Mother Earth Living

Make Your Own Paint With Nature's Colors

DIY projects with earth's rich natural pigments.
By Dorrice Pyle
July/August 1999
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Elemental—the rich, timeless hues of earth clays and oxides. They’ve shone from the cave walls of Lascaux and Altamira, France for more than 15,000 years, just as they can add richness and spirit to today’s furnishings and finishes. Mineral pigments range in color from buttercream yellows to rich siennas to warm chocolate browns, and from vivid blues to earthy greens. And they’re nontoxic and easy to use. They can be mixed with water, oil, or wax to be brushed, rubbed, or wiped on wood, plaster, or paint. A thick mixture provides intense color and complete coverage, while a thin one can be wiped on and layered for a subtle glazed effect.


1 part linseed oil
3 parts turpentine
Drying agent

For sampling, use 1 tablespoon linseed oil, 3 tablespoons turpentine, a few drops of drying agent, and about a teaspoon of pigment. For large surfaces, use 1 cup linseed oil, 3 cups turpentine, 2 tablespoons drying agent, and 3 to 5 tablespoons of pigment. Mix well, stirring frequently as you work, because the pigment tends to settle out.

With a brush or rag, apply the mixture to a prepared surface—clean, sanded, or primed wood or wall. Let it penetrate for 15 to 30 minutes, then wipe off excess. More layers can be applied for a deeper color. The finished, dry surface can be sealed with lacquer or beeswax.

Linseed oil, made from flaxseed, and turpentine, crafted from pine resin, both have strong odors that persist for several days. They’re nontoxic, however, and their scent is pleasant.


A textured plaster wall can be washed with two or more layers of sheer color for a distressed look.

• Mix two colors, using recipe on previous page, with 4 parts turpentine instead of 3. This sample uses gold ochre and green oxide.
• Apply one color to textured plaster wall, and allow to dry.
• Apply second color, only hitting the high spots of texture.
• Blend and burnish the colors by rubbing with a dry towel.


Mottling gives a rich antique look to an otherwise plain-Jane wall.

• Mix recipe on previous page, using 4 parts turpentine instead of 3.
• Apply two coats with a soft, feathery brush, allowing surface to dry between coats.
• Dip a stiff brush in plain turpentine and rake the brush horizontally with a knife blade to spatter the dry wall.
• When thoroughly dry, burnish the wall by wiping with a dry rag in a circular motion.


Luminous colors are simple to achieve on a plain primed wall.

• Mix recipe on previous page, using yellow ochre.
• Apply with brush and allow to dry. Some natural color variation will occur.
• Thin remaining mixture with an equal amount of turpetine.
• Brush on two or more coats of this diluted mixture, allowing surface to dry between coats. These additional translucent layers ­provide depth and richness to the finish.

Spice Up Your Space with Natural Dyes

The soft, earthy hues derived from leaves, bark, lichens, and other natural organic materials that have been used for centuries to dye fabric also are effective on wood. Their rich, subtle colors create unexpected harmonies—Mother Nature makes no mistakes!

It’s easy to make a natural dye solution from common materials such as walnut hulls, which yield a deep brown color; yellow onion skins that provide a lively rust tone; or marigold blossoms, which offer a bright gold hue. Simply simmer the plant material in enough water to cover for 30 to 60 minutes. Test it by applying to clean, sanded wood. Repeated applications will yield deeper tones. Dyed wood can be finished with any neutral oil, wax, or lacquer.

For this antique spice cabinet, we used three natural dye extracts, which can be mixed with a small amount of water and applied directly to the wood. From the top, our colors are derived from brown quebracho, logwood, and cochineal. The lower drawers are stained with mineral pigments—green oxide, red ochre, and orange ochre. The primitive patina is achieved by leaving some of the original finish on the drawers so the dyes can’t penetrate evenly.

Natural dyes applied to wood are generally colorfast, and those that come from plant materials high in tannin—oak, osage orange, and quebracho—darken over time. One of the pleasures of using these materials is the unpredictability and variety of results; another is the inherent rightness of bringing natural materials together creatively. nNH

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