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Earth and Mineral Pigments

by | Apr 11, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Earth and mineral pigments are natural pigments that are derived from the earth and are prized for their rich, earthy tones. They’ve been used by artists for at least 40,000 years. In this lesson, we’ll explore the world of earth pigments, how they’re used in painting, and why they’re an excellent choice for artists looking to add a touch of natural beauty to their work.

What are Earth & Mineral Pigments?

Earth pigments are natural pigments that are derived from the earth, such as clay, and iron oxides. These pigments have been used by artists for thousands of years, with some of the earliest examples of earth pigments being found in ancient cave paintings. Earth pigments are prized for their rich, natural colors, which are often a far cry from the bright, synthetic colors of modern paints. They also can vary in color, since they come from a variety of locations, and aren’t synthetically controlled from start to finish.

You will notice a lot of names like “ocher,” “sienna,” burnt,” and “umber” in earth pigments.

Beyond Brown

While the siennas are well known for the beautiful browns, there are a few colorful colors that can be made naturally.

Venetian Red – also from iron oxide

Terre Verte (Earth Green) – a green thought of commonly with the Romans, however, the First Nations people’s used it first. (Which I had no idea, until I was researching this lesson!)

“The green and blue–green paints are of particular interest because the analytical results show that green
earth was the green pigment most used by First Nations artists on the Northwest Coast both before and after European contact.” “An analytical study of First Nations painted objects from the Northwest Coast showed that green earth (celadonite) was used as a green pigment by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists.”


Yellow Ochre – made from the mineral limonite.

Ultramarine Blue – originally made from Lapis Lazuli mined out of Afghanistan. I came across this fun display at the Stirling Castle in Scotland.

How Blue Paint was Made – Display at Stirling Castle, Glasgow, Scotland

Benefits of Earth Pigments in Painting

There are many benefits to using earth pigments in painting, including:

  1. Natural Beauty. Since they are made of the earth.
  2. Durability: Earth pigments are incredibly durable and are resistant to fading over time. This makes them an excellent choice for artists who want their paintings to stand the test of time. So far, they will last 40,000 years if you keep the temperature consistent. 
  3. Versatility (limited): Earth pigments come in a range of colors, from warm, earthy reds and yellows to cool, muted grays and greens. They don’t have the full range of the synthetic pigments, but there is a lot beyond just browns.
  4. Affordability! Perhaps my favorite part. These are the cheapest paints on the market.
  5. Safety: Earth pigments are non-toxic, making them an excellent choice for artists who are concerned about the safety of the materials they use. (Made of the same ingredients as our childhood mud pies.) However, be in the habit of treating all pigments as toxic so that you practice good safety habits. You need to last a long time.

How to Use Earth Pigments in Painting

You can mix earth pigments with other pigments to create a wide range of colors and tones. Be aware that you will have a more “muddy” feel to the colors if you are using an earth tone. However, this can also help A LOT with realism. The world of color that we experience is often very gray and brown. 

You can also use earth tones to create a underpainting, and then layer other color on top, in glazes. This is a traditional way of painting, to keep costs down, and before industrialization made a wide variety of colors affordable. 

A Great Environmental Win

One of my favorite stories about making paint is the “Reclaimed Earth Colors” from Gamblin. These paints were created when artist John Sabraw approached them about this amazing idea he had for turning toxic pollution into paint! The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers have a toxic sludge leftover from the Industrial Revolution. “For over a decade, Artist John Sabraw , Engineer Guy Riefler, Environmentalist Michelle Shively, and a team of students at Ohio University have been trying to develop a sustainable solution to this problem.” (Gamblin website https://gamblincolors.com/reclaimed-earth-colors/). They figured out a way to take the polluted water, clean the water (and return it to the watersheds), and then use the leftover residue to make paint! WOW!

Earth pigments are an excellent choice for artists looking to add a touch of natural beauty to their paintings. With their rich, earthy tones and durability, earth pigments are a versatile and safe choice for artists of all skill levels.

Other Resources

Check out Natural Earth Paint for environmentally friendly paint. https://naturalearthpaint.com/earth-mineral-pigments-sample-pack-20-colors/ Check out all the beautiful colors available. Oh, how I adore color.

Full citation of the quotes above:

Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada
Analytical Research Laboratory, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada