06 October 2011

How to Make Your Own Paint

A guest post by Rachel of Pthalo Azul and This is Not a Craft. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

Part of being an artist in this day and age, is to have paint and materials that people over 150 years ago never dreamed about (and we're still inventing hybrids of acrylic, oils, and watercolor that do really fun things) - however, most of it is made in a big ol factory in heaven-knows-where and heaven-knows-when.

Some artists, for this reason as well as others, like to make their own paint from scratch in their own homes. So that's what we're going to talk about today. Not only is it cheaper for the artist that uses a lot of paint, it makes less of a footprint not only on the environment but on global trade. You can buy oils and pigments from small sources and make just enough for you so it isn't just sitting on a shelf for forty years like I suspect some of the tubes in art stores are doing. The quality is much, much higher, and the paint is tailored for the individual artist's needs.

Paint isn't that complicated or mysterious when you get down to it. Its recipe is three things: a pigment, a binder, and a medium (sometimes referred to as the "thinner") that allows it to flow. Every single type of paint from oil, to tempera, to watercolor, to encaustics are made up of only these three things. (of course some paints are very synthetic, you can't really make acrylic at home, for instance)

Egg Tempura
  • Powder pigment (not a lot of it - pigment is strong. Some pigment is also dangerous, so wear a mask before you've mixed it with the egg - the amount you use depends on the color and that's too complicated for this post)
  • egg yolk from a freshly cracked egg
  • H20
A great underused paint is Egg tempura. There really isn't a way to sell it in a tube because it's made out of eggs. It's the paint made famous by the monks of the 13th century, who perfected the technique on religious iconography. For a binder it uses a freshly cracked egg yolk (for those with chickens at home, free-range chickens are the very best eggs to use for egg tempura, and so if you haven't picked it up - you should!)

Using a palette knife against a palette, the yolk is mixed with the pigment for half a minute or so. Egg tempura is really thin, should dry really quickly once applied to the surface, and has to be built up in dozens of layers to get the rich colors seen in old artifacts. For a thinner, tempura painters use water - but too much will ruin the bond of the egg and the pigment.

I've heard you can use a watercolor pigment for egg tempura if you don't have a powder pigment (powder pigment I'll discuss later in the tutorial) and it's meant to be painted on a board primed with oil-painting gesso.

Oil Paint
  • pigment
  • oil (linseed oil - available at all art/craft stores - is the most popular one, but depending on the pigment people will add other types, sometimes even beeswax for an added texture)
  • mineral spirits
In olden times, people would use a rock and grind away pigment into oil for hours - nowadays there's these mortar and pestles made of glass to do the mixing. It takes a while before the consistency is just right, but I hear that the process is extremely relaxing. I know it's at least really relaxing to watch. When finished, oil paint is slapped into tubes.

Check your local art store (the higher end ones) to see if there is locally hand-mixed paint. It's a little more expensive, but is a great way to support local artists. You also know that the quality is high grade and fresh.

The ratio of pigment to oil depends on the artist and the pigment. Higher grade paints use a lot more pigment - and I'm sure we've all accidentally bought that cheap red paint that took 8 coats to paint red. Its problem was not enough pigment (red pigment is very expensive). Which is why house paint will never acheive true red - they hardly add any pigment at all because it's so pricey. It's also why cheap paint is so cheap: it's missing half the ingredients.

Almost all pigment nowadays is in a powder form that you can buy online. Traditionally, these powders were ground from things like mollusks, dirt, and in the 1800's they even tried using ground up mummies. Yes, Egyptian mummies. Of dead people. A thought so far beyond green, it's from a weird and scary ultraviolet place! So I guess it isn't such a tragedy, in comparison, that all of our pigments today are synthetically produced by just a few manufacturers.
However, that means the same pigment we use for an eco oil painting or the even same color that your fabrics are dyed to will also be used by a Hummer for it's lovely gas-guzzling top coat. But there's ways even around pigment - to use natural dyes and materials for the super self-reliant artist.

Since this is about alternative paints, I thought I would do something that we know creates pigment but have probably never painted with. Truly, you can paint with anything, so long as it reaches the three required properties of paint (and painting with tea is probably more considered a dye, but I don't want to go into that) coffee, flowers, juice, bark, dirt, tree sap, grass, there's loads of alternative pigments, but they smell (especially the process to make ink, which is infamously smelly) and so I decided to use herbal tea.

They certainly can't last as long as a synthetic pigment, but unless you have some Futarama experience on your next pizza delivery, the chances that you will still be around in 200 years to see your painting are slim. Using good paper, framing well, and hanging out of the direct sunlight will help keep that painting looking good at least until you die.

I used several different teas that I soaked in hot water (about a tablespoon for each bag so it wouldn't take too long to sink in) and I soaked them for about half an hour before I got impatient and decided to start.

(I apologize, I am that type of illustrator that is completely incapable of drawing anyone in normal clothes. This is literally the first thing that comes off my head and I have no idea why, but my sketchbook is full of these weird-dressed chicks.)

Low quality paper won't take the tea-paint well, but high quality watercolor paper does just fine. I used a heavy lb Arches watercolor paper.
  • The reds (which dried purple when done in thin washes) are from a raspberry herbal tea;
  • The yellow-ochre are from a ginger tea;
  • The bright yellow are from a licorice blend tea.
I was really surprised at the almost purple quality I got from the raspberry tea.

I used just a normal graphite pencil for dark lines and I'm satisfied with my tea experiment, and most wouldn't guess that used to be in a tea bag:

So I hope you give some alternative paints a spin, if not for the Earth, at least for a chance to get back to our roots, because it wasn't too long ago (about 200-300 years ago? Kay, maybe it was kind of a long time ago... ) there were no paints sold in stores - you had to make that all yourself. Making paint from scratch was once an integral part of the artist experience, and I think with the push to be more green and the push to buy locally and know where your products come from, it will gain relevancy once again.

My name is Rachel Anne Jones, Raj for short - I'm an illustrator who creates pieces for my shop, Pthalo Azul, and writes for my blog This Is Not a Craft. I live in the Bay Area south of San Fransisco, and am in love with the piano, good chocolate, tall trees, and finding ways to tell stories through art. I have a BFA in Illustration, and I've done odd jobs ranging from business cards, to painted murals, to web art, but my favorite is still working with a paintbrush and sketching in a book.


  1. Sonya, your blog is a tremendous resource. And I love Raj's teabag lady. Those earthy tones and her swing and style really send me. Wonderful post.

  2. I really should try this as I use oil paints for my paintings!


  3. Very interesting post!

    I like the idea of the natural elements in the paint...egg & tea...very cool!

  4. Very cool! Now I wish I could paint. Raj your work is amazing.
    Everyday Inspired

  5. Thanks guys, I'm glad you liked it: it was fun looking through my old schoolbooks for simple paint recipes.

  6. Interesting! I have this feeling that it's not going to be long before we are all looking for more natural ways to do and create things.

  7. Great post, and I love the tea girl, too! (Dress included.)


  8. Oh, you make me want to paint!

  9. This really looks like it would be fun to try. Thank you so much for sharing!!!

  10. I love the use of marks in the background. It makes for an intriguing and dramatic composition. Also like the idea of experimenting with tea paint. Very creative and cool work.

  11. You can make your own acrylic paint by mixing regular temper paint and school glue. It's not the same as the real stuff but it works in a bind if you run out of colors, like red or black and sometimes green..oh yea and yellow. I'm always running out of yellow. :)