FORAGING FOR EARTH PIGMENTS

WORDS & IMAGES: ELLEN JULIA BROWN

After learning how to make my own watercolors at Wildcraft Studio School a few weeks ago, I was hooked on natural pigments and eager to learn more. Fortunately, artist and piment-hunter Scott Sutton had another workshop coming up, this time an outdoor excursion called Foraging for Earth Pigments, and I jumped at the opportunity to backfill my new paint-making skills with the knowledge of how to collect pigments myself. 

On Saturday, I drove out to Troutdale, Oregon, where I met up with Scott and the other students in our class. After a brief lesson on local geology (this portion of land had been flooded with basalt many times throughout history due to repeated volcanic eruptions), we grabbed our daypacks and carpooled the additional twenty minutes to the trailhead. In our backpacks we carried several large ziplock bags for harvesting, sharpies for labeling, journals for note-taking, small garden spades for digging, and lunches for eating. Before we had even left the trailhead, Scott ran across the street and came back with a handful of crumbly, red-brown soil. We gathered around and saw the way it smooshed like clay in his hands, staining them red. Our first pigment! Not a bad way to start.

The forest was overwhelmingly green as we set out down the trail. At this time of year, many months of rain have supercharged the flora. Soft, shaggy moss covers nearly every branch and trunk, giving everything a kind of alien-muppet vibe. Foraging for earth pigments would be an entirely different experience in, say, the desert, where the landscape is bald and the geology laid bare. In the Pacific Northwest, the plants are so dense that it takes quite a bit more detective work to determine what is going on beneath the surface.

Scott stopped us just a few dozen meters down the trail and pointed out a large tree trunk whose roots had pulled up from the earth, revealing more reddish, clay-like soil. It’s places like this that we need to learn to pay attention to. When I hike, I’m accustomed to noticing the trees, the plants, the wildflowers, the stretch of trail directly in front of my feet. It takes some conscious adjustment to scan for subtle variations in rock and exposed soil. Throughout the day, we begin to add names like basalt, sandstone, and mudstone to our vocabularies. There’s something about having the words that helps bring these things into focus.

A ways down the trail, we paused again, this time beside a little creek. Here, Scott bent down, picked up a small yellow rock, and performed a ‘scratch test.’ It melted beautifully against a nearby wet stone, scribbling out a thick coating of yellow ochre. There were audible oohs and ahhs from the group, and we quickly went about gathering the yellow ourselves, testing each piece before dropping it into our ziplock bags. The richness of the yellow ochre color and its abundance here in the creek, something we would have walked right by the day before, had us giddy. It felt like unlocking a secret. Stumbling upon a gift. Free art supplies! Just lying here on the ground!

Continuing on, we scrambled over fallen logs, took a detour to a roaring waterfall, waded through Jurassic Park-like ferns, and squelched through boot-stealing mud on our descent to the banks of the Sandy River. When we reached our final destination, Scott remarked on how high the water levels were due to recent rain. There was much less beach and many more rapids that anticipated. Still, we were able to find a good spot to stop for lunch and explore what turned out to be the most abundant foraging site of the day. It was a pigment bonanza.

By the river, there were deposits of clay-like Celadonite all over, in different shades of green. It was soft and crumbly, easy to gather by hand. One of my favorite finds was a piece of Celadonite that was gray-green on the outside but, broken open, revealed veins of deep blue, glittering with specks of volcanic ash. That one made it into my bag for sure, although I suspect it will be difficult to isolate the blue from the rest.

Suffice it to say, our backpacks were a lot heavier on the way up than on the way down. We were laden with colors. An embarrassment of riches. One of the students, who was visiting from Phoenix, wondered about checking a bag of rocks on her return flight (#pigmentforagerproblems).


When I got home, I carefully rinsed and separated my pigments, having made the beginners mistake of loading them all into one bag. I lined a couple of cookie sheets with paper towels and laid them out to dry, organized by color. Upstairs in my art studio, I have whole tupperware containers filled with store-bought paint—acrylics and watercolors in every imaginable hue. And don’t get me wrong, I love me a full-spectrum rainbow of paints, fluorescents included, but I’ve never cared about those factory-made paints the way I care about these little colored rocks laid out on my kitchen counter. I find myself handling them so gently, checking on them as they dry, carefully arranging them in groups of the same, like little pigment families. They feel so precious, these colors that formed deep in the forest, deep in the earth, that I gathered with stained fingertips and carried on my back and then the passenger seat of my car, all the way from their home to mine.

In Victoria Finlay’s book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, she writes about how “colormen first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century, preparing canvases, supplying pigments, and making brushes.” Their arrival was a sign of how “the act of painting was moving from a craft profession to an art one. For ‘craftspeople’ the ability to manage one’s materials was all important; for ‘artists’ the dirty jobs of mixing and grinding were simply time-consuming obstacles to the main business of creation...Slowly and irrevocably, artists began to push their porphyry pestles and mortars to the backs of their workshops, while professional colormen...did the grinding.”

This separation of ‘craft’ and ‘art’ is even more true today, when any of us can walk into an art supply store and find a selection of hundreds of different paints, each with details about its relative opacity, viscosity, etc. Foraging for earth pigments is a real commitment. Between traveling and trekking and grinding and preparing your medium, you’ve logged some long hours before even making the first mark on your canvas. Today, anyone can make a painting at a moment’s notice. It’s amazing, really, what we have access to. And more accessibility means more art made by more people, which is always a wonderful thing. And yet, as Finlay puts it, “not really knowing what these paints are or where they have come from, one is somehow alienated from the process of making them into art.” There’s a feeling of reverence, a deeply satisfying connection to the land, that can only be found opting for the slower, more scenic route.

Increased interest in natural pigments, thanks in no small part to those who have made them cool on social media, parallels similar movements in other industries like ‘slow food’ and ‘slow fashion’ that are working to bridge the disconnect between products and consumers. What does it look like to make a painting that is “local”? What does it look like to harvest pigments sustainably and respectfully? Are we willing to work with a limited palette? Are we willing to put the ‘craft’ back in our art practice, even if that slows us down? At the very least, a hike in the woods, a trip to the source with open eyes, seems like a good place to start.