Gathering Earth Pigments: A Guide
Updated: 4 days ago
Gathering pigments from nature is super easy, but it can be confusing at the beginning. In this guide, I am going to explain the process of collecting pigments from nature in the forms of rocks, clays, soils, and plants. All of this information comes from practice and endless google searches, so if you find any incorrect information, or you have something to add, please let me know!
I have created this guide to assist all of the amazing friends and family who have chosen to help me gather pigments from all around the country and the world. The things I suggest are to fit my needs- adjust this guide to suit yous!
What is covered:
How to Label, Store and Ship your finds
Where to find pigments
How to test a material to see if it could be a pigment
Which materials turn into pigments and what to gather
PSA: Only some of the images used in this post are mine. I gathered most of these images from sources all across the internet and each image has a link to take you to its original post. I intend to make an updated version of this post once the weather warms up and I can go outside without freezing solid.
Update: It is now September and I have had the opportunity to update some, yet not all, of the photos in this post. If your photo is in this post and I am in any way infringing upon your copyright please let me know immediately and I will correct the issue! This post is not for profit, it is to educate.
Let's start with the easy stuff:
How to label, store, and ship your finds
This feels like it should go at the end, but I am going to start here because it's suuuuuuper important.
When gathering pigment source material, it is important to keep each type of item you find apart from the others. If you mix everything up into one container it will be a lot of extra work to sort it all out!
When you set off to go gather pigments you can use a variety of things to store them in. Ziploc bags are an easy and accessible way to do this, but I feel bad about using plastics when I don't have to. Ultimately what you need is a collection of small containers, bags, pouches, jars, your Caboodle from the 80s, or anything you can fit into a backpack or tote. I started out with ziploc bags, but moved quickly on to a set of reuseable produce bags. The fabric allows the contents to breathe, so if I am gathering up items that contain moisture I do not need to worry about mold or other moisture related issues. Basic cotton totes, old socks, and containers left over from groceries are also great ideas for containers.
Load up your containers and hit the road!
I've found something I want to collect! How much do I collect? How do I collect it? How do I label it? How do I prepare it for shipping?
How much do I collect?
Each material is unique and requires different amounts to be useful to me.
Rocks, Clay, Ochre, Roots: Quart Sized Bag, or, if there isn't enough to fill one, get as much as you can.
Plants: Gallon Sized Bag (unless it's bluebonnets, then I want a metric shit-ton)
Rocks, roots, and clay result in almost 1:1 amounts of pigment when I process them. A quart bag worth of material allows me to make enough finished pigment to really experiment with the material and find its best properties. The more the better honestly! Since you will be mailing these to me in most cases, the limiting factor is the cost of shipping. For now, let's stick to quart bags on mineral type materials.
Plants and flowers require me to do some awesome science in order to obtain their pigment. I am currently studying all the ins-and-outs of Lake Pigment Processing, and each material is unique. Because of this, I need a whole lot of material to run my experiments. Even if I knew exactly what to do with each and every type of plant received, it still takes a lot of raw material to pull enough pigment out of it to be useful.
How do I collect it?
This is pretty straight forward, pick it up and put it in your bag.
Now what I want to say as an answer to this question is this: Please be mindful of the fact that you are out in the world taking things out of nature. Be kind to he places you visit. Do not steal from private property, do not leave marks on the earth that will remain after you leave, and, now this is the most important part: just don't be a dick. Be nice to the planet and be mindful of your impact. If you want to gather beautiful flowers, but they're behind a fence, those flowers are not for you. Also don't litter. Be nice. Be a good human. This whole project is about raising your awareness of nature's beauty, so don't go out there messing it up.
How do I label it?
THIS THIS THIS IS IMPORTANT<------------------------
To help me generate a catalog of pigments from around the earth, I need very specific location info on each sample.
Address, Park Name, GPS coordinates, anything you can give me is good!
Take a picture of the sample in its environment if you can! I will use every single picture you send me to help build my research catalog.
In addition to that, tell me a little bit about exactly where you found the item. Here's an example of how I labeled my first natural color:
Sharon Woods Metro Park Cincinnati, Ohio Exposed Clay found on left side of the waterfall, main trail (I write out directions so I can revisit the exact location in the future) Item Name (If I knew what kind of clay this is I would write it here)
How do I prepare it for shipping?
Ship samples in their own individual containers. For cost sake, let's start with ziploc bags. If you end up doing this for me regularly, I'll be happy to buy you some reusable bags and sort out a ship and return situation. An alternative is to wrap the samples in newspaper and secure them with tape- I really hate using plastics if I can avoid it. Think of the turtles.
If you're gathering pigments for me, your goal is to fill a medium or large flat rate USPS box. This is because I am a penny pinching broke artist and I am too cheap to pay to mail rocks all over the world.
