Making Art in the Mountains and Instructions for Making Earth Paints

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The village of Ferreirola in the Alpujarras, Southern Spain

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In the mountains of the Sierra Nevada this summer, staying in the ancient Moorish white villages of the Alpujarras, I learned how to make natural earth paints from ochre found on the roadside.

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The area is rich in iron oxides, giving rise to a range of reds, browns and yellows: IMG_3953

Traditionally the ochre, mixed with lime, was used to colour interior walls, creating a cosy nest-like interior, as in the home of architect Donald Gray an authority on Alpujarran architecture:

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Ochre painted walls in the home of architect Donald Gray
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Ochre painted ceiling beams in the home of architect Donald Gray
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Ochre-covered fireplace at the home of architect Donald Gray

To make watercolour paints from earth pigments:

1. Remove soil from a patch of pigmented earth: IMG_3842 (2) IMG_3845

2. Add soil to water, mix and allow stones to settle: IMG_3754

3. Pour off and collect the water, which contains the pigment and leave this to settle – for 5-10 minutes, I was told, but I found it better to leave the jar undisturbed for an hour or more. The pigment will settle at the bottom:

4. Pour off as much of the water as possible and leave the pigment to dry but not completely. While there is still some moisture left in the pigment, add gum arabic solution as a binder – roughly the same volume of pigment as binder:

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5. Dilute as required or mix with watercolour or gouache.

In the mountains, with no art shops nearby, one becomes resourceful. I made pans for the paints from airdrying clay bought in the local stationery shop, partially fired them in the barbecue, sealed them inside with clear nail varnish before pouring in the paint and left the paints to dry completely so that I had a set of paints to travel with:

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Homemade matchbox earth paint set!
Homemade matchbox earth paint set!

I am still exploring the possibilities of these handmade paints. There is something deeply satisfying in making what you need, transforming simple naturally occurring matter into new materials to work with and make art. The following are some images from my sketchbook this summer, using the earth paints. (The blues and greens are gouache or watercolour):

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The Procreate Project Photozine Archive by Made and Published – an exhibition of work by mother artists

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‘Cellular’ – paper pulp, PVA, ink, fired terracotta (2010)
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‘Ring’ – paper pulp, PVA, fired terracotta (2010)
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‘Untitled’ – airdrying clay, nail varnish (2011)
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‘Inside, Outside’ – fired airdrying clay (2011)
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‘Discs’ – fired terracotta (2009)
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detail ‘Discs’ – fired terracotta (2009)

These were pieces made in the first three years of becoming a mother, working in clay and paper pulp, creating simple repetitive forms bearing the marks of my making: finger prints, mistakes, irregularities of size and shape; then ordering, arranging, finding news ways to display, reflecting a new acceptance, a sense of grounding, a desire for simplicity and restraint.

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The photozines  were created by artist Lara Gonzalez through her project Made and Published for The Procreate Project, enabling mother artists to collate and showcase works as part of the archive of works in site-specific installations at The Women’s Art Library, Goldsmiths College and Recto/Verso Galleries, London South Bank University. The following are images from these exhibitions, of fellow artists’ work:

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Such personal unique creations, each small booklet an expression, a showing, a voice – encouraged perhaps by the open invitation to submit, to all, with no judgment, no process of selection by unseen others – instead: acceptance. It was an offer that empowered: a mother artist’s Art is important, especially the work that feels new, altered, changed focus and is taking us wandering in new directions; our Art is who we are and who we have become.