Self Made Watercolor in Tubes

12 Tubes

I’ve been pretty busy the last several days making and tubing a set of watercolors for myself. I had gotten 12 tubes from Daniel Smith recently and I wanted to make one paint for each of them.

12 Tubes Swatches Tall

I can’t guarantee perfect color accuracy from my scanner, but here’s the swatches for each paint I made. I really like the way Pozzuoli Red and Nicosia Green Earth look next to each other. The Shungite Black Ochre was different from the rest. When I was mixing it with the gum arabic I noticed patches of a slightly oily sheen on top of the liquid. I know that a pigment like lamp black is naturally oily, so maybe this one is too? I really like the paint it made though and I’m planning on making a painting with just this and maybe some of the titanium white.

Here are some things I would recommend for making your own watercolor paints-

• A basic recipe includes gum arabic, honey, and glycerin. It may take some experimenting to find a good balance of ingredients and to know how much pigment to use. Different pigments seem to require more liquid to avoid being thick and pasty, while others may become very thin and watery with the same amount of liquid added. I’m still experimenting to find a good balance, but most of these paints here I made with about 1 part gum arabic to 2 parts pigment, by volume, and a few drops of honey and glycerin.

• Start with a few inexpensive pigments, such as burnt sienna, so you can practice without worrying about the cost if the paint doesn’t work out well on the first few tries.

• Making your own gum arabic from a powder and some warm water costs less and is very easy to do. I mixed 1 part powder to 2 parts water by volume and got good results. Just let it sit in a jar for a while until it’s fully disolved.

• There are alternatives to gum arabic, such as dextrin, that may be cheaper and produce different results. I haven’t used it yet, but dextrin is supposed to make a thicker watercolor paint than gum arabic. I’ve also tried using peach tree sap and have gotten good results with that too. One of the best parts of making your own paint is that you can produce results that handle differently from what standard commercially made paint offers, so feel free to try different things.

• Mulling/grinding pigment with a glass muller on a glass plate is important for fully coating each pigment particle in vehicle, which in this case is the gum arabic/honey/glycerin mixture, as well as breaking down large conglomerates of pigment particles. Some pigments require more mulling than others.

• Until you gain more experience and confidence, avoid using toxic pigments. Most of the paints I made here are non-toxic, but even they would be bad to breathe in the fine dust of the dry pigment. Toxic pigments can pose a serious health risk in their dry form before being made into paint if they are breathed in. Wearing a dust mask would be a good idea when handling dry pigments.

Some advice for buying pigments-

• Buying a larger amount of a pigment at once will mean a better price per gram, but it’s probably not necessary to purchase a huge amount of a pigment unless you know you’ll be using a lot of it. The two large jars in the first photo above contain one pound (453g) each of ultramarine (left) and mars yellow (right) from Blue Ridge that came in bags. I got them for an extremely good price, $14 for blue and $8 for yellow, but that might be more of those pigments than I’ll ever use in my life. Next time I think I’ll get half pound bags.

• Buying about 100g (weight) or about 4oz (volume) of pigment at once is a very good and common amount. It’s enough to make several tubes of paint with, so it’s cost effective when you consider the jar/bag of pigment probably cost the same or less than buying just one tube of pre-made paint, and it’s usually inexpensive enough in that size to buy several different colors to have more variety.

• Try finding unique pigments that aren’t made into watercolor paint by any brand. That way you can add these new paints to the watercolors you already use. For example, there are many varieties of natural yellow and red ochres, green earths, and both raw and burnt siennas and umbers but many brands of paint will only make one or two of each. There are also pigments used in oil paint that are also suitable for watercolor but that no one uses.