Once you have collected and labeled your items, the next step is to ensure they are dry. I try to rinse off pebbles and rocks as I collect them when possible, and I rinse things off at home when I can't do it on-site. This is just to keep me from carrying around a bunch of extra dirt, there's no secret science reason. If you're collecting items using fabric bags, just leave them somewhere safe and sunny to dry for a few days. If you really want to go above and beyond, you can dry your clay out in the oven at 200 degrees for an hour, but this step is completely optional. Clay takes about a week to dry unless it's in the direct sun. It can take much longer if you live in a very humid part of the world. (cough, Houston)
Flowers and plants:
These items need to be dried completely before mailing to ensure they do not rot. Spread the finds out in the sun anywhere safe. Once the flower or leaf is brittle enough to crumble in your hand, it's ready. Do not place flowers or plants in the oven to try to get them to dry faster, it'll just end up cooking them which changes their chemical makeup. A food dehydrator is a good option, but it will need to be retired from kitchen use if you're going to be putting strange plants in it. Be safe! I am not responsible for illness due to putting poison leaves in your dehydrator, you have been warned.
Once all of your samples are dry, labeled, and packed securely for their journey into their USPS Flat Rate Box, over-tape that thing up like someone's going to throw it off a building. Rocks are heavy and cardboard is not durable. A box that is too heavy will tear itself apart in shipping, so if you're worried about it, take some of the heaviest stuff out and save it for next time. Tape it up like a mummy. Go hog wild. I can always buy you more tape. Bonus points for using that eco friendly paper tape with the cotton strings inside. That stuff is hella strong and it doesn't kill as many turtles. Be mindful!
Ok! Now let's move on!
Where to find Pigment: Rocks and Clays
Disclaimer: Sand can be made into pigment. Rocks with transparent crystals inside do not make for good pigments. Sand and clear crystals grind down to be a transparent color because essentially they are nature's glass. Please don't send me sand without checking with me first, and please don't send me those sparkily white crystal rocks people use to line their paths. They turn out clear. Trust.
After we discuss where to find pigments, we will discuss in detail which materials work best.
Easy Mode: (Start here!)
Head towards an area with an active stream or river- River beds are an excellent place to begin your search. Often times the river will reveal rocks and pebbles in all the colors of the region, especially after a heavy rain or flood. (Heyyyyy HOUSTON!) If your area experiences any kind of flooding, go rock hunting as soon as the waters recede. The floods reveal loads of newly upturned stones and sometimes even wear away creek walls to reveal clay and stones.
Look for areas that have bright orange, red and yellow deposits
Waterfalls! Erosion reveals all!
Look for new road construction. Often times, construction efforts will result in a site being excavated. This reveals natural clay deposits and previously hidden rocks! Please do not enter active construction sides. These are private property and you are stealing, even if it's just clay. I look for places where new roads are being built. Often times, the material from excavations is stored near the site where it is safe, not in the active building area. Newly finished roads that cut through hills and mountains are awesome sites because they aren't under construction at all! Be safe at all times. Use your brain. Your safety is more important than rocks.
Rocky shorelines: If you are lucky enough to love somewhere with a pebble beach (envy!) head to the shore and take a look at the ground. That's all lol.
Dirt roads: If you live in an area with dirt roads, often those roads are clay based. Clay makes amazing pigment! Scoop some up!
Tourist attractions that boast caves, fossil hunting, or rock collecting
Retired Quarries and areas known for mining and fossil collecting- if you live in a mining region, you may have access to areas where industry has left a collection of unearthed treasures all over. The anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania is an excellent example. The miners from last century dug for coal with wild abandon, and left all of the excavated material in piles all over the state. Finding a place that has formerly been mined is the easiest of easy modes. Do not enter an active quarry. Do not enter private property. Don't be a dummy. Don't you dare call me because you got arrested because you HAD TO GO ROCK HUNTING in this CRAZY AWESOME QUARRY. I will take your call, but I will laugh at you as I'm hanging the phone up. Act right.
Hard Mode: (You got this!)
Once you've visited some of the Easy Mode sites, you should have a basic understanding of what kinds of things to look for. With this knowledge, you can head towards slightly less obvious sites to find a range of colors.
Forests: When walking through a forest, look for areas that are not covered in plant life. Fallen trees reveal clays, soils, and sometimes stones. Worn down pathways sometimes have pebbles of various colors. If your forest has a creek, lake, or river, head to that area and look along the shore for pebbles and clays. Ochre forms where natural metals oxidize over time and will appear as a different color than its surrounding soil. Most ochres are a shade of rust or yellow. Keep your eye out for these as they're the BEST!
Swamps/Wetlands: Swamps and wetlands often create the perfect environment for oxidation. In this area, you are looking for areas where plant life does not cover. Exposed areas of clay and soil are where you are most likely to find oxides.
Beaches: Don't mail me any sand. Depending on the area where you live, the area of land between the beach's sandy shoreline and the place where trees and grass grow is often a great spot to find natural clay and oxide. Erosion can reveal layers of exposed earth!
