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Hand-made Watercolors – How I got Started

I recently started making my own natural earth pigment watercolors from scratch. This may seem like an odd thing to do in a time when any color is at an artists fingertips through artificial pigments. However this wasn't always the case, and in fact throughout most of history artists have had to go to great lengths to get specific colors. One color in particular was especially sought after: blue. One of the classic primary colors was among the most expensive and difficult to get. And this is where my interest in handmade pigments began . . .


This started when I found out that the watercolor brand Daniel Smith made a natural lapis lazuli watercolor paint. Basically after learning that I fell down a rabbit hole. I wanted to paint with lapis(a long-time favorite stone). I started learning about the uses of the stone in painting – both in modern day and in older periods. This naturally lead me to the practice of hand-made paints. As it turns out, paint made from a semi-precious stone is not something you can easily get. Daniel Smith is one of the few brands that even offers a true lapis pigment. If you want lapis pigment using a high grade of stone you have to make it yourself . . . and that's exactly what I set out to do.


Now I have been a rock-hound for years, and have a pretty sizable collection of rocks, minerals, and yes, a few samples of lapis lazuli.


If you are interested in seeing the step-by-step painting making process I suggest checking out my YouTube channel where I made a video documenting each step in the lapis paint making process.



It didn't end with lapi lazuli for me. No I made paint out of rainforest jasper, picture jasper, and soapstone. And I already have plans to create more colors. The paint making process was very therapeutic for me. But beyond that I came to appreciate the meaning of being an artist in a different time. Today an artist can be just that, an artist. They don't need to make their own paint, or earn a patron to sponsor their work. The focus can be entirely on the art itself. Artists before the mass manufacturing of pigments needed to be a chemist, a mathematician, and only then could they move to being an artist. All those renaissance paintings you see, that artist needed to know exactly how much blue they would need, and have a patron to buy it for them. They needed to transform various raw materials into usable paint. This could involve anything from several chemical transformations to the patience to grind a stone into workable powder. An artist had to understand all of these things before putting brush to canvas. It took me two weeks to process my lapis into paint for a yield of two watercolor paint pans. Each step required a great amount of care and patience before achieving the final product. And once I had my lapis paint I was very anxious about using it. I couldn't mess up with paint that took me two weeks to create and a stone worth roughly $75. I planned my pieces far more carefully taking how much of a color I would need into consideration(something I don't ordinarily do).


Here are the two pieces I created using my hand-made paints. The first utilizes all of the colors I currently had, mixed with artificial purple and grays. The second I specifically created to highlight the lapis. The flowers themselves only get their blue color from lapis lazuli, nothing else. The rest is painted with artificial pigments to offer contrast.



Something to note about these pigments is that they are worth experiencing in person. These paints each have a unique quality and texture. They interact with light in a more dynamic way, the lapis and rainforest jasper sparkle at the right angles, and there are tiny variants in color that simply are not present in artificial pigments.


I didn't want pure colors from this experience. I already have those, I wanted the unique earthy tones that only natural pigments could offer. I am continuing to learn about paint making and have so many ideas to apply my paints to.


If you are interested in learning more about paint making here is the article I used to learn about hand-made watercolors. And here are two links to a video from Master Pigments on their lapis paint making process.


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