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Native Americans and Earth Paint

Ochre was the first color paint on this planet. It has been used on every inhabited continent since painting began, and it’s been around ever since, on the palettes of almost every artist in history. In Swaziland, archaeologists have discovered mines that were used AT LEAST 40,000 years ago to excavate red and yellow pigments for body painting. Native Americans are known for their body paintings and I just read that the first white settlers in N. America called them “Red Indians” because of the way they painted themselves with ochre. It acted as a shield against evil and also protection against winter cold and summer insects. Like the Aboriginals in Australia and most indigenous cultures, they considered ochre sacred and infused it into their everyday objects like clothing, tools, pottery, rawhide, etc. Trade for pigments among tribes and later with European traders expanded their palette of colors. The ancient art of Sand Painting among tribes in the Southwest took advantage of the great geologic range of natural colors in their environment and was a form of religious expression. In its original form, Sand Paintings were created to exist only a few hours. But a movement by Native Americans in the latter half of the 20th Century created permanent Sand Painting as an art form.

Navajo sand painting

Navajo sand painting

Make a Sand Painting


  • 1 cup Craft Sand
  • 1 teaspoon earth pigment

Place sand in a glass jar (not plastic) and add the desired amount of pigment. The amount given is only an approximation. Shake vigorously to coat.

Since pigments are not dyes, their fine particle size mixes with the sand to coat it, but does not actually dye it. Therefore this is not a colorfast application. However, coloring sand by hand and choosing single or combinations of pigments gives you an infinite range of colors that cannot be matched by store bought craft sand.

Tips for sandpainting

  • Work with only one sand color at a time. Finish all areas of that color before proceeding to a new color.
  • It is preferable to do dark colors before light ones.
  • Upon completion of all colors, you may notice some powder or sand has invaded other areas of a different color. The use of a can of compressed spray air, such as that used to clean computers (found in Office Supply) will blow this excess off once all areas are completely dry. Compressed air is also useful for dusting and cleaning sand paintings.


What is ochre?

Himba woman covered in red ochre

There seems to be confusion in all the books and articles I’m reading about the word “ochre”. Some say it’s just a specific color, some say it means “earth pigments” or colored clay with many possible colors and some say it means iron oxide. I think the general consensus is that ochre means any natural earthy pigment with iron ore in it. It could be brown, red, orange, or yellow or any shade in between. And “natural earth pigment” means any colored clay with certain natural occurring minerals (including iron oxides) that give it various colors.

Rustrel ochre mine




Earth Painting at Tease

View from outside in the street

Painting Live at Tease during First Friday Art Walk

Painting Live at “Tease”, a swanky cocktail lounge in Ashland, was alot of fun last month. It was also challenging trying to stay in “the zone” space with everyone I knew in Ashland stopping by to chat (which was also wonderful by the way). I couldn’t bring my big glass palette and tons of jars of pigment so I brought tubes of earth paint from my favorite paint co., M. Graham. They’re local and environmental and use walnut oil in their oil paints. If you pick out earth colors- yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, etc. and make sure it has the word “natural” on the back of the tube, then it’s a natural earth paint. If it says “mars” or doesn’t say “natural” then it’s synthetic.


Earth Painting on Interior Walls

Leah painting an interior strawbale wall with earth paints

 My latest earth painting project was on the interior walls of a strawbale house. Since it was a natural wall with an earth plaster on top, I was able to just use earth pigments mixed with water. It made a wonderful creamy easy to apply paint. Although when it dried it was powdery to the touch (kind of like touching a pastel drawing). So I recommend either coating it with a protective glaze or even easier, mixing in some home-made flour paste with the paint (see recipe below). This will give the paint a much better, protective, hard finish.  

Django and Rosie in front of the finished painting

 If you would like a natural earth paint look on an interior drywall or wood wall, you can use the same technique but definitely need to add the flour paste to make it adhere. Get a 5 gallon bucket and mix the pigment with water and flour paste (and a little sand if you’d like some texture) and paint it on! You’ll have a nice, earthy adobe feel in a conventionally built home.

*For a free estimate on earth paint murals, call me at 541-899-1448

Flour Paste Recipe:

*wheat, rice or rye flour is good (about 1 part flour to 6 parts water)

Mix flour with a small amount of water to make a smooth paste; then add hot or warm water to make a thin consistency; cook on low heat, stirring constantly until thick. Use immediately or refrigerate to preserve it.


