How to Make a Basic Pigment From Scratch

Pigment making is awesome!

Really. It is.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen a few posts not long ago where I showed how I made raw malachite green pigment from the malachite stones for personal use. Commercially, the process is much more intensive of course as they have to remove all impurities (like the copper in this case) to ensure quality and all that sorta jazz.

Part of what I find so fascinating about calligraphy and pigments—and all that related artsy stuff—are the historical and cultural associations. Here's a little bit about Malachite Green to show what I mean. According to the Pigments Through The Ages website:

It’s a mineral basic copper carbonate, moderately permanent pigment of varying colour. Malachite is perhaps the oldest known green pigment. It is sensitive to acids and to heat. Occurs in Egyptian tomb paintings, in European paintings it seems to have been of importance mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Woof. Egyptian tomb paintings!

I know we take colors pretty much for granted these days, but they were a pretty big deal back before we got all fancy with chemistry and technology. Different colors had different prices (like the infamous Tyrian Purple, aka the color of royalty) based on how hard they were to obtain. Some colors we are familiar with now weren't even available until later in history.

This image (again from the Pigments Through The Ages website) shows Malachite green in use for a shirt in a western painting. It was also very popular in old Chinese painting and known as “Mountain Green”.


A look at Malachite Green pigment in old paintings
Malachite stone chips

Anyway… back to the awesome pigment making. I took an illumination and gilding intensive workshop recently with one of my teachers and mentors Karen, and one of the things we did was make pigment from scratch (we also made gilding glue from scratch but that's for another post!). One of the things I love about her workshops is that she doesn't just show you modern shortcuts to do things, in fact her approach is to do things the traditional, time-trusted way.

So, Karen brought in a simple malachite stone necklace (like the one shown here) and we put a handful of the pebbles into a large marble mortar and pestle to crush them up gently. No heavy banging of the pestle, but small, quick motions to gently break the stones down.

Once the malachite was in fine powder form (about 20 minutes later), it was placed on a flat, polished marble slab and a little bit of water was added. A muller was then used to shear the powder granules and separate them, thereby making the pigment a bit finer (see video below!). When that was done the now beautiful green color was left on the marble to dry. Once all the water had evaporated we simply used a sharp blade to scrape the dried powder off and voila! Malachite pigment!



Turning raw pigment into usable paint //
Malachite green pigment home-made from malachite stones //

To use it as paint you can add water and a binder like gum arabic, or egg yolk (tempera), beeswax (encaustic), linseed oil (oil paint) etc. The binder makes the color stick to the surface that you use it on—a crucial element unless you want your painting flaking off the surface when you're done!

Since I work almost exclusively with water-based paints, the easiest thing for me to do was to add a bit of gum arabic and distilled water to make watercolor. I would have preferred powdered gum arabic but unfortunately only had liquid on hand, which I mixed with the pigment first, then incorporated the water to get it to the right consistency, fluid enough to write the words above. I saved the mixture and now I have a little vial of malachite green ready to use for my calligraphy. Most of the color is still in dry powder form though so that I don't risk wasting it.

So, what do you think? Fascinated by the world of colors and pigments yet? You can make your own colors from scratch by grinding up soft clay or stones you find in your own backyard, or leaves and flowers from your garden (or supermarket!). In fact, it makes for a pretty awesome project to document the color palette of nature around you. 


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