This Alberta artist makes paint from soil and rocks, and here's how she does it
Every colour Crystalynn Tarr needs can be found within walking distance of home
For years, something was bothering Crystalynn Tarr. As an artist, landscapes were her thing, particularly scenes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. She'd paint alpine meadows and streams in vibrant colour, and to her, these vignettes were reminders of a closely held value: tread lightly on this Earth.
But the big irony, the detail that was pricking at her conscience, was the fact of how she produced these paintings. To capture the beauty of nature, Tarr relied on acrylic paints — a completely synthetic medium at odds with her green ideals. "I always felt this really weird disconnect," says Tarr. "And that bugged me, but I really didn't know what to do with it."
The solution, it turns out, was right in front of her — and below her, and pretty much everywhere she looks. Nowadays, Tarr only paints with what she finds outdoors. She uses earth pigments exclusively, colour extracted from soil and rocks that she often gathers herself. And from this dusty bounty, she mixes her own watercolour paints.
It forces you to appreciate the gifts in nature.- Crystalynn Tarr, artist
There are limitations to the practice. Blue, she says, is an unusually difficult colour to find in her part of the world. (She lives in Nordegg, a hamlet between Jasper and Banff in the Alberta foothills.) Still, she says every hue in her palette was sourced within hiking distance of home. She paints with brilliant oranges, reds and yellows; black (from coal), green (from various rocks), assorted shades of brown.
"I am always surprised by the breadth of colour that I get," says Tarr, who began experimenting with earth pigments seven years ago. (The idea came to her by chance. She'd been recruited to teach an art history lesson to grade-schoolers, and an assignment on prehistoric cave paintings got her thinking. If these mineral-based paints were good enough for the kids — and the people who came 40,000 years before them — maybe there was something to it.)
Self-taught through books "and a lot of trial and error," the process has made her more aware — and appreciative — of her surroundings. Her paintings are often true-to-life studies of Alberta's more unassuming denizens: tufts of tiny flowers, speckled mushrooms, delicate wild orchids. Just rendering them suggests a certain attention to detail — a focus that begins when she's out foraging for supplies.
"It's really created a huge sense of place for me," says Tarr, talking about her practice. "I've always really liked the outdoors and spent a lot of time out there. But it forces you to slow down. It forces you to appreciate the gifts in nature."
Here's how to try it yourself!
Living so close to the mountains, Tarr's home turf offers plenty of geological variety, which means she can find more colours in one place. You can make earth pigments anywhere, though, she says. And when spring arrives, and the snow has melted away, the dirt-hunting season can start. "Any time you can see the ground is a good time to pick up rocks," she says.
Wherever you're exploring, Tarr suggests beginning your search by taking a moment to rest and reflect outdoors. Stay still. Be quiet. After a moment of calm, you might find yourself better attuned to seeing colours that interest you.
What makes a good pigment, though?
Whatever you find will ultimately need to be ground into powder by hand. Clays are good, says Tarr. So are shales, which often have clay in their composition. If you can crush it, you can extract a pigment.
Test the colour as you go
Remember drawing with rocks as a kid, scratching on the sidewalk — or even other rocks? That's one of Tarr's go-to methods for testing. "It'll show me the colour I can get, and it can also show me how easy it's going to be to get the colour." If a mark can't be produced with a simple scratch, that rock's not worth the effort.
For soil and silt, Tarr suggests this test: run your hands through it and wipe it on a surface — even just your pant leg. "If it leaves a fine powdery dust, then you know you're going to be able to get a pigment out of that."
You don't need much
Tarr can make a regular batch of watercolour paint from a single handful of soil. (That particular medium requires less pigment than oil paints, for example — which is a big reason why she goes the watercolour route.) "Just being able to tread that little bit lighter on the Earth is important to me."
Once you're home with a few pocketfuls of raw material, gather your supplies. Because grinding pigment can be dusty work, Tarr uses basic safety gear: a particulate mask and gloves. She also works outdoors for better ventilation.
To grind dirt and rocks, she uses a cast iron mortar and pestle. It's an ordinary kitchen tool, but if you use one for this project, don't go making pesto with it again. Food prep and pigment-making do not mix. And to collect and filter out the pigment, keep a few clear jars or containers handy. You'll need access to water, too.
After picking out any stray organic bits (leaves, pine needles, anything that might rot), it's pestle time. Ideally, you're looking to produce a fine powder "like flour or baking soda," says Tarr. Depending on what you're dealing with, consider this a substitute for "arm day" at the gym. It's not unusual for Tarr to work a mortar and pestle for an hour, adding little bits at a time until she's satisfied with the results. "It's going to be almost impossible, crushing it by hand, to get it down to a consistent powder," she says. But when it's as close as it can get, it's time for phase two: a simple filtering method called water levigation.
Tarr pours her powder into a bucket and adds water, letting it sit — usually just 45 seconds — until the larger pieces sink to the bottom. The water should become cloudy with silt — material that will wind up being used as pigment. And to extract it, she'll pour the liquid into a second container, repeating the process until no more sediment is left behind and the water turns clear.
If there are big chunks left in any of the jars, they can go back in the mortar and pestle for more grinding. The rest can remain in the containers to dry out a bit. Tarr says she knows the pigment's ready when it feels like thick mud.
Beyond all your fresh-ground pigment, you'll need a few more things to make watercolour paint: gum arabic to bind the pigment together and glycerin to make it more flexible. (No glycerin? Tarr says she uses honey as an occasional substitute.) And of course, you'll need somewhere to put your paints. Tarr likes pouring hers into found (clean) seashells. "They're like nature's little paint palette."
What's in the mix?
As a general rule, Tarr suggests adding two parts pigment to one part gum arabic and one drop glycerin. But the proportions are ultimately up to you. Each pigment behaves differently, and Tarr enjoys embracing the chaos, often blending intuitively. Watch the mixture's consistency, she recommends. You're trying to achieve a texture that's "a little bit gummy," and feel free to swatch the colour as you go.
Pour, wait, paint
Once you're satisfied with your blend, pour the paint into small containers and let it dry naturally. When it's ready, you can use it like any cake of watercolour paint — though your store-bought stash probably won't feel quite as precious.
"Every time I use a different pigment or a different paint, it brings back memories of when I collected it," says Tarr. "It almost reconnects you to the places that you've been. It connects you to the land."