Canyon Pigment: Self-Made

A long while back I had picked up some crumbly clay-like rocks with interesting colors while passing through a nearby canyon. Since I’ve been practicing making watercolor paint from various pigments I thought I’d try making my own pigment from scratch using one of these rocks.

Canyon Sienna 1

It was very easy to break it into smaller pieces, but little bits kept flying off even though I was trying to be gentle with the hammer. I wore safety goggles for this. A larger mallet might have been useful.

Canyon Sienna 2

I worked at it with light taps from the hammer until it seemed to be a fine powder… except that it wasn’t. Scraping the powder onto notecards showed many chunks that were far from being powder.

Canyon Sienna 3

So I put it in a granite mortar and pestle that’s been around for as long as I can remember as part of the “decor.” Grinding the pigment in a stirring motion was pretty easy and all the bits broke down into powder. This will be my pigment grinder thing from now on. It was at this point that my neighbor’s cat decided to climb up onto my leg, and from there to my shoulders, while I knelt. I walked around for a minute with a parrot cat perched on my shoulder. ^_^

Canyon Sienna 4

It might have been a good thing to wash the pigment to get rid of impurities, but I’ve never washed pigment before so I’ll have to experiment with that some other time. The muller and grinding plate I’m holding up here was gotten from Natural Pigments.

Canyon Sienna 5

Before mulling, the pigment should be mixed with its binder using a palette knife. I’m using a mix of gum arabic, vegetable glycerin, and local honey. I haven’t done this enough times to have a good grasp on how much of each of these to use, but I think I’m getting better the more times I do this.

Canyon Sienna 6

The mulling process involves moving the muller in a stirring motion over the paint and takes a bit of time and effort. I kept adding more gum arabic, glycerin, and honey as I worked because it felt too stiff. At the start there was still a lot of grit in the pigment but over time it smoothed out.

Canyon Sienna 7

Here’s the finished paint. A plastic putty knife from the hardware store makes a good scrapper for getting the paint off the muller and gathering it back into a pile at the center of the plate. I did that several times while mulling.

Canyon Sienna Final 2
Click for a larger view

Here’s the paint in different applications on paper, Fabriano Artistico, 300 lb soft press. The photo was taken in full sunlight and then adjusted slightly for brightness and to reduce the over saturation in the photo. This is where I was thinking I might have needed to wash the pigment because there were a few very tiny dark particles that didn’t stick to the paper and brushed off after the paint was dry. It granulated nicely in wet on wet and was surprisingly dark when used full strength.

Overall it was a huge success. Maybe for now I’ll call it Canyon Earth? I didn’t use all of the pigment that I made and I still have other rocks with variations of color to try in the future.

7 thoughts on “Canyon Pigment: Self-Made

  1. Thanks so much for your posts on making pigments! I am going to try my hand at harvesting some pigments out in the field because I’d like to start adding some handmade pastels to my palette. I was wondering if you knew of any books that reported on the entire process of harvesting through refining the pigments? I managed to find a few sources that mostly discuss the pigment making process once the materials are in hand (Pigment Compendium by Eastaugh, Walsh, Chaplin, and Siddall, Earthen Pigments by Sandy Webster, Cennini’s Craftsman’s Handbook, Thompson’s Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, and Bucklow’s Alchemy of Paint, which is a fantastic book btw, among a few others..), but as far as identifying and extracting/refining the pigments I seem to have hit a wall. I was able to get some samples of raw hematite from a local rock shop, although they were at a loss when I asked about the yellow ochres, or limonites 😦 But! it appears that I can find these minerals embedded in limestone not far from where I live.

    Anyhow, if you happen to have any recommendations, I will be happy to receive them. Also, your artwork is lovely, seeing a new post of your work is a wonderful way to start a day πŸ™‚


    1. I’ve seen a few books on Amazon that look interesting, but I don’t have any of them. I don’t know if they really go in depth or if it’s just surface knowledge. My own processing of rocks into pigments hasn’t been more involved than grinding it into powder. There’s a site that has some good information, but it’s incomplete for the full process. If you go to this page (which I can’t find in the normal navigation for some reason) then you’ll find various projects that artist has done with processing earth pigments that he gathered. For example, on this page there’s a pigment map that starts with an original pigment in the center and then records how it was processed in different ways to produce different results. To see a large enough version of the image to read it you’ll need to right click on the image and open it in a new tab or window.

      One thing to be aware of when looking for natural rocks is that they aren’t all necessarily safe. In my area we have a lot of asbestiform rocks with a bluish color. If those were ground into powder and then the dust of that powder breathed in it might be similar to breathing in asbestos. For a couple of rocks that I wouldn’t be able to find myself I’ve just ordered them from Amazon.

      There’s a few sites with detailed information on making pastels, like this page on Daniel Smith or this blog I just found. Actually, now that I think about I have all or most of the materials I’d need to do it myself. I’ll try this out later today and make a post about it. πŸ™‚

  2. Wow Christopher’s website is great, I hadn’t found this one, thanks for the links! My intention is to start with the non-toxics – limonite, hematite, goethite, and glauconite for a nice pale green if I can manage that one.. there’s a road cut not far from me with a healthy band of glauconite in it, but I expect that pigment will take a fair amount of work to extract from the matrix.. so it’ll be me versus rock. I am optimistic πŸ˜€

    It never even occurred to me to order rocks from Amazon.

    Pastellists are fond of De Marrais’s pastel recipe, and I look forward to your experiments. I am currently trying to get as close as I can to the materials and recipes that La Tour used, so I am in the process of figuring out how much pumice I want in the mix with regard to the unsized papers I am experimenting with. Each pigment requires a different formula, so that’s why I want to start with something simple and build up from there. It’s neat.. there are all of these variables that can be manipulated to work in concert with each other, yielding expected results or complete surprises, I am looking forward to this.

    Btw I have the exact same granite mortar and pestle, I love it πŸ™‚


    1. I’m not very experienced with using pastels, either dry or oil, but I just tried making some dry ones. It was very interesting. The gum tragacanth I used as a binder turned the mix gelatinous in a way I haven’t seen before. They’ll need to dry overnight and I’ll try a few more times with different amounts of each ingredient.

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