Natural Pigment

Feral watercolor project: Brown Mountain purple

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Update to adventures with Feral Watercolor: a few weeks ago I discovered a gorgeous purple outcrop of rock in the Tucson Mountains—Brown Mountain, to be specific.

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I processed a few pieces (my equipment and techniques are described here), and it turns out to be remarkably similar to the famous Clearwell Caves' purple ochre (4500-year-old British pigment-mining area).

Recently I was able to make it back out to paint the site in my journal, with paint made from pigment collected onsite. A first in the Feral Watercolor project.

Next up: magnetite-and-mica pigment from the Santa Catalina Mountains—and some studio paintings of places made from site-collected pigment.

Feral watercolor & place-based art

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I’ve been experimenting with making pigments from locally sourced minerals (and plant matter) for "extreme" place-based nature journaling and art. I call it "feral watercolor." 

Because the pigments come from the location being represented in the art, the colors can be strikingly true and the sense of place profound.

The pigment (and resin binder) below is from the Sierra El Rosario in Northern Mexico’s La Reserva Pinacate del Gran Desierto.

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I collected magnetite and ground it into powder, then for a binder I added resin from a plant growing in a canyon in the Sierra — Bursera microphylla — and Sonoran Desert honey as a humectant. I also experimented with adding a little oxgall, although I’m not sure it made a difference in the adhesion.

The result is a paint that perfectly mimics the stark, nearly black mountains that rise out of the sand dunes (see the painting, top).

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I have mineral soils from all over the world, and have quite a few projects planned—in addition to a workshop in the near future—email me if you are interested!

Blood & Leather Project completed

History records that rapacious, musket-armed Arab slave caravans of the 18th and 19th centuries avoided transiting what is now central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania—it just wasn’t worth risking the wrath of the belligerent spear-wielding Maasai who dominated the region. Early European explorers as well dreaded the sight of a line of colorful leaf-shaped shields appearing on a hilltop, and took roundabout routes into the interior. Even the mighty British Empire never directly confronted the Maasai militarily, and relied instead on political sleight of hand to squeeze the tribe out of its best grazing lands once the area was deemed a protectorate.

While the Maasai no longer range and raid at will over the East African landscape, they have continued to fight to retain their identity as a tribe and culture, picking and choosing which bits of the modern world they wish to adapt. Thus a red-robed and sandaled herdsman leaning on a spear in the South Rift is quite likely to be chatting in Maa on a cell phone, and a smartly-dressed businessman in Nairobi might go home for the weekend to a hut surrounded by a thorn boma that keeps lions out of the livestock.

But one icon of Maasai history—those tall, intricately decorated rawhide shields, so universally recognizable that one features centrally on Kenya’s national flag—seemed lost forever, save as dusty relics in museums, rare and expensive objets d’art from exclusive curio dealers, or, tragically, as cheap, undersized, shoddily made tourist souvenirs. The loss was doubly sad since each shield’s design elements, or sirata, revealed detailed information about its bearer’s clan and achievements, and thus represented a tangible record of Maasai history.

This loss seemed unacceptable to two elders in the Olkirimatian community of Kenya’s South Rift Valley. Tonkei Ole Rimpaine and Karinte Ole Manka—both former shield bearers now in their 70s—approached ConserVentures, our small non-profit that often donates resources for cultural conservation projects, with a plan: They wanted to put together a workshop to build new shields, using authentic techniques and materials, with the immediate goal of producing examples to be displayed in a planned Maasai heritage museum, and the secondary but much more vital goal of passing on their knowledge to a younger generation. Through the generosity of several donors, we arranged to source rawhide and supply food and transportation to the group, and to use the Lale’enok Resource Center as a base. John Kamanga, the chairman of the Olkirimatian community and a driving force for Maasai cultural conservation, was our liason as we worked on logistics from 7,000 miles away. The construction team comprised John’s father, Ntetiyian Ole Pasoi, two other elders, Sipale Mpoe and Marikete Ole Ilelempu, and four women, Rijano Ene Ntetiyian (John’s mother), Majakus Ene Saitage, Moyiangei Ene Sampao, and Bebi Ene Mugesa.

Over the course of five days in late October, Tonkei and Karinte supervised the group while we photographed and filmed the entire process. In that time, one cowhide (the only major concession to the 21st century, the original cape buffalo being no longer available since Kenya banned hunting), some goatskin, and a pile of limbs from a Cordia senensis tree magically morphed into two sturdy shields—a stiff rawhide face backed by a carved, tensioned center stay and handgrip, the perimeter laced with goatskin around flexible Cordia wands. Then, alchemist concoctions of charred bone, ocher, limestone, and cow’s blood (the latter amusingly stored in an old Famous Grouse whiskey bottle), dabbed and streaked on the shields with chewed twigs, blossomed into recreations of the original Olkirimatian sirata. The two senior elders eyed each line and color critically, and more than once sections were scraped off and re-painted to achieve the proper symmetry. Throughout the process, young Maasai men of the community hung around to watch or help, taking cell-phone photos and fueling our hopes that some might be inspired to take up the craft as a business—we believe there’d be a ready market for detailed and authentic Maasai shields as a counterpoint to the cheesy tourist rubbish.

To us the end products—as far as we know the first true Maasai shields produced in decades—seemed like priceless artifacts. Yet before the paint was dry Tonkei and another elder had grabbed them and set to in a fierce mock duel, leaping and yelling like the Morani they were 50 years earlier while we cheered wincingly from the sidelines.

