How I Became an Ozark Pigment Forager
On a dewy summer morning in June 2018, a random pursuit of curiosity sparked a life-changing discovery for me.
Since I moved to our rocky homestead near Kingston, Arkansas, in 2005, I’ve noticed and admired the colorful insides of rocks. They often cracked open from vehicles passing over them on our driveway.
What catches my eyes are the rich grains of earthy colors spilling out. The rock colors span an earthy rainbow from black and brown to yellow, orange, and pinkish, purple, and the deep, dark hematite reds that draw me like a magnet. For a decade, all I did was admire them. I never acted on the impulse to further explore the possibilities.
On that sultry morning, there was a smashed rock spilling a crimson red stain on the driveway in the path of my morning walk. This time, instead of giving it a passing glance while I focused on getting the mile done, I turned around to go back to the house for a sheet of drawing paper. A few minutes later, crouched on the driveway with the simple supplies for my experiment, I took a pinch of the sandy rock dust and rubbed it onto the paper.
From then on, I became an Ozark Pigment Forager, an obsessed gatherer of earth color.
Until then, I had been a sketcher, a drawer, and a sculptor of little creatures and fantasy mushrooms using found botanical items like moss, lichens, acorns, garlic stems, and twigs. My art had always been a partnership with the land, but that relationship began shifting.
For the next phase of my hand-in-hand journey with Ozark nature and art, I needed to find out how to use this incredible resource that nature had gifted me in such abundance.
After some research, I settled on making watercolor paint. It would be less messy than oils and the paints more portable. All but one ingredient could be sourced locally: pigment from our own land, water from our gravity-fed spring, honey from a local beekeeper. The gum Arabic would be imported from acacia trees that grow in India, Pakistan, or Nigeria.
First, I needed to learn to make the paints. Then, learn how to paint.
During my trial and error in smashing rocks for pigments, I learned some things. Not all rocks will work well to make paint pigments. And not all hills and hollers in the Ozarks have the same geology. Right here at our land in Madison County, Arkansas, near the Newton County line, the makeup is mostly sandstone.
Even the same river doesn’t offer the same natural resources throughout its course. Our land is near the headwaters of Kings River. The little tributary that runs through our property is filled with mostly sandstone and black shale. Farther downstream, it is mostly flint and other hard rocks that don’t produce much color.
There is a spot on the Kings River nearby that I call Yellow Hill. This little rise of a gravel bar is rich with yellow limonite. Downstream, I collect a certain red at Red Gravel Bar. I’m not sure what kind of rock it is, but my guess is that it is made of the stuff that normally resides between the grit of larger rocks. It’s a labor of love to gather this one: it’s a small, flat stone about the size of my thumbnail. It’s pure red with no grit at all. Most of the rocks I use are sandstone, and it is their nature to be gritty. What I suspect is some sort of bituminous coal offers a nice brown if I grind it and use the whole pigment. But if I wash and separate it to get the grit out, it turns a wonderful black. The closest thing to green on my palette comes from what looks like a gray rock, unless it happens to be lying next to an actual gray rock—that’s when the green cast is evident.
We live down six miles of dirt (and rock) road, across several low-water bridges. When I’m driving, of course, I’m watching the road, but my focus may shift from birds to deer to what-is-that-blooming-flower, and I’m always scanning the creek beds and roadsides for sources of pigment. This is why I drive very slowly. Not only does it spare the suspension on my car, but it gives me thirty minutes of cruising for colors.
Here in the Ozarks, we don’t have colorful gems or minerals, but we do have sandstones, shale, and clay in an earthy rainbow of colors except for those on the blue scale. The colors here are due to various combinations of iron oxides and sometimes manganese oxides.
However, once a rock is crushed and the powder is dry, there are hazards to take into consideration. The dust from sandstone and clay contains fine grains of silica. If inhaled, it causes silicosis, a serious ailment that affects the lungs. The mineral malachite is green due to the copper oxide content; copper oxide dust is dangerous to the endocrine and nervous system. The ore arsenopyrite gets its color from arsenic and sulfur; inhaling the dust from that one could be deadly. But there should be no danger from dust in gathering ordinary rocks in nature, or in testing them while wet to see what kinds of colors they might produce as a paint.
As far as I know, the only history of using the rocks in the Ozarks for paints was by Native Americans. Once settlers moved to the region, the artists among them would have most likely used pigments imported from Europe. Those colors would have been considered more sophisticated or elite—or perhaps the earthy palette of pigments here did not appeal to their senses. At any rate, I’ve had a difficult time finding any evidence of early Ozark artists using local pigments. Even today, while there is a renaissance blooming of artists discovering their local color resources around the globe, I don’t see the same trend in the Ozarks.
For me, the act of seeking, finding, and collecting the rocks is grounding in a literal and spiritual sense. Taking them through the process from a rock lying on the ground to a paint in my palette forges an intimate connection between the earth and me as a maker.
The first thing I do once I’ve collected a rock is to break it into smaller pieces. I grind it either by hand with mortar and pestle, if it’s small, or I break it into small pieces and feed them into my motorized rock crusher. Either way, the goal is to make a powder, which is the pigment. A dust mask or respirator is a must at this stage and throughout the process until the pigment powder is wet again (while it’s either being washed or added to binder).
The grittiness of a pigment determines the texture of the paint. Sometimes I leave the pigment whole, grit and all, if I want a rough, textured paint. For a smooth paint, the dust and grit need to be separated. The easiest way to do that is with water, but a sieve will also work. A sieve is faster, but water washing is safer because it limits the exposure to airborne dust.
Once there is a fine pigment powder, it is time to mull it: suspending the pigment particles in a binder. The binder that determines what kind of paint I’m making. I use linseed or walnut oil to make oil paints. I use a muller—a handheld glass tool that acts as a flat-bottomed pestle—on a glass or marble slab to combine the powder and binder until smooth, with the consistency of cake icing. Then I scrape it onto a spatula and drop it into a paint tube. After crimping the edge, the paint is ready to use.
I get a special pleasure from painting nature scenes with the very elements of nature that create the scene. Sometimes I’ll paint a landscape that’s fairly representational. But sometimes I’ll paint a scene I’ve made up, and these often include elements of whimsy or fantasy. One of my favorite series of paintings resulted from an intention to paint plein air. I went down to the creek, set up my space, and began painting what was in front of me.
Somewhere along the way, the scene changed into a combination of what I saw with my eyes and what I saw in my (sometimes strange) mind. At the end of that session, I had a Rock Flutist. For the next two sessions, I added characters to the ensemble: Monsieur Crawfish danced a jig on a nearby rock, and Sally the Salamander lounged in the shadows sipping from an acorn cup.
It would be easier to buy my paints from an art supply store. But the act of making my art, literally from the ground up, forges a connection between me and what I feel is the Soul of the Ozarks: rocks, clay, bone, plants. The paintings I make are images of beauty arising from the Ozarks themselves. The entire process of foraging, smashing, washing, mixing, making the paint, and finally creating an image on a blank sheet of paper is a sort of alchemy. It feels like working magic.
Madison Woods is an artist who lives far off the beaten path in Kingston, Arkansas. She makes her paints from the surrounding land. Find her on social media as @wildozark.