“The urge to unite ourselves with this colourful weft is strong” (All year round)

“Colour is the essence of landscape, of mood, of our whole perception of the physical world” Robert D Kaplan


Late spring and summer are the time when the abundance of flowers and vegetation really fills gardens, woodlands and landscapes with colour.

Go out into nature and look for suitable ingredients for natural paints: berries, flowers, leaves, soil and ash. Bring them back to the classroom and start pounding, grinding, mixing, mashing and straining: working to release the colour, the essence of nature that all this hard work releases. Children love mixing and experimenting; making potions and concoctions, and colour is one of the driving forces for this kind of developmental work.

A pestle and mortar is the best tool for grinding berries and soil, mixing substances together to make paint, and the reward comes when the beauty of colour is released. Water and egg white or egg yolk can be added to develop the quality of the paint, and used as a binder to make it sticky. Colour and consistency are both important, and egg yolk can give the colour a shiny finish. Early renaissance painters used egg yolk so students can learn about art history while they work on their paint. Other ingredients to experiment with include acids like vinegar, and alkali such as bicarbonate of soda, which change the colour of the paint, often dramatically. Students can take notes of all their colour experiments.

Making paint brings students closer to the essence of nature, and gives children a greater understanding of how ancient civilizations used the technology they had available, crushing coloured stones to make paint for cave paintings. They can also learn about the history of colour over the last 400-500 years, when certain colours were very rare because they rarely occur in nature. It is interesting to research the names of colours still used today in paint boxes, like ‘Burnt Umber’, ‘Sienna’, and ‘Prussian Blue’.

The paint can be quite thick and heavy, so a thick watercolour paper or thin card works well as a surface for painting. The children enjoyed gradually adding bicarbonate of soda to paint made from raspberries, and painting various sample squares as the paint turned from bright pink to a deep bluish purple. “We wrote the ingredients next to each square we painted, and the colour changed a bit more as the paint dried.”

Another way to make a colour wash is to set vegetables to simmer on low heat. The colour is released slowly into the water, with particular success coming from red cabbage, yellow and red onion skins. Another useful colour wash can be made with strong tea, and washes can be used to stain the paper, and dried before the thicker paints are applied.

The beauty of hand-made paint is that the colour is not flat like commercial paint from a paint box. It’s translucent, earthy, rich, and we gain more understanding of the natural sources and language of colour. Brush marks showed in the finished work, depending on the thickness of paint used, and flecks of dark and light occurred where the paint still contained texture. The children worked hard to achieve certain colours, and had a strong connection to their finished work, and a great sense of pride in the achievement.

Some of the colours will fade. We are borrowing their brightness for a moment in time, as art historians know even with the oil paintings of the great masters. Vegetable dyes behave in the same way, and it fascinating to pull out work from over a year ago and see how it has changed over time.