• There are many companies that sell dry pigments. You may find that one company sells pigment “A” for a high price and pigment “B” for a low price, but another company may be just the opposite. Some companies have high prices on all of their pigments. It’s a good idea to shop around and know what’s available. I found that Blue Ridge has some of the best prices on pigments, but the selection is a bit limited. They are available in 0.5 or 1 pound bags. Natural Pigments offers one of the largest selections of natural ochres, siennas, umbers, and green earths available in may different sizes, as well as other rare and specialty pigments. Daniel Smith has a limited selection of pigments available but only in 2oz jars or 1 pound bags. Some other companies that I haven’t ordered from yet include Kremer Pigments, Kama Pigments, Earth Pigments, and many other brands of paint that also sell the same pigments they use to make their own paint with.

• Remember that the point is to buy a pigment, not romance. Many paint makers sell their own pigments that they use to make their paint but at ridiculously high prices. They may be hoping that their brand name and reputation for making high quality paint will convince you spend $100 on a small jar of pigment that can be gotten elsewhere for $20. When looking at these pigments, ask yourself this- “After I make this into paint, will the final cost of materials for that paint be less than just buying a tube of the same paint from someone?” If the answer is no, then the pigment you’re looking at is priced too high. You should be able to make at least two or three tubes of paint from a small jar of pigment that’s the same price as buying it pre-made from a brand of paint.

• Of course, there are some rare pigments, such as lapis lazuli, that will cost a lot no matter who you buy them from and are not necessarily overpriced. It would be better to practice with cheaper pigments before investing in one of these.

Pill Box Watercolors

This is a weekly pill box that only cost something like $1.50 I think. I wanted to fill each of the seven spaces with paint I made so I could take it traveling, but by the time I got the first two done I was getting tired of making paint and cleaning up after each color. Also I was almost out of paper towels from all that cleaning. The other five colors I just squirted into it from tubes that I bought.


23 thoughts on “Self Made Watercolor in Tubes

    1. I did a painting with 3 of them last night, but it was in bad light and I messed up one part and didn’t realize it until this morning. I’ll redo the painting tonight. 🙂

      1. I may still redo it at some point, but I realized last night that if I couldn’t see the mistake (a patch of light cream color on what should be white paper because I put some titanium white there and I think the honey in the paint made it offwhite) in the bad lighting of the basement, then I could just photograph it in that same lighting and not have the cream color show up. It worked, so I posted it. ^_^

    1. Making your own paint is really rewarding and not too hard once you get some practice. Be warned though, you may start to feel like an alchemist. 🙂

  1. Not sure how I missed this post… I know I could research it myself, but is easier to ask… overall would you say it’s less expensive (the final product)? soft pastels (or really any artist quality medium) for example, at least the reputable brands, are expensive and you need so many colors… just wondering if it might be worth it to research making my own, which is appealing to the scientist in me

    1. For some reason your post got flagged as spam and I almost missed it. For the initial startup cost here’s a breakdown of what I got, who I got it from, and how much it is regarding just the ultramarine blue-

      large glass muller, Natural Pigments, $79.50
      10″x10″ glass grinding plate, Natural Pigments, $19.50 (I’d really like a bigger plate though)
      empty aluminum paint tubes 15ml 12 pack, Daniel Smith, $6.75
      premium light amber gum arabic in 4oz bottle, Daniel Smith, $7.81
      vegetable glycerin in 16oz bottle, local health food store, $8.99
      local honey in 8oz jar, farmer’s market, $5
      1lb ultramarine pigment, Blue Ridge, $14

      Total, $141.55

      I don’t know how necessary the muller would be for pastels. I’m guessing you could skip it. When I first started with making paint I was only using a palette knife and a couple of small jars of pigment, so I was basically dipping my toes into the water very cheaply to see if I wanted to go in farther. If you want gum tragacanth the only seller I know of right now is Daniel Smith, $15.39 for a half pound. I don’t think you’d need the glycerin or honey either, and definitely not the tubes, but I’ve never made pastels so I’m not sure what all goes in them. Maybe some chalk filler? Lots of catalogs, like Daniel Smith, sell that very cheaply.

