colors I’ll have ready to sell in a few weeks. It’s named “Soul of the Ozarks” and contains five of my favorite shades from right here at Wild Ozark.

“Soul of the Ozarks” Collection no. 1

“Soul of the Ozarks” Collection no. 1, (sold out). Check my Etsy to see what’s available now. Click here to see paintings made with handmade watercolor paint from Wild Ozark.

Using Handmade Watercolor Paint

I have no experience with commercial watercolors, so I can’t give you a comparison on how they are compared to the handmade. I suspect there are consistency differences and that you’ll need to experiment to make the best use of them. But I can show you the work I’ve done with mine. Here’s Kestrel no. 3. Every single color came from paints I made using stones and clay (and wood char that I made) right here at Wild Ozark.

Kestrel No. 3, featuring all handmade watercolor paints made from local stone and clay sources. Panic stage navigated.

Kestrel No. 3, featuring all handmade watercolor paints made from local stone and clay sources.

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.

All for Little Pans of Color Worth their Weight in Gold

The past week was a really busy one. I spent most of the time busting rocks and grinding them to powder. Why? To make paints! You’ll know why I say they’re worth their weight in gold after you read the rest of this post.

I mostly did the nice, colorful rocks but I also did some of the gray shale and a few chunks of wood char for gray and black colors.

Recap of a Week

When I began this post I was going to give a day-by-day recap, but I can’t remember what I did on Monday. So I’ll start with Tuesday. On Tuesday my huge wall calendar came in the mail. I wanted this so I could plot out next year with festivals and shows to go to with my paints and paintings. I want to find some good shows so that when Rob comes home from his contract we won’t have to do so much trial and error finding the good ones.

After I hung the calendar, I went out and gathered some rocks and started the week off with a bang. Busted my chopping block that I’d used for cracking rocks. But I’d gotten a lot of rocks busted before this happened. Figured I’d better find a better way after that, though.

Broke my chopping board cracking rocks.

Wednesday

I started doing the initial cracks on a rock outside. What I think I really need is a nice, big, thick granite slab! But for now, this little square rock seems to work well enough.

The rock I use to test smaller rocks to see what colors are inside when I'm looking for good earth pigments.
The rock I use to test smaller rocks to see what colors are inside when I’m looking for good earth pigments.

By Thursday, I knew exactly why those little paints on Etsy were so expensive. They really were worth their weight in gold. But by this time, I was hooked and there was no turning back. I just had to gather all the colors I needed to make the painting I want to make next week.

So I gathered a little of the red, a little of the pink, yellow slate from the clay slide hill (this one was very hard to crush), and some of the gray slate from down in the creek – this one worked wonderfully! It made a black paint so smooth and creamy it felt like whipped cream. Usually I strain them all once the media has had time blend with the dust, but this one didn’t have any grit left in it at all when I finished mulling it.

Black shale paint worth its weight in gold.

Finally. My Own Little Pans Worth their Weight in Gold.

When I first started looking at making handmade watercolors I looked at the ones over at Etsy. They were expensive! Now I know why. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to produce a full set of colors. But oh, my, I have never found any work as satisfying. Except finishing a painting that went as imagined. I have to say that feels even better.

The first completed Wild Ozark palette of colors!
The first completed Wild Ozark palette of colors. All are sourced right here at home except the French green clay I used to make the last one.

The journal of stones, some of the ground earth pigment from one of the red sandstones, and the finished palette.
The journal of stones, some of the ground pigment from one of the red sandstones, and the finished palette. The pigment appears to be a brighter red than it really was.

On Friday night I went to bed worn out, sore, and glad to have reached my goal of a palette worth its weight in gold.. I wanted to have my finished palette made so I could have the grand-girls over on Saturday night.

As I get time, I’ll make a blog post when I do each color so you can see all the steps involved. If you want to know when I have some more palettes done and put them up to sell, sign up for the Wild Ozark newsletter. Or follow me on FB or Instagram. I’ll also have dry pigments for those who want to make their own paints, minus a lot of the work.

Sharing What I’ve Learned

Sooner or later I’ll have a workshop on how to make paints. I gathered as much information as I could online but there isn’t a lot on how to actually ‘do’ it. I’m constantly learning something new and the #handmadewatercolor and #earthpigment posters at Instagram have been incredible sources of inspiration and information. One thing I do know is that the colors work great on the paintings I’ve made. You can look back in the blog to see the Study in Sandstone and the Kestrel on a Line I did with the first set of paints I made.

In the meantime here’s a quick outline.

Making Paint

  • collect the rocks
  • crack the rocks
  • crush the rocks until they pass through the seive
  • mix the powder (earth pigment) with the watercolor media (made from gum arabic and honey and clove essential oil). There’s a tool called a muller to use for this. It’s like a flat bottomed pestle that you use on a sheet of glass or slab of marble to mix the pigment with the media. But you don’t have to use the muller. I don’t mind if my paint has darker pigment that settles to the bottom of the pans because then I can choose to use the darker or the lighter shades when I’m painting.
  • put the paint in pans. If it’s too grainy still, I filter it through a section of pantyhose. it doesn’t just ‘pour’ through, it has to be twisted and put under pressure.
  • once in the pans, the rest of the paint is stored in a tightly closed jar. as the pans evaporate the paint volume shrinks and I add more paint from the jar to the pan until the pans are full when completely dry.
  • stand back and admire the fruits of a labor of love that produced colors worth their weight in gold 🙂

When I first started this obsession, I tried making some paints with plants, too. They looked great, and still do as long as they don’t see the sun. But those paints are called ‘fugitive’ for a reason – they run from daylight. The only one that hasn’t faded is the one made from sassafras leaf and now I can’t remember how I made that one. The second attempt did not yield the same bright yellow.

The Work is Never Done

And so today the grand-girls came over to spend the night. What does Karter want to do?

Karter is crushing it!
Karter picking up where I left off.

Bang up rocks.


Some of my other posts about making or painting with handmade paints:

Clearing the Clutter: Promises, Broken Rocks, and Things to Come

Making My Own Watercolor Paints from Ozark Pigments