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Bright Earth - Hebden Ochre Paint

Have you ever wondered how to make some of your own artists paint? Did you know that you can easily make a simple watercolour paint using earth from your local area? It doesn't have to be complicated and is well worth trying, for fun and as a way of getting to know better your local outdoor spaces.

A sheet of paper covered in yellow ochre paint with a glass bowl of paint and a wide flat paintbrush with wooden handle.

Earth paints like Yellow Ochre and Raw Sienna are really just refined iron oxide deposits from the earth. Where I live in the South Pennines there is a lot of peaty soil but also river mud and outcrops of clay.

Recently on a local walk I noticed a patch of yellowish looking clay/mud and not having any kind of trowel with me I just scooped some up in my hand to take back to my studio.

There, all I did was let the sample dry out for a few days then grind it by hand in a mortar and pestle. I added clean tap water, stirred and then put the mixture through a small metal sieve (actually a tea strainer I think!)

You can go through this process a number of times to make a finer version of the paint and you could add some gum arabic to thicken it but I just wanted to keep things simple to begin with so once the paint was sieved, I used it to put a wash of colour on some paper. I felt very happy with the colour so I used it on some small sheets of beautiful etching paper I had to hand.

Hahnemuehle etching paper isn't ideal for watercolour paint in some ways as its very soft and not surface sized. The softness explains the slight grainy texture. Interestingly, the Fabriano watercolour paper turned out more streaky which I would not have expected. The remaining paint I left it to dry completely for about a week in the small glass bowl and it formed this lovely pan of ochre ready for the next painting session!

The Hebden Ochre paint in use

A woodcut print of a curlew brown dappled head and shoulders with meadow flowers on a yellowish pink background.

This is a special printing of my linocut/woodcut titled 'Wild Spirit, Dawn Salutation'. I have printed the block over the Hebden ochre painted paper and added extra colour with Unison soft pastels. The main body and head of the curlew show the ochre paint I made without any additional colour. It feels appropriate to depict a local wild Curlew using earth paint from this part of the South Pennines.

I plan to make some more paint like this in the future using samples from different parts of the local landscape. I am also interested to explore whether heating the dried paint could alter its colour. The main difference between raw sienna and burnt sienna paint is that the latter has been subject to heat treatment which tends to darken and redden earth paint.

There's loads of information about natural paint making on-line but I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about my simple process. I hope the ease with which I could produce the paint might inspire you to make some of your own and I would love to hear about that if you do!


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