Mountain Ranges: It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possibilities for pigment collecting in the mountains. The reason why this section is on easy mode AND hard mode is this: Once you have a developed eye for spotting color, you will become more apt at spotting unique hues on your hikes. These can come in the form of exposed stone or clay, but also in the form of geodes and rocks that are prettier on the inside. When you have a developed understanding of what to hunt for, you can get very specific about the types of searches you do. Information about a region's geologic makeup can be obtained from local park authorities, or you can often find info in visitors centers. Learn what is unique to this particular area, then go see if you can find it. Remember, be mindful of the way you interact with your surroundings. Colored crystals produce colored pigment, so if you find a colored crystalline stone, I do want that. These are the exception to the no-shinies/sand rule as they do not grind up to be clear.
Where to find pigment: Plants and Flowers
To make pigments out of plants and flowers, I follow a process called Lake Pigment Making.
To make a lake pigment there are a number of steps and I am still learning about all of them. Because of this, this area of the guide will be very vague. As my knowledge increases, I will amend this section to include more details.
To the best of my knowledge, white flowers do not produce pigment. Avoid collecting white flowers.
Look for large collections of a single species of flower wildflowers on public land. Remember, we are not thieves.
Fruits produced by wild growing plants, such as berries, are an amazing source of color. If you smash a berry and it makes a color, I want it.
Fungi produce a variety of shades. Keep your eye out for mushrooms and tree fungus! Lichens also produce color! When gathering these types of materials, try to cut them rather than tear them from their home. Please never take every piece from a spot of growth- leave something behind so it can grow again. By cutting fungus at the soil line, you can leave the patch intact and healthy. Be mindful and kind.
Leaves and bark are great sources of pigment, but honestly I am clueless as to how to guide you here. I am still learning- if you see a cool leaf, get me a gallon bag of it. Mindfully.
Next, I will discuss how to test a material (rocks only) to see if it would make a good pigment.
How to test rocks and soils for pigment
This part is super fun for me!
When you find a rock, a good way to test out if it would make for a good pigment is to simply rub it on another rock. If the rock leaves behind color particles, that's a good one! The more pigment it leaves behind, the better. The more saturated the particles, the better.
Clays and soils sometimes produce great colors. To test these, put some in your palm or on a flat surface and add a little water. If the clay or soil leaves behind color, it will make for a good pigment. The kind of stuff that leaves color on your palms when you ball it up in your hands is perfect.
What to collect and how to spot it
I'm going to start out with Ochre because it is the most valuable to me. Ochre can be found in a variety of places, such as: in creeks, in sedimentary stone, in little blobs of ancient mud that used to be pinecones, and as whole area deposits that spread for miles. In Canada, the famous Kootenay National Park offers a mind blowing collection of ochres due to a unique geologic event which resulted in "Paint Pots."
Ochre comes in a variety of colors, but the most common are red and yellow. It's a total dream of mine to collect the whole rainbow!
Sedimentary Rock is a favorite of mine because it is typically consistent in color and texture all the way through the stone. When I am sourcing stones, I avoid stones that have a variety of hues and instead seek stones that appear to be the same hue throughout.These types of rocks come in a variety of colors, not just red.
My favorite! I love working with clays because the paints I make from them have this gorgeous ultra matte finish and they are REALLY opaque. If in doubt, send it to me. I love clay, and you'd be amazed by the variety of subtle and beautiful colors that exist right in your hometown.
Mud Balls- hear me out
Nature is mysterious, and one of the wild things it does is make things into new things in weird ways. Above, you will see an example of how nature transformed some pine cones into this brilliant blue with a little help of a tsunami event in Oregon. While you are looking at rocks, consider trying to break them open. Sometimes it's just a rock, sometimes it's a geode, sometimes it's a new color! You can consider adding a small rock hammer to your collecting bag, it will come in very handy! Remember, don't smash the place up when you go hunting. Be mindful.
When gathering pebbles, it is important to remain mindful of gathering enough in each color to be worth having. Lay your stones in piles as you collect, adding similar stones to similar stones. If you're lucky, you'll find a variety! Try to select stones that are close to completely-single-color as possible. The stones with several colors inside all end up as ugly muddy looking pigments and are better off being left as stones.
But what do you WANT
Heidi, thank you for all the inspiration!
I hope to build a resource that details out the variety of natural colors available by location. I am at the very beginning of this process, which is why I need your help! I put this guide together to help teach the basics, but I am always here for questions! I am currently on the hunt for all colors, but green, blue, and yellow are the hardest colors to find. Blue is the most difficult pigment to find, so if you see something that even resembles blue, grab it.
A big inspiration of mine is Heidi Gustafson. You should take a look at her instagram for loads of examples of her findings. She is working to create a library of Earth's ochres, and I want to assist in any way I can!
Be safe. Don't trespass. Don't get arrested. Don't poison yourself. DON'T BREATHE THE ROCK DUST. BE MINDFUL. BE A GOOD HUMAN. I will not bail you out of jail or pay your medical bills. Safety first!