Creating Colour: Exploring Pigments & Making Your Own Oil PaintMarch 31, 2022
What would our world be like without colour? The green glow of a deciduous forest, brilliant petals of spring flowers, and warm sunshine yellows that brighten our world; ll contribute to our experience of our surroundings, what we eat, wear, and enjoy looking at. Colour is one of the more important considerations for most artists, and most of the colour we see in today’s paints are derived from pigments.
Since prehistoric times, artists have been using pigments in their works to enhance their art and tell an immersive story. Dry pigments – fine, coloured particles of different chemical origins, which are used to produce the colour in all different types of paints. In the past, the majority of pigments used by artists came from natural sources. Today however, with the progress of modern chemistry, the artist’s palette has grown considerably through the introduction of new pigments such as cadmium, cobalt, titanium and organics.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, artists’ paints were always prepared by painters or their assistants. In this article, we learn from Kama Pigments how you can make your own oil paints from scratch, to your own specifications.
Artists’ oil paints are easy to make yourself in the studio and can be conveniently kept in a tube for occasions where less time to prepare a colour is available. When artists learn to make their own, they realize how easy (and inexpensive) it is to make better quality paints, possessing richer colour hues than what is commercially available in many traditional paint lines.
Making Your Own Oil Paints
To make your paints, you will need a few things: dry pigments, a siccative oil, filler pigments are optional, flexible steel spatula and or a Glass muller (that is optional also). Finally, you will need a flat glass surface to mix the paint onto.
The binders of oil paints are known as Siccative or drying oils. Unlike other types of vegetable oils, siccative oils dry by oxidation to form a film both flexible and transparent, whose purpose is to bind the pigments on the support.
In this how-to, a cold pressed linseed oil was used. However, you can also use other types of oils known as semi-drying oils (Walnut oil, safflower or poppy seed oil) with the difference that these semi-siccative oils will take a longer time to dry than linseed oil.
Kama Pigments has developed a grinding medium called Good Grind medium, which is made from cold pressed linseed oil, and is used as an alternative binder in the home-manufacture of oil paints. It’s main advantages are that it resolves some of the classical problems associated with oil paint such as the separation of oil and pigments in paint that is stored in tubes for example. Once you’re ready with your supplies, you’re ready to begin the process of making your own oil paints.
Set out the desired quantity of dry pigments on the glass and, using your spatula, make a small hole in the centre. Next, add a small quantity of Siccative oil or grinding medium in the hole. Be mindful to use as little oil as possible at this stage, adding too much will result in a runny paint when grinding.
This first step is always to wet all of the pigments with oil. Once this is done, you don’t have to worry about dry pigments spreading all over your working area.
Once this is done, you will be able to start mixing the paint and adding other ingredients to it. Add more oil, if necessary.
After a few minutes of mixing, you’ll have yourself a consistent paste that already kind of looks like artist paint. At this stage, your paint will have a weird consistency and contain lumps of pigment, but this is not a concern at this point in the process.
At this step, we suggest that you add a filler pigment, also known as an extender. Filler pigments are white pigments with little to almost