Using Natural Earth and Mineral Pigments in the Home and Garden - A Veritable Feast of Colour

The Alchemy of Artists' Materials - So much more fun than opening a tin of paint

how to use natural ecological pigments


What are natural pigments?

Pigments as opposed to dyes are non-soluble powders which are crushed so finely as to make them usable as paints when mixed with different media such as egg yolks, lime, mortars and oils.They can also be used to create unique colours by addition to various white paints and clear varnishes.  Natural earth pigments, as the name suggests, come from naturally occurring clays and are specific to certain areas, where they have been used for decoration and adornment for many thousands of years. Often roasted to obtain a greater depth of colour they are known under the names of ochre, sienna, and umber and because of their very natural and harmonious palette they can be used to great effect in the decoration of eco interiors and recycling projects. Ochre, which takes its red, golden and brown colour from iron oxide, is thought to be one of the first ever paints used by man. Sienna, a limonite clay, contains ferric oxide, which gives its rich browns and reds. Sienna takes its name from the beautiful hill town of Siena from where it was first extracted. Umber, originally extracted in Umbria, contains iron and manganese oxides, which when roasted becomes burnt umber, the famous deep brown pigment. Other natural pigments I often use are the Ultramarines of the gorgeous purple, violet and blue shades. This mineral pigment, originally made from crushing lapis lazuli, at one time was more highly priced than gold, which is why it was used so sparingly by Renaissance painters. Nowadays this pigment is made by heating mainly kaolin clay, sulphur and charcoal. This brings me to an observation about pigments because you will find their price changes from colour to colour. This is particularly the case for the third group of natural pigments the exotic spinels, which are romantically comprised of crushed gem stones!

How to use and apply pigments

For water-based medium, I first mix my pigment with a little water 

Sharing how to mix earth and mineral pigments

and then add the medium.

For finer work and deeper colour, I would add the pigment directly into a minimum volume of medium. 

Detail from our pallet wood bird bix

When using with a water-based varnish, I would always add a clear coat or coats over the top, in particular where there is heavy usage such as on floor boards. Some companies suggest that the ultramarine pigments are not suitable for exterior use. Our house faces full south and we get salt breezes from the sea and the window frames pictured below were painted some three or four years ago. For me also, I enjoy the fact that pigments may change with time and acquire a patina and sun-bleached look.  With impregnation oils, such as the hemp I used on doors, shutters and the hen houses, I first mix the pigments with a small amount of the oil. The shutters and wooden window frames I tinted some years ago on the North side of the house have not lost any of their colour. When using pigments on boxes, such as Andy's Candle Box Project I used pigment with an Eco water paint and then having decorated the box with découpage, applied a clear varnish. 

Bird box design from pallet and fruit crate wood

Freehold Accommodation and no mortgage payments

Latest project the pallet wood bird box:

Detail of design from the robin box we made:

Healthy colour for a myriad of uses 

Finding an alternative builders' merchant or organic shop which sells jars of these wonderful pigments is like being let loose in a candy store because how you use them is only limited by your own imagination. As you will have seen above, you can also now find these on line at Amazon. The Ultramarine blue and lavender I mixed together with an acrylic white and used on all the recycled windows we fitted at the front of the house. One interesting effect of using natural non-toxic materials is that you find that yourself in possession of the modern day Gingerbread House. Until it was fully dried both the putty and the paint were regularly consumed by snails and from the teeth marks, small rodents.

 Natural pigments used on old window frames

Finding a colour which would sit harmoniously with terracotta roof tiles and pink and grey granite is not easy but maybe by their very nature of coming from the same clays, the mixture of these two aquamarines seemed to work. Anyway they did for us, see what you think. 

Using natural pigments to create floor varnishes
We used a mix of ochres, sienna and umbras, five in all, to get a good 'aged' look to the floor boards. I mixed the pigment with an acrylic water-based varnish and then applied a couple of coats of clear varnish on top to seal in the pigment. The banisters and doors were tinted with the same pigments but I used an organic hemp oil as the medium. The linen and lime mortar on the walls had a rather cold grey look to it so I livened it up with the addition of two tablespoons of deep Sienna red per trug of mix. This gave it just the slightest hint of colour but it took the grey out of it. With pigments you really need to experiment and remember that the dry colour may be much paler. Your own unique colours do not come with a shade card but that is part of the fun. I always tend to do a trial demo on a scrap of wood or patch of wall where it won't be noticed!  Your pigments will also tend to follow the grain in wood so you can get some really lovely effects. 

Pallet wood hen house decorated with natural pigments

The garden is a great place for natural pigments. We mostly use pallet wood in our various projects and it is not the most attractive of timbers. Pigments can be employed with great effect and of course you don't need to worry about them harming the environment, your livestock or wildlife. I've used pigments on the hen houses and greenhouses with organic hemp oil as the medium and I've used them in acrylic paints on the pergola, pyramids, plant supports and planters.

The Bee Cosy for overwintering and hopefully taking for a long let. Finished with a water-based varnish and ochre pigment. The article on how to make this is insect hotel is here

Using natural mineral pigments in the garden
Using eco-friendly natural pigments in garden design

So many colours to choose from makes its easy to mix and match in the rose garden and then in the Winter the supports provide a welcome touch of colour.

Environmentally friendly garden design
Have fun!

If you enjoyed this article then please feel free to share it, comment and/or ask questions.

All the best and thanks for dropping by. 

Cheers, Andy

© Andy Colley 2014


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  1. Good morning. I found very nice your chicken coop. have you done an article on the construction? would you have a plan in my contact? I want to build one like yours, wooden. cordially
    Bonjour. Je trouve tres beau votre poulailler. Avez vous fait un article sur la construction ? auriez vous un plan à ma communiquer ? Je voudrai en construire un comme le votre en bois.cordialement

    1. Hi, Thanks for your enquiry. We are just putting together a film on the chicken coop as we are building a new one in our garden. It will take 10 to 14 days to get the whole thing finished and on youtube and I will have an accompanying article here on the blog. For materials you will need the wood from approximately 20 standard size untreated pallets (120cms x 80cms) plus 4 pallets intact to form the base. This makes a hen house which has a footprint of 2.4m x 1.6m and is high enough to stand upright in. You will also need a heavy duty 'bache' tarpaulin - I got one from a bricodepot approx 18 Euros and approx 12m2 of 'lambris déclassé' 'tongue-and-groove' 10mm thick for the roof. We finished the hen house above with organic hemp oil from Terrachanvre in Brittany. Best Wishes, Andy