Can Art be Eco Friendly?
Wait, you mean Art isn't already eco friendly? Well, back in the early Spring of 2021 not long after I'd received a brand new box of acrylic paints, I suddenly realised that acrylic paints were just basically liquid plastic. As someone who tries to recycle, re use, always uses cruelty free, eco friendly home and beauty products this came as a nasty shock to me. I then began to look at the art world in a different light, instead of browsing artist supplies with excitement at the thought of a new paint, canvas, medium etc etc, I saw only dangerous chemicals, pollutants, excessive use of plastic and a lack of enviromentally friendly art supplies generally.
Yet as I expanded my investigations further, I found that there are many many Artists who came to the same conclusions as myself and were involved in eco art activism, education and symposiums. I began to research how to make my own paint, having always had an interest in geology and archaeology, I knew humans had made paints centuries ago, and often that paint was still visible today.
I watched hours of YouTube tutorials and eventually went of out locally in search of suitable rocks to crush. Luckily I live in an area surrounded by old mines and quarries so sourcing iron ochre rich soils and stones is easy. I came home with a bundle of iron ochres, stones, sandstone, burnt logs, slate and old red brick found on paths and began smashing them up. (wear eye protection and a dust mask for health and safety and only use soft rocks as hard rocks are high in silicone which is carcinogenic if inhaled).
The process of turning stone, soil or soot into a pigment is relatively straight forward, basically you crush the stone up into small pieces then grind it with a mortar and pestle into a fine powder. Put the powder into a large glass jar and fill with water, give it a good shake then leave it to settle. The pigment will weigh lighter than sediment and plant/animal matter, so it will fall ontop of the heavier layer. You may need only 30mins for the water to clear, or it may take 24hours, depends on the pigment. Once you can see a lighter colour layer ontop of a darker heavier looking layer, you have pigment. Now the tricky bit, you need to pour off most of the clear water, which may also have some plant matter n bits that have floated to the surface. Then pour of the remaining water containing only the lighter weight pigment into another jar. You may need to add more water and gently shake to get as much pigment as possible, leave to allow the heavy sediment to settle at the bottom and pour of the coloured water. Once you have all or as much pigment as you can get in the second jar, leave it to settle, once the water has gone clear pour off the water and leave the pigment to dry out. Some people pour the whole jar through a coffee filter paper to catch the pigment paste, then just spread out the filter paper to let dry. I find this a bit unneccesary and wasteful (plus I don't use coffee filter papers so did'nt have any). It works perfectly fine to pour the pigment out onto an old foil tray, I often use old tins from frozen pies I've cooked. Or I just leave the pigment to dry out in the jar, works fine just takes a bit longer to dry out.
Once you have your dry pigment all thats left to do is to mix it with a binder to become a paint. I have loved spending time over the Spring and Summer experimenting with different binders and surfaces. I have mixed pigment with just water, some acrylic medium I had left to use up, wall paper paste, lindseed oil, vegetable glycerin with gum arabic. The different mediums will make a paint of different consistency, depth of colour and texture. So it depends on what surface I paint on and what finish I want as to what medium I use.
This piece was one of the first I did with my handmade watercolours (mixed with honey and water as a binder).
Working on 300gsm watercolour paper. To get a decent paint you need to mull it, which essentially is running a glass muller or in my case I used a marble ornament until I found that an old flat iron worked well. The mulling process coats the pigment particles with the binder as well as making the pigment less gritty. Essentially mixing the paint really well to give a more even consistency and depth of colour.
The paints can be more difficult to work with than bought ones, but finding out what pigment does best with what is part of the fun of the process.
I have managed to get about 10 different colours using soils, clays, soot, ashes and various rocks I find on walks around where I live. The colours never cease to amaze and inspire me. I have also been experimenting with plant dyes and eco printing, but I'll save that for another blog post.
Regarding surfaces to paint on, well, I have used cardboard from old boxes, tree bark (found on the groundnnot pulled from a tree), re primed printed canvases found in Charity Shops and re primed old canvases of my own, I have also used the watercolour paper I already had.
My intension is that once I have used up all of my acrylics and goucache paints, I will only use paints I either make myself, or buy from someone who also uses only natural pigments. More and more artists are making their own paint, swapping pigments with each other or making paint to sell. So getting a wider variety of colours is getting more and more possible.
I tend to reuse canvas, or paint on cardboard to save buying new, but it is possible to buy recycled watercolour paper so once I need some more I will buy some of that. I have also made my own recycled paper over the summer (another blog post to come lol), but its quite thick and absorbs water which affects how you paint, but its useable for now.
I also try to use second hand picture frames and mounts rather than buying new, you can find some fantastic frames, but after some time of buying frames that then don't fit your art, I realised that actually why don't I buy the frames first and make art to fit them!
In conclusion, the art world today could do a lot more to be less wasteful and use less resources, but it is possible as an artist to add some eco elements into your practice. Even if that's just buying a recycled sketch book for your next one, it's a start. If you want to explore further there are lots of resources and groups out there, start with YouTube and how to make paint using mud and it will open up a whole new world to explore.
For resources on safe rock use (some can be toxic, so check before crushing and always wear PPE) and more I recommend - World Pigment Day, Eco Artspace, Wild Pigment Project and Natural Earth Paint, find the on Instagram and some on YouTube.