Or how did the people long ago make paint?
This question cropped up during our Ancient Egypt study unit and with my homeschooling energy going into overdrive, I thought - why not try to make our own pigments?
Naturally we couldn’t use any mineral pigments that are found in rocks since we don’t have the capabilities to grind them up! So we were limited to things we could (a) easily get hold of and (b) grind up in our (tiny) kitchen pestle and mortar.
Other than that, the sky is your limit really!
The easiest thing to start with is raiding your spice rack. Spices such as cinnamon, cumin, coriander and many others will give you an entire palette of earthy colours that are so prevalent in early art. If you dry flowers on a regular basis, these will also be a great addition to the activity. In fact, I would strongly recommend finding some flowers as well as leaves of different colours (the brighter, the better) and drying them in preparation for this activity.
We ended up using the following items for our experiment: - red and yellow dried rose petals
- dried rose leaves
- mud from the park
- garam masala
Now for the million dollar question: which one do you think came out best? Keep reading to find out!
Now if any of my readers have done art history, they will know that a basic paint requires a pigment (the colour powder), a binder that glues it together, and a solvent that makes it easy to spread....
Woah! Hold your horses just one moment - this is supposed to be an easy kids activity, right? Well, we chose to make egg tempera paints out of our pigments and all that needs is an egg yolk mixed into your pigment. Easy as pie!
I did get the kids to grind up their own pigments though in our pestle and mortar. All that energy needs to go somewhere, right? So we ground up the dried petals and leaves, each colour separately together with a pinch of salt since our mortar was just too smooth to make any difference. Incidentally, we were surprised by the smells coming from our grindings since we expected the petals to smell like a bouquet. They didn't in fact, and it was the leaves that generated a gorgeous smell similar to ground matcha (finely ground green tea) powder. Rather made me wonder if I could use any future rose bouquets to make some green tea alternative, although I wouldn't like to be the one to put it to the test! :)
We were equally surprised by how earthy the red rose petals ended up looking once they were mixed in with the egg yolk. I was rather heart-broken since I was expecting a beautiful red colour. Alas! That was not meant to be although it prompted me to try a different binder on the red rose petal powder. I tried it with a bit olive oil (any cooking oil will do) and the colour was much more vivid. The olive oil did spread all over the page, so I guess I must have put too much in. All this made us appreciate how much trial and error has gone into making the paint colour palette that we all know and use today.
So which pigment came out the best? (Drum roll please!)
The mud! The fine clay particles lent themselves naturally to be turned into a paint, and the fortuitous coincidence that the ratio of pigment quantity to egg yolk result in a smooth Goldilocks paste (not too thick, not too runny) was and added bonus. A bonus that prompts me to suggest adding your pigment to the egg yolk in small quantities at a time so as not to end up with the glue-like substance that our green paint (from the leaves) turned out to be. Having said that, the colour of the green paint turned out really well (as in, you could tell it was supposed to be green!).
- I would definitely like to try this again with different binders: oil, milk and maybe even just plain water.
- This activity just lends itself to the experiment of how much pigment is too much and it would be easy to see to set up with 4-5 egg yolks versus 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, 1 1/2 teaspoons, etc. of pigment.
- Other pigment types: dried fruit is one that I have in mind to try.