Extracting natural pigments from earth, rocks and roots

Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Blog, Materials and Techniques | 2 comments

Extracting natural pigments from earth, rocks and roots

I had a fantastic week in London last week, extracting natural pigments from various plants and stones. These are the pigments that would have been used in the past, before our synthetic colours were discovered as by-products of the industrial revolution.

The traditional methods of transforming raw materials into paint would originally have been part of an artist’s training, and pigment preparation was seen as an integral part of the painting process. How different to today, where we order a tube of chemicals online!

Our tutor was David Cranswick, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of traditional painting techniques which he shares generously.

We turned this

Extracting natural pigments - Azurite



into this

Extracting natural pigments - Azurite pigment

Azurite pigment


Washed a yellow ochre out of a lump of iron stone

Extracting natural pigments - ochre

Made pigments from madder root, weld, cochineal and Persian berry

Extracting natural pigments from plants


Black from bone

Extracting natural pigments - bone black

and vine stems

Extracting natural pigments - bone and vine black

and finished up by making a lovely black ink from oak galls.

Having extracted the pigments we made them into watercolour and oil paint to take home.

I will never think about colour in quite the same way again and will be on the lookout for good stones to grind locally! I’m currently doing an egg tempera painting using the pigments I produced last week, which is incredibly satisfying.

If you fancy doing the course, it was organised by the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts and held in David’s studio in Hackney Wick, London.


  1. Greetings, Mr Watts!
    I’m a school teacher from Brazil looking for interesting ways to make art materials instead of just purchasing them from overpriced art stores. I was a former student of Chelsea College in London and it is a pity I did’t find out about Mr. Cranswick’s class while I was there.
    I’ve found ways of satisfyingly turning newspaper into something that will hold paint much like a traditional canvas and I’m now moving on to finding a way to make paint. Would you happen to know a good book on the subject or perhaps another way to get that information? I’m currently just trying to make anything that comes close to the three basic primary colours, plus black and white. Any information would be of great value.

    Thank you very much in advance!

    • Hello Pedro,
      There’s a book called ‘The Organic Artist’ by Nick Neddo which has chapters on making pens, inks, paper, charcoal etc and has a small section on paint making. Alternativly you can go further back and look at the book written by Cennino Cennini (Il Libro dell’Arte) translated into English by Daniel Thompson which gives you paint making instructions from the turn of the 15th century.
      I make blue from azurite, yellow from the wild flower weld, and red from cinnabar (mercuric sulphide – poisonous). Dry pigments are mixed with gum Arabic / oil / egg to make paint.
      Good luck with it all!


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