Natural Paints and Plasters

Seasonal Samplers:

Wild Edible Plants,
Village Building, 
Natural Building
Pysanky Eggs,
Ivy Baskets, and more

Natural Building
Camps and classes, 
Fruit harvest, 
water and boat workshops, 
traveling workshops

Kitchen Alchemy, 
harvest and food preservation, 
gifts and crafts, 
Fire Science

Artisan Truffles
Paper Snowflakes
Ice and Crystals

Year-Round Building Blocks:
Knotical Nauledge,
Natural Paints
Messy Science,
Rocket Stoves,
Writing, and Illustration
Classroom Visits,
Community Activities

For artists, teachers, home decorators, wild crafters, and anyone interested in pretty mud.

New!  Temporary slideshow for "Dirty Secrets: Earthen Art for Everybody"
Earthen Art with Kids on Picasa

See below for some great links for large-scale community projects.

Getting Muddy 101:  Creative Crafts for All Ages

Fairy Cottages: 
Ages 3 and up
Goal: Create a fantasy house for tiny creatures, using only natural materials available in your area.  
Skills: observation, dexterity, creative design and engineering, imagination and storytelling

Introducing the Activity: A)  Let's build a tiny fairy house / gnome home to play with. B) If we build a tiny house, do you think the fairies will come and use it?  C) What kind of house would you live in if you were only as big as a frog?

- Where: You can build on-site almost anywhere, or create a portable project on a tray or board.
- How: Go outside and look for tiny, charming things: sticks for structure; bark for roofs, shelves, and doors; moss and lichen for greenery; reeds and grasses for thatch or mats; 'pillows' of down or cattail fluff; nuts and berries; delicate seed pods; flowers, roots, shells, pebbles, etc.
- Mix a tiny batch of cob or earthen plaster, with short fibers of chopped straw or hair 'to scale' with fairy size.  (You can use plain mud, but the right mix of sand and clay will make a sturdier project.)
- Build walls with cob, bark, or any found material, in any shape you like.  
- Add indoor and outdoor elements to suit your fancy.
- Paint, flowers, etc. optional.  
 Suggestions: To use the fairy house for playtime, give it a removable roof and/or large, cave-like doors.  To make a bird house, ask or Audubon Society for tips on suitable proportions for local birds, and make the 'base' a wicker basket or wire cage suitable for hanging from a wall or tree.

To Fairy or Not to Fairy: Some people like to keep the 'fairies' invisible, and play a game where children look for signs of 'fairy' visits.  This encourages observation, and delightful repeat visits to the distant fairy house, but may end with disappointment at deception as children outgrow the game.  It's also possible to make fairies to suit the house, either felted 'gnomes' or ephemeral flower 'fairies;' children may also outgrow these dollies, but they can re-create them at will and build creative skills for later life.  (The fairy shown here is a one-night wonder of Evening Primrose blossom, garlic skins, and a twist of yellow wool.)

Natural Paints: 
Ages 3 and up (fingerpainting to fine arts)
Goal: Re-create ancient art techniques using locally available materials, create your own stuff from scratch.
Skills: Gross and fine motor skills, mixing and measuring, kinaesthetic and visual observation, science and art process skills, materials science/chemistry

Introduction: Art is one of the earliest known forms of human activity.  Making art that lasts thousands of years just takes a few basic tricks (and a dry cave to store it in).  The easiest natural paints are simply mud: colorful clay and water.  Clay is pretty sticky by itself, but it (and most other powdered pigments) can turn back into chalky powder when dry.  Binders help stick the paint together permanently.  Binders can be protein, oil, resin, glue, or almost any sticky stuff.

Making Your Own Paints: 
- Always pre-wet your pigment  into a paste  like toothpaste.  (This is both to mix without lumps, and for safety: breathing dust is the biggest danger to avoid.) 
- Prepare the binder, then combine the binder and pigment.*  (Most natural binders are best used fresh.)  
- Add water (or the appropriate solvent) to thin the mixture down.  
- Strain through a sieve to catch any pigment lumps.
- Paint and play!
- Continue to stir the paint while using it.

*How much?  It depends how strong the binder is, and whether the paint needs to be hard or porous.  Usually, there's a little more pigment than binder, sometimes a lot more. 
(follow the links to recipes from experts)
Alis (clay paint) is about 1 part wheat paste with 4 parts water, then add clay and other dry materials to achieve the desired thickness.  
Egg tempera works fine with about 1 part yolk to 1 part pigment paste, then add water.  
Milk paints and lime washes can be made with the same ingredients (milk casein and lime putty), but the ratios vary anywhere from 1:1 up to 1:20 or more.

Mineral pigments can be used with almost any binder; organic (plant- and animal-based or synthetic) pigments can be more touchy.  (Charcoal keeps linseed oil from setting properly, for example; and many plant-based and synthetic tints degrade when combined with alkaline lime.) 

Common, relatively safe minerals are listed first. (Parentheses give art materials with significant but manageable health considerations).  As always, avoid breathing dust.
 white  = clay, chalk, (*lime - caustic but not very toxic; titanium white; zinc white are fine. Lead white is no longer widely used due to toxicity.) 
 red, orange = clay, iron ochre, powdered brick (*cinnibar, cadmium red are bright but toxic; lead white is no longer widely used due to toxicity.).  
 black = soot, charcoal powder, hematite sand (* mars black  from iron) 
 yellow = clay, ochre, turmeric, anatto; (cadmium and chrome yellows are toxic).  
 brown = most mixed earths; mixed warm ochres and black
 blue = some bluish clays; ultramarine (sulfate) blues. (Copper, nickel, pthalo- blues are somewhat toxic; cobalt is very toxic.)
 green = some local minerals, variations on blues and yellows (see notes above for toxicity)
Other pigment sources include food-grade tints, finger paints and poster paints, artists' colors, roots, berries, and things in the back of the fridge... but the colors may not last as long as mineral pigments.