Cave Painters

cave painters

The mystery of the Palaeolithic cave paintings have always fascinated me since learning about them in Art History 1 in art school. The earliest surviving paintings are actually the dot painting petroglyphs in Australia which are as much as 50,000 years old. But the best known are the later cave paintings from northern Spain and southern France that are around 15,000 years old. All were painted with earth pigments showing it’s amazing permanence. In the Lascaux caves, they ground the earth pigments in hollows on the floor using heavy animal bones and stones. The clays were mixed with water, albumen, animal fat and blood to make very sophisticated paints. The paints were applied by brushing with the chewed ends of twigs, feathers and animal hair; smearing and dabbing using the hands and pads of mosses and lichen; and also applied with primitive air brushes- spraying through reeds and hollow bones.

Recent discoveries have shown that the people of Lascaux would travel up to 25 miles to collect their painting materials. Keeping in mind the extremely hazardous conditions under which early humans lived and their short life span, painting must have been extremely important. They painted not only their walls and ceilings but also their tools, clothing and bodies.

There are three theories about why so much precious time and energy was expended this way. #1. For pleasure or to tell a story  #2. “Sympathetic hunting magic”- based on the belief that to paint a picture of a successful hunt helps to achieve it in actuality.  #3. Artistic Symbolism- to represent the unknown, the natural and supernatural forces. I personally think that it was probably a combination of all three but primarily number 2. I bet they were masters of the law of attraction and created their reality with their drawings. What do you think?

Serra da Capivara cave painting


Making Earth Paints with Children


I had the most wonderful opportunity to teach forty 4 -6 year olds how to make earth paints last week. It was glorious watching the ecstatic glee or intense concentration as they ground and sifted the pigments and composed beautiful little paintings. I’ve included a step-by-step guide for teaching children below the photos.

How to make Natural Earth Paints with children….

You’ll Need: mortar & pestel &/or flour sifter; walnut oil; small spatula or palette knife; piece of glass as palette or painting cups (recycled yogurt containers are good); a painting surface (canvas paper, canvas board, wood, or any surface that is primed with gesso); Murphy’s oil soap and regular soap (for clean up); either locally collected clay or purchased clay.

Step 1: Collect some clay: For a large group it may be best for an adult to pre-scout out a spot with clay visible and guide the group to the spot. But for a few children, you can go on a scouting trip together- along banks of rivers or streams, quarries, eroded areas. Or make it a game on road trips for them to watch out the window for pretty colors along the road cuts (bring some baggies in your car at all times in case you need to pull over). Note: How do you know it’s clay? A little creek water or spit mixed into a handful produces a tightly compacted ball. You can roll it further to become a long centipede of clay. It passes the test!

Step 2: Dry the clay: pour out a layer of clay on some newspaper or absorbent surface in the sun. This also allows any critters to escape before you start to grind. I usually put mine on a big table in front of a sunny window so the wind doesn’t blow it away.

Step 3: Grind the clay: Find a mortar & pestle and some flour sifters (the crank kind, not the handle squeeze kind) in a thrift store or antique shop. Set up tubs for the kids to grind the dry soil and then put it through the sifter to dispose of rocks and debris. Note: If the soil is not powder fine at the end you may need to push the soil through a small 100 grit screen as a last step (from a ceramic supply store).

Step 4: Mix with Walnut oil: For older kids, get a piece of window glass as a palette; Pour a small hill of powdered clay, make an indention in the top like a volcano, and pour in a little walnut oil (from the grocery store). Use a palette knife (or spatula) to mix it into a paste. For younger kids, either mix it for them and pour into little cups of paint or let them scoop powder into a cup, pour in a bit of oil and stir with a stick or spoon until you get a smooth tempera paint consistency.

Step 5: Paint!

Step 6: Clean up: Wipe as much paint off the brushes as possible with an old rag. Buy a cheap bottle of Murphy’s oil soap from the hardware store. Pour a little in a cup and swirl the dirty brushes around in it. Then rinse and then wash the brushes with a little soap and water (I use Dr. Bronners). Wash little hands with soap and water.

NOTE: You can skip steps 1, 2 & 3 if you purchase ready made pigments online. I sometimes buy beautiful blues, greens and purples onlline if I can’t find those colors in my area.


The Amazing Egyptians

Egyptian Painting

The Egyptians were amazing innovators and discovered and developed most of the arts and sciences that we recognize today. They seem to me to also have been early permaculturists, using each element of nature for many different uses. For example, using a natural gum to make incense, perfume, paint, a protective furniture covering, medicines and cosmetics.

