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.
The area is rich in iron oxides, giving rise to a range of reds, browns and yellows:
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:
To make watercolour paints from earth pigments:
1. Remove soil from a patch of pigmented earth:
2. Add soil to water, mix and allow stones to settle:
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:
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:
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):