top of page
  • Writer's pictureFiona Jackson

Squashed Bugs and Mud, the weird world of paint.

I've always had an obsession with paint and colour.

When I was a child I'd spend happy days making mud in my parents flower bed and 'decorating' the rockery with my daubs. So imagine my nerdy joy when I discovered Earth pigment paint, or mud!

During my time at Uni studying art and art history, no one mentioned Neolithic art, or even early Medieval art and certainly we never covered what paint is actually made of.

In fact , looking back at those long, tedious art history lectures, I snoozed my way through, we weren't really taught anything wildly interesting about actual artists or their paint .

It was years later, when I had to teach art history to collage students that my own research lead me down the rabbit hole of just how crazy and exciting the art world really is Squashed bugs and mud ( and the odd punch up!)

Years ago I was lucky enough to be able to do a course in Tempera painting.

I learnt how to gently grind a stunning blue, Ultramarine, pigment made of the ground up semi precious stone, Lapis Lazuli, into a mix of raw egg yolk, to create a blue paint so beautiful it was pure joy to gaze at, and a bit fiddly to paint with until you got the knack.

During the course it was reiterated to us repeatedly how toxic the pigments were and how much care we must take not to inhale or ingest it!

The artists of the past didn't know how toxic some of the minerals they used really were, and as a consequence they became sick with mercury or lead poisoning, the people making the pigments would also become sick and die as a result of their work.

The method of making Vermillion Red, the red so beloved of the Romans, was so dangerous it could cause mercury gas poisoning or explosions, and the practice of making it was actually banned in Venice in 1294.

Paint and colour pigments aren't always made out of minerals, sometimes other stranger ingredients are used, one that makes my skin crawl is 'Mummy Brown' , also known as 'Egyptian Brown' or 'Caput Mortum' ( Dead mans head!) This delightful colour was actually made of ground up Egyptian Mummies and was in use as paint up to the twentieth century !

Incidentally, ground up mummy powder had also been used as medicine and even toothpaste from the 1st Century AD ( avoid Roman toothpaste!)

A somewhat odd method of making a non toxic red pigment was first used by the Incas and Aztecs, and is still in use today.

Cochineal red is made from tiny pin head sized lice that live on cacti in Mexico.

The Dactylopius Coccus are harvested, then processed to produce a strong red pigment that can range from pale pink to almost black in it's depth of tone and is often called Carmine Red.

Today Cochineal is still in use as food colouring and in red and pink cosmetics, it's used in Cherry Coke, M&S Sausages and Red Velvet cakes just to name a few and is known as colouring E120....Squashed bugs!

: Beautiful earth paint :Earth paint and egg white. :Unprocessed rock pigment

Earth Pigments are a different, more gentle paint. Its a paint I have very much fallen in love with.

Earth Pigment is exactly what it says it is, it is paint made from the earth on which we live, the land where our ancestors may have lived, it is the soil that grows our food, and colours our local area.

Look at the rocks and earth around you, look at what colour the oldest buildings in your area are, this is often the colour of the land on which you live, even though it may now be paved over and lost under concrete and tarmac.

Almost all rocks can be used to make earth pigments, it just depends on how much hard work you're willing to put in!

I like the soft sedimentary rocks, like sandstone or that softer clay like stone, where you can see the sedimentary strata's left behind after the layers of water bourn mud were laid down millions of years ago.

To test a rock to see if its going to give you paint, all you need to do is to find a larger rock, and draw on it with your potential paint making stone.

If your paint stone leaves a coloured mark fairly easily, it will give you paint without too much hard graft.

Tap the painty rock with a hammer ( wear safety glasses for this bit!) until its broken down tiny crumb like pieces, you can then use a mortar and pestle to grind it further, or sieve it.

Put the broken up rock into a jar with a lid, add about half and half water/rock ratio,

then (With the lid on!) give it a shake up and let it stand for about five minutes.

The murky stuff in suspension is your paint. I then carefully pour off the liquid into another jar with a coffee filter paper in the top of it.

You can either use your paint strait away, simply scrape it off the coffee filter, and add your binder, or you can let it dry and scrape it off, into a storage jar.

You can do the water suspension and filter as any times as you like to make a very fine grade pigment.

: Corse grit before filtering. : Dried filtered paint.

The sludgy stuff in the bottom of the water suspension jar can also be used as a course heavy paint.

You can mix earth pigment paint with egg white to create a water colour type paint, or experiment by adding other binders such as veg oil, honey or even tallow.

I also like to make my own brushes, which we cover in the Arteology workshops, and experiment with different surfaces and thickness of paint.

I absolutely adore this beautiful natural pigment, and the way the finding and making of it connects me to the land where I live. I also love that it doesn't come in plastic tubes or literally "cost the earth", this is as environmentally friendly as paint gets - its a celebration of the many colours of the earth, and shows how gently and creatively we can connect with this amazing planet we live on.

:Photos from our children's Earth Paint workshop at Park in the Past.

To find out more about our 'Arteology , exploring history through art', workshops, including our adult workshops, please visit our Facebook page and website

We are based at Park in the Past, in beautiful North Wales and deliver art history outreach workshops to schools, museums and interest groups in North Wales, Shropshire and Cheshire.

38 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page