A few weeks ago, I drove out to White Salmon, WA to take a workshop called ‘Making Natural Watercolors’ at Wildcraft Studio School. It had been several months since I’d driven through the Columbia River Gorge, and I was smitten, yet again, by its beauty. Sweeping evergreen panoramas, dramatic overlooks, the wide, sparkling river carving deep into the Cascades. As I neared Eagle Creek, there were stretches of road lined by blackened tree trunks, a sobering reminder of last summer’s devastating wildfires. It can be easy to forget, especially these days when we are nearly drowned here in Portland, that a few short months ago it was ash, not rain, falling from the sky.
I was grateful for the road trip out to White Salmon. It was the perfect way to begin a day of paint making—with a mind quieted by miles of scenic wilderness. When I arrived, the studio was set up with an array of paint making tools and materials. At the center was a series of bins filled with different colored minerals, lined up like a color spectrum.
For the vast majority of art history, back even before handprints were painted on the walls of the Lascaux Cave, natural pigments have been foraged from the earth, ground into powder, and mixed with some sort of binding agent to create paints. Our teacher, Scott Sutton, a local artist, educator, and expert pigment-hunter/paint-maker, explained that the process of making natural watercolors is very similar to that used to create natural oil or acrylic paints—it’s just a different medium to which the pigment is added. Our own watercolor medium consisted of gum arabic (hardened sap harvested from Acacia trees in Africa), honey, glycerin, and distilled water. Once prepared, it was like a viscous, liquid amber.
For the pigments, Scott showed us how to grind minerals to a powder with a mortar and pestle. Using a fine-mesh sieve, we sifted the particles onto a large piece of paper and returned any pebbles left behind to the mortar until they were properly pulverized. Once a pile of powdered pigment had accumulated, we transferred it to a large glass surface, added a splash of distilled water, and mixed it into a paste with a palette knife.
Finally, we combined the pigment with the watercolor medium using a tool called a glass muller, which looks kind of like a pestle but with a smooth, flat bottom. Moving the muller in a circular motion, we spread the paint thin across the glass in widening orbits, dispersing and dissolving the tiny particles of pigment into the medium. This part required a little elbow grease (too little grinding, and your paints will be gritty) but the process was oddly satisfying. When the consistency was just right, the paint was so smooth, like “room temperature butter,” as Scott put it. We listened carefully to the sound the muller made against the glass—like fine sandpaper at first and then smoother and smoother until the pigment was fully incorporated. At last, we got to experiment with the finished product, sweeping the freshly-made paints across different types of watercolor paper, and making ourselves color maps to remember the name of each mineral.
Photographs taken by Eliza Carver, courtesy of Wildcraft Studio School
I loved learning the craft of paint making—getting lost in the flow of grinding and mixing and mulling. But what made the hands-on process even better was learning about the origins of the pigments themselves, each with its own unique chemical and geological history. Most of the minerals we worked with were harvested from Oregon and Washington, between the coast and the Cascades. Scott had collected them himself, with the help of geological maps, guidebooks, and a little luck. Once you start looking for pigments, he explained, you can’t help but see them. Along highways, riverbanks, the ocean—anywhere that erosion has exposed layers of previously hidden earth, there are likely to be some flashes of color.
Vivianite, one of the most magical minerals of the bunch, began forming hundreds of years ago after an earthquake triggered a tsunami on the Oregon coast. Stretches of shoreline littered with pinecones from Sitka spruce trees were completely buried. As time passed, elements in the soil like iron and phosphate, in combination with microorganisms, went to work on the pinecones, slowly replacing the organic matter with minerals. When Scott dug them up, they were still pinecone-shaped, some with distinct ridges, but they had been transformed into something else entirely. Breaking one open reveals a core of brilliant BLUE! Like a piece of gorgeously saturated sidewalk chalk. Secret treasures buried in the earth, just waiting to be cracked open.
Every one of the minerals had an incredible story. Diatomaceous earth, a brick red pigment, was buried under layers of lava flows, like a “vein of cooked earth.” Chlorite, which makes a lovely sea green paint, was carried through the water before being deposited alongside a waterfall at Mt. Hood. Celledonite, a lighter, celery-like green, was harvested from soil by the Sandy River. It’s the result of a volcanic eruption and was still covered in tiny sparkles of ash.
When I took out my watercolors earlier this week and made a few small paintings, I thought about the journeys these colors had made. My painting didn’t begin the moment I sat down and took out my brushes. It didn’t begin in White Salmon at Wildcraft Studio School, or when Scott hiked along the coast hunting for Vivianite, or when the tsunami came and buried the land, or when the Sitka spruce trees dropped their cones. The story of these paints is as old as the shapeshifting earth itself, my own role in it just the latest stop along an endless chain of transformations. Already, the paints have begun to fur over with mold, on the way to their next state (refrigeration and a few drops of clove oil would have helped prevent this). I wet my brush and dipped it into an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcano. I painted with rivers and waterfalls, deep soil and deep time. Bones, my own included, would turn blue with Vivianite if buried for long enough beside the pinecones.
On Saturday, I am taking a follow-up class with Scott Sutton at Wildcraft Studio School called ‘Foraging for Earth Pigments.’ This time, we will be lacing up our hiking boots and exploring the mountains, rivers, and creeks around Mt Adams and the Columbia River Gorge, learning to sustainably harvest natural pigments ourselves. Stay tuned for a recap in my next post!