The completed shields, not minus a few scuff marks, are now stored at the Lale’enok Resource Center. One will be taken to Nairobi to be used in educational programs; the other is destined for the planned cultural museum to be built at a nearby archaeological site, Olorgesailie.

That is, as long as Tonkei Ole Rimpaine and Karinte Ole Manka don’t decide to requisition them, grab a couple of spears, and head out to raid cattle and take some land back from the British.

* * *

51-shield making team at Okiramatian1-elders-shields2-cow3-kill4-skinning and bleeding5-blood
6-stretching hide7-pegging hide8-ash on hide9-rubbing hide10-audience11-burning bones for pigment
12-fire for bones13-bones burning14-grinding burned bones to powder15-powders mixed with milk16-blood ready to mix for pigment17-dried hide
18-hide buried in boma dung19-hide under dung20-gathering rib poles by river21-Cordia poles for frame22-Elder and youth23-roughing in main rib

Photo gallery (51 images): click here.

ConserVentures provided photography and videography services for this project, and will be producing books, posters, and film for the Maasai Cultural Heritage Program. You can learn more about the South Rift Association of Land Owners and their programs at www.soralo.org

Making pigments from local materials (3): cochineal beetle


In the deserts of the Americas you might notice that the prickly pear cactus plants (genus Opuntia) sometimes are covered with what looks like white spit-wads. If you look closely, or touch one of the deposits, it's silky white web-like material. This is actually a protective covering of a little insect called a cochineal (Dactylopius sp.), which is a parasitic scale insect. The insect itself is tiny, about 3-4 mm across; their bodies contain carminic acid, which is a vivid purple-red color - presumably nasty-tasting to discourage predation. If you even gently bump one of them, they ooze this red liquid, which instantly will dye your finger.

I had read that cochineal was one of the earliest and most valuable sources of red dye. Aztecs and Mayas cultivated them; and during the time of the Conquistadores, cochineal dye powder was the second most important economic export after silver - that is a lot of insects!

Because of my interest in natural dyes and inks (see labels for those subjects), I have been looking for a colony of cochineal so I could experiment with using their pigment for coloring in my journal. Earlier in August, visiting my parents in southwestern New Mexico, I was delighted to find some infestations by this sessile parasite. I collected about 20 of them in a margarine tub:
You can see the bright magenta color. I did some research, because I had initially read that the color they produced was red-red, as in the British redcoats, and in Betsy Ross' flag. The original dye preparation involved adding an acid, so I added a little vinegar to a bit of cochineal liquid, and voila, it turned a rich red.

Right now my insect bodies are drying, and I will grind them and add an acid - either vinegar or lemon juice - and see how it goes with use as a pigment in my journaling.

Making pigments from local materials (2): oak galls



On Friday we drove the southwestern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains to the hamlet of Patagonia ~ we stayed roughly above 4,000 feet elevation, and I had plenty of opportunity to look for oak galls to try the recipe for oak gall pigment in Gwen Diehn's Decorated Journal. Oak galls are the leftover baby wasp 'housings'; worldwide there are thousands of tiny wasp species (some no bigger than the nib on a pen), which are obligate to one species of oak. On this oak they inject a hormone that triggers the oak to form this structure . . . in which the wasp lays its eggs, which then develop, nicely protected, in the gall. Some are tiny, some are large. All are produced entirely by the plant, and are tannin-rich (and thus can produce nice inks and pigments; galls in Europe have been used for centuries as inks; tannins also are used for curing leather ~ the origin of "tanning"). The holes in the galls indicate where the young wasps emerge.

I finally found some nice big ones, on a Mexican gray oak (Quercus grisea), and collected five.

Back home, I followed the Medieval recipe: 

Grind the galls to powder ~


Boil them in rainwater for as long as it takes to recite the Pater Noster three times ~


Add drops of a mild acid (vinegar or lemon juice) until the liquid turns from rich brown to deep black.

Results are inconclusive as well as enticing. While the majority of the liquid never turned beyond a rich, reddish brown (see the leaves in the drawing above, of the oak galls ~ these are painted with the gall pigment; the oaks there were very stressed, with dried leaves; did this contribute to tannin-poor galls?), I laid down a silver-plated spoon, on which were bits of the ground gall and liquid, on the counter; half an hour later, a tiny puddle under the spoon was a rich, dark black. I tried many other experiments - boiling further (to reduce), adding more lemon, adding vinegar, but was never able to reproduce that one teeny black smudge.

So, my experiments will continue  . . .

Making pigments from local materials

In the past few weeks I have been spending more and more time on my nature journal, which I have been keeping for nearly 20 years. I made the leather cover and a simple page-attachment system (tied with a leather strip) so I can use any paper I like, cut and drilled to fit. There are loops inside for pens. It's been with me all over the world, recording what I see and experience.

I started adding sketches in the mid-1990s, working from the Clare Walker Leslie's books on nature journals and the excellent Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. The latter is excellent for those of us who have both a strong science leaning as well as an artistic side, but the science side gets in the way of free-flowing art and sketching especially.

Now I've been adding watercolor and a few more collages to my journal, switching to archival watercolor paper and handmade art papers.

In the Decorated Page, Gwen Diehn describes making pigments from local minerals and organic matter - and I had to try it. First, I made ink with charcoal from local mesquite, and then a beautiful ochre pigment from clay collected on a nearby road. I will post tutorials soon. And I can't wait to try other minerals and materials - oak gall ink, turquoise, fluorite, and chrysocolla pigment . . .