      For the cost of the individual tube of ultramarine I think it’s about $1. The tubes were just $0.56 each. I used so little pigment compared to the huge jar of it I have that even with the gum arabic, glycerin, and honey counted, I would be surprised if the total cost of just the paint in the tube was more than $0.50. Obviously a more expensive pigment or one purchased in smaller amounts (and not as much of a price break for buying a lot at once) will cost more for each ml of paint you make with it.

      For pastels you probably won’t want to use cerulean since it contains cobalt, but I’ll use it as an example since it’s the most expensive one I have compared to the amount I got. I got 2oz (volume) of PB36 for $10.50, and it’s probably enough pigment for around 3 15ml tubes of watercolor. All other materials considered I’d estimate closer to $4-5 per tube to make it myself, compared to $11.39 for the same paint pre-made from Daniel Smith and 2-3 times as much from some other paint makers. Sennelier, who I’ve found to have horribly overpriced dry pigments, tries to sell their cerulean PB35 (genuine/original cerulean, related and very similar to PB36 but should only cost a few dollars more) for a “list” price of $140.10 for just 145g (according to Dick Blick who carries it for the “low” price of only $92.47). To put that in perspective, Kama Pigments has a variety of PB36 that looks similar to PB35 for just $22.85 for 4oz (volume) or $51.50 for .5lb (227g) or $91.50 for 1lb (453g).

      Since the cost of getting all the materials to start with can be so high, you’d have to use up a lot of it before it can start to be cost effective. In the long run you may easily save hundreds of dollars. One huge advantage to making you own paints is that you can make your own pigment blends. Want a progression of premixed colors in measured steps transitioning from a certain blue through green and ending at a certain yellow? Just get a 1 blue and 1 yellow pigment and mix them in different amounts for different tubes. I think for pastels that’d be especially useful considering how many in my box are just gradual transitions through the rainbow.

      1. That’s a wealth of information, thank you for all that typing. From the sounds of it, even though the upfront cost is a little high, the overall savings are incredible. The better pastels are about 90% pure pigment if not more… just taking a quick glance, it’d be about half as expensive to make my own, even figuring the time involved… the savings for watercolor, acrylic or oil is even better! I’m definitely going to get supplies for at least the primaries and give it a try. Kudos for figuring all this out, and thanks for sharing

      2. Thanks for nudging me down this road to making my own ‘paint’… I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading and many of my assumptions were wrong. For soft pastels, the way I plan to use them anyway, the ratio will likely be about 55% pigment 30% calcium carbonate 15% talc… I’m going to avoid the gum and preservative where possible. For each color I use a lot of I plan to make a very wide range of values, better than is available in any commercial pastel… I’m going to start with portland greys (just ivory and titanium), and a range of greys based on ultramarine and burnt sienna, see how it goes, then I’ll do a wide range of browns and blues, each stick at, best I can figure, at under a $1 (including my time). I’ll be posting my experiments on artscottme early september if you choose to follow along and see your mentoring in action… I’ve decided on faber-castell pitt for the pastel pencils, I like them best out of any I’ve tried, and a very small range of faber’s hard pastels… anyway, thanks again, is much appreciated

      3. I’m not sure if preservatives are needed for pastels. From what I’ve been told the preservatives used in watercolor paint are mainly needed because sugar in the paint, used as a humectant to keep it moist, may also become food for bacteria or mold that finds its way onto a painting (although honey is at least suppose to be anti both of those as long as it hasn’t been heated, which causes it to lose that property). I’ve also been told that natural earth pigments, even though they’ve been washed, may still have whatever bacteria or mold spores that were in the dirt to begin with. If that’s the case then a tube may swell or leak due to the bacteria multiplying as they feed on the sugar. I suppose a pastel made from natural earth pigments might possibly have these in it too, but without any sugar in the pastel then I would assume that there wouldn’t be a food source. Then again, there’s bacteria that even eat iron, so I’d have to research it some more.

        I didn’t add any preservative to these paints and I haven’t seen any problems yet, which I assume is because of the honey preventing that. In the future I might experiment with a tiny amount of clove oil if I have any problems.

