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Hand-ground paints have become 'a consuming passion' for southern Alberta artist

Okotoks artist Therese Dalë Kunicky's work involves a messy and labour-intensive first step: she makes her own paint. While it takes about 20 minutes to make a small batch of one colour of oil paint using such traditional methods, Dalë Kunicky appreciates how the process slows her down.

Artist makes paints using natural pigments, sourced from around the world

Okotoks artist Therese Dalë Kunicky's work involves a messy and labour-intensive first step: she makes her own paint. 1:35

Okotoks artist Therese Dalë Kunicky's work involves a messy and labour-intensive first step: she makes her own paints.

Dalë Kunicky uses a mortar and pestle to grind pigments — such as sand, clay, charcoal, rocks, or ochre — until the texture is fine, like sand. The crushed pigment is ground and mixed with oil to form a thick paste. 

Therese Dalë Kunicky's Okotoks studio is filled with pigments that she has sourced from around the world. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

While it takes about 20 minutes to make a small batch of one colour of oil paint using such traditional methods, Dalë Kunicky appreciates how the process slows her down.

"It makes it a little bit more contemplative," she said. "The painting process tends to be a slower, more thoughtful process."

Dalë Kunicky began making her own paint eight years ago, after she found ochre in the mountains and took some home to experiment.

"I just did a little sketch with it and it seemed very interesting," she said.

A close-up look at one of Therese Dalë Kunicky's paintings, titled 'The Same Source Informs Us All.' To make the paint for this piece, she used pigments including lapis, yellow ochre, violet hematite, and white clays from multiple locations. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Turning to the Internet to find more pigments, Dalë Kunicky eventually discovered suppliers specializing in pigments for art restoration

"From there it became a consuming passion and I got rid of all my old oil paints and I ended up just using hand-ground paints from then on," she said.

The practice is not very common. "It's something that sadly is not taught in most art schools."

Therese Dalë Kunicky, pictured in her Okotoks studio, makes hand-ground paints. (Evelyne Asselin)

Today, Dalë Kunicky uses natural pigments sourced from around the world. 

Some she's found herself, while others were ordered online, such as Vivianite, a blue pigment from a boggy area in Russia.

"That's the only place in the world that that blue comes up from," she said.

Vivianite is a blue pigment sourced from a boggy area in Russia. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

On a recent hike up a logging road with her husband and dogs, she found ochre, a red, powdery substance, in the middle of a pile of rocks.

"Right now I'm cleaning it out and seeing what it will look like once it's dried and ground into paint," she said. 

Dalë Kunicky also gets help from her sons — one is an archeologist, the other works in the oil patch — who keep an eye out on their travels for different coloured mud and rocks.

To make paint, Therese Dalë Kunicky grinds a pigment until the texture is fine, like sand. The crushed pigment is ground and mixed with oil to form a thick paste. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

To make the paint, Dalë Kunicky pounds the raw pigment with a mortar and pestle. Next she uses a glass muller and adds oil.  

While linseed oil is commonly used, Dalë Kunicky prefers Canadian balsam fir oil "because it smells like a forest." She adds walnut oil and a little clove oil, too.

A thick paste is formed and more oil is added until the paint is the right consistency. Then the base colour is ready to be mixed to the desired shade. 

After grinding the raw pigment, Therese Dalë Kunicky uses a glass muller and adds oil. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Dalë Kunicky describes the colours of the earth-based paints as softer than chemical-based paints.  ​

"It adds another layer to art when you're bringing in the elements of the earth to make the paints," she said.

Dalë Kunicky's artwork can be viewed on her website or in her gallery, a working studio in Okotoks located at 45 McRae St. 

Therese Dalë Kunicky appreciates how the process of making her own paint has slowed her down. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

With files from Evelyne Asselin