Water-based binders are generally the least toxic, and can be cleaned up with soap-and-water.  Other binders may offer more brilliance or durability, but require more dangerous solvents and safety precautions. 
 - Milk or casein powders, 
 - egg or egg yolk, 
 - wheat paste, 
 - water-soluble gum: acacia gum, gum tragacanth, gelatine, 
 - glues: hide glue, bone glue, white glue ...

Oil-based: The oils used for paint are those which cure hard and dry in time, unlike cooking oils or motor oil which remain sticky indefinitely.  Solvents or 'thinners' include mineral spirits or turpentine, special water-mixable solvents, and patent non-toxic blends.
 - Linseed or flax-seed oil, the classic.  Durable and slightly yellow.
 - poppyseed oil, clear and soft.
 - specialty oils: tung oil, Danish oil, etc.
 - (Non-drying oils: olive oil, seed and nut oils, animal fats, or synthetic oils can be used in tiny amounts (up to 1%) as a lubricant and water-resistance enhancer for chalky water-based paints. Larger quantities can interfere with other binders, weakening the paint or leaving it tacky forever.)

Other binders: 
Most of the remaining binders involve heat, flammable solvents, or both.
 - Waxes (encaustic is the technique of painting with hot beeswax), 
 - laquers, (thinned with alcohol or patent solvents)
 - natural latex, (thinned with water until cured, then waterproof)
 - synthetics (acrylic, petro- oils, varnish, epoxy and other 2-part resins, each with its own cleanup solvents).  

Plaster Frescos: 
Ages 4 and up (earthen) or 8 and up (lime plaster)

Fresco is painting on fresh (squishy) plaster.  The plaster moves with your paintbrush, so you are sculpting and painting at the same time.  The color gets worked into the surface a little ways, making it very resistant to chipping and cracking.  Traditional Italian fresco paintings are done with egg tempera on fresh lime plaster; additional color can be added after the plaster stops moving, but then the technique is called 'secco' or "dry' painting.  Paints added later,  on top of cured plaster, are likely to peel and flake, damaging both painting and surface.

To make a fresco, 
- mix up a batch of fresh, white plaster.  (You can use real lime plaster with suitable precautions such as gloves and vinegar for cleanup.  Or make a skin-friendly plaster from chalk and wheat paste, or use white clay and white sand to make a white earthen plaster.)
- Prepare a stiff board, such as a piece of plywood, reclaimed cabinet door, recycled picture frame, or plank.  A flat but rough surface is helpful - sand with course sandpaper if needed.
- Wet the board, and spread the plaster on evenly like frosting on a cake.  (Smear it on hard at first to settle the plaster, then wet your tool again and work it evenly back and forth to make a level surface.)
- Prepare small batches of egg tempera paint, only as much as you will use in one day.
- Use the paint to color the surface.  Experiment with moving the plaster: can you make shallow-relief sculptures, or interesting patterns of lines, dots, and holes?
- When you are done, tidy up the edges so that you can attach a frame later if desired.
- Allow the plaster to dry thoroughly - a firm set usually takes a day or two.

Wattle and Daubery: 
Birdhouses, Wigwams, etc.
- You can build a birdhouse entirely of bark, or wood.  But you can build more of them (and lett little fingers build the whole thing without power tools) using the flat materials for roofs, and filling in the sides with wattle-and-cob.

- Contact Audubon Society to find out what kinds of birds (or bats) in your area are most in need of homes, and what dimensions the homes should be.  (For example, how big should the opening be so that songbirds can get in, but their enemies can't?  How deep does it need to be for them to build a nest?  Does it need to be open at the top, sides, or bottom? Does it need a peg or branch for the bird to land on?).
- Choose a structure to support the house.  Wicker or ivy can be used to make strong shapes that can be hung on a tree or nail.  Wire hangers can support a dish or plank to hold the house.  Plan ahead so that your roof shingle or bark will fit on top while the house is hanging.
- Weave a basket or freeform structure to support the cob.  (Ivy baskets are one method, but it may be quicker and more fun to improvise various shapes around the basic dimensions.)
- Hang the basket up while you work, to make sure it will hang when done.
- Mix a sticky batch of cob with plenty of straw.  
- Work the cob into the wicker shell, using the straw to 'sew' it together from both sides.  Make a smooth outside and inside, about 1/2 inch to 1 inch thick.  Finish the entrance hole last, or add the roof last, so you can get your hands in and out.
- Make sure the roof will keep the rain off.
- Let it dry, paint it if desired, and hang it where the birds can find it!

This technique can also be used to make mud-coated wicker structures for temporary play, or permanent wall panels in sheltered locations. 

Getting Seriously Muddy:
When you're ready to tackle a large-scale earthen project, it pays to learn from others' experience.  Great resources for visual inspiration and hands-on learning:

First Earth: Uncompromising Earthen Architecture:

The City Repair Project (hosts annual Village Building Convergence in Portland, OR),

The Natural Building Network: local resources around the world

Cob Cottage Company: Workshops and Publications

Kiko Denzer: teacher, baker, author, and oven-maker: 

And of course, us! Ernie and Erica! We do classes and on-site presentations with many of the groups above, ranging from a 1-hour introductory slideshow or classroom activity, to multi-week facilitated community workshops that build a complete project.,  [email protected]