        I’m sure you’ll need at least some gum though, to bind the pigment and other things together. In watercolor the gum also holds the pigment onto the paper too, but I guess that probably isn’t the case for pastels. Again I don’t have experience with pastels, but in both oil and watercolor no matter how much a paint maker may say that they have the “highest” pigment load compared to competitors what they really mean is that they have as much pigment as the binder (oil, gum, etc.) is able to bind. Too little pigment results in a weak and oily or gummy paint, as the case may be, but much pigment results in it being underbound and leads to issues such as cracking in oil paint.

        If I ever get a few of the materials for making pastels I might try that too… 🙂

    2. It’ll be trial and error, I’m sure, but from what I’ve read, the calcium carbonate and talc serve as filler and binder for most pigments, especially the earths and blues… for the pastels, supposedly, if I use gum, then I ‘ll have to add a preservative, but in most cases it’s supposedly not needed. I like your observation that pigment load can be a lot of hype, and you’re right it boils down to how much of the pigment can be bound together. I’ve read that some disinfect their pigments using relatively low heat in an oven (200 F) for a short while, but not sure how that would effect them chemically. It’ll be fun trying

    1. Thanks 🙂
      I enjoy the materials themselves as much as the finished paintings made from them, so I always like talking about them. Tomorrow I’m going to do a special experiment making paint from a piece of anthracite (a type of coal) that’ll probably be as much fun for me as whatever I paint with it.

  2. excellent comments in your article. I have been trying to do the same. I look for rocks around my area and use a single edge razor blade to “shave off” the pigment. I’m still looking for a replacement for the Gum Arabic. Any ideas?

    1. Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, I’ve been out of town. Watercolors from QoR use aquazol, which is a type of acrylic that can be rehydrated after it dries. It’s very similar to normal watercolor and is usually considered watercolor, even though it’s technically an acrylic.

      If you want natural binders, some other kinds of tree saps can be used. As I briefly mentioned, I’ve used peach tree sap that came from a seller of Asian art supplies as a dry powder. I didn’t thoroughly test and compare it, but it seemed to work very similarly to gum arabic. At a glance there didn’t seem to be much difference, except the much higher price for peach tree sap. On the WetCanvas forums a member named Gigalot mentioned also using cherry and plum tree gum, saying they worked perfect.

      There’s also been a few brands of paint over the past couple of centuries (but none I’m currently aware of) that have made watercolor using only honey. I’ve tried it and it works, but there’s a limit to how strongly you can apply it to paper before it starts looking a little shiny and feeling slightly sticky.

  3. Thank for you sharing your experience with making watercolours. I’m a learner and searching for material that will help me succeed creating some of my own.
    One question about the scan of your swatches, you have done a comparison with DS – which side are yours please?
    Also regarding preservatives, as an alternative to clove oil, would sulphur be a possibility?
    There is not very much about storing handmade watercolours in tubes which is what I plan to do… would you recommend dextrin to create a more paste-like result suitable for tubes? Many thanks.

    1. All of the paints in the chart were made by me. The multiple swatches are just showing different amounts of water used for the same paint. At the time that I made this Daniel Smith still sold their own pigments in jars and also things like empty tubes, brushes made for them under their brand name, and paints from many other brands.

      I would wonder if sulphur might damage the paper. Citric acid can be used, but I don’t know how much is needed or at what point the acid will be enough to damage the paper.

      I’ve read that dextrin will thicken watercolor paint, but I don’t remember if I’ve used it. It seems to be a normal ingredient though. I happen to have a tube of Holbein Gum Arabic paste here, which gives a bit of an impasto effect to watercolor when mixed, but the ingredients on the tube only say “Gum Arabic, thickener, glycerin, preservative”. That’s a little vague, unfortunately. Natural Pigments sells fumed silica that can be used as a thickener and they have a tubed gel called Hydrogel that’s made from Gum Arabic and fumed silica. Just be careful about not breathing fumed silica as a dust.

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