They were also great miners and they uncovered a massive range of raw materials and earth pigments. To decorate the incredible number of buildings, thousands and thousands of workers would paint with materials from all over the known world brought down the Nile by barge. For the homes of the wealthy and places of worship, lapis lazuli and azurite were ground to make blues. Heated lead ore produced many colors from white to red. Greens were made with malachite and chrysoprase and also from the acidic corrosion of copper. Oils, waxes, resins, mastics, eggs, milk, lime and alcohol were used to make a huge variety of paints and finishes. The most common paints were natural earths and milk paints since both were readily available and inexpensive. Apparently around the city of Karnak there were over one million cattle grazing which explains the prevalence of milk paint.

Historical info from “The Natural Paint Book” by Lynn Edwards


Every Dirt Is Different

As I continue to collect different colors of earth I’m starting to realize how different they all are. I may collect two jars of clay that look like the same color but were collected in different locations and when I grind and mix them with walnut oil, their properties are completely different. One may be very transparent and the other opaque or one may be sticky and buttery and the other grainier. Some may require a little oil to make a nice consistency and others seem to just soak it up and require a ton. I’m learning a little bit at a time as I go along.

The specific properties of each pigment vary depending on the composition of the earth where they were collected. Earth pigments are basically clay that contains different forms of iron oxide, plus other minerals. The various combinations of these elements determine the color.

Generally green earth pigment has a weak tinting strength (pretty transparent) but most of the natural earth pigments (the ochres, siennas and umbers) have a medium tinting strength. Umbers and ochres are the most opaque and siennas more transparent. Red iron oxide has a powerful tinting strength.

 I’ve purchased several hard to find colors from, based in Arizona. They sell pure natural earth clays and also alter certain earth pigments by roasting them to get different colors (for example “burnt” sienna). Both ultramarine blue and red are made from sodium aluminum silicate clays that are then burned with sulfur. I’m holding off from using these drastically altered pigments but atleast they’re natural and non-toxic for those who need these specific colors.


Why did we stop using natural earth pigments?

I was surprised to find out that long before the white man discovered and began drilling for oil (petroleum), Native Americans were using it for centuries in their paints, medicine and magic. They found it in small pools, streams, and shales where it had naturally seeped up through layers of rock.

In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the first oil producing well in Pennsylvania and the world was changed forever. In addition to being used for fuel, oil was scientifically studied, and gradually the many chemicals composing petroleum were isolated. New substances that didn’t previously exist in nature were made, like plastics and “modern” paints.

Producers of these new paints convinced people to change from traditional paints by promoting the idea that their new products were more durable (despite the fact that ancient paints have lasted thousands of years). And even though these new paints were more expensive in the beginning, people were persuaded to buy them and most painters changed their practices soon after.

 With this new growth, change and wealth in the twentieth century, we also went through great changes in the way we relate to the natural world, in terms of its resources and our spiritual connection with it. Now we seem to have a new “religion” of consumerism with an insatiable and unsustainable consumption of our planet’s raw materials. I believe we’re now on our way back to the way our ancestors related to the world around them. We’re becoming were aware of the source and properties of our products. To everything there is a reaction, and cultures do change. Let’s take responsibility and act accordingly.

Historical info from “The Natural Paint Book” by Lynn Edwards


Soil Horizons

Soil Horizon

My husband just introduced me to a great book called, “Dirt- the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth” by William Bryant Logan. He wrote a great chapter about the beauty of “soil horizons”. If you’re ever driving down a fresh road cut or beside a beach you may see the “soil’s body exposed” in distinct, dense layers of color like a sunset. Apparently rainwater, which is made more acidic and chemically active by picking up CO2 in the air, drips down through the soil and chemically extracts and moves aluminum, silica, clays, humus and mostly iron down through the layers. It makes the subsoil layers shades of red and the top silica turns white. In a great soil horizon you might see a red and orange subsoil teeming with life with streaks of green and purple lichen and turquoise mosses growing through channels. He says that the unbelievable beauty of soil horizons is often what makes people want to become soil scientists. To describe all of these different types of soils and soil horizons, they’ve come up with ten soil orders, fourteen thousand soils with proper names (like haplahumod and quartzipsamment) and 21 letter designations to distinguish different characteristics of soil horizons! Keep an eye out when you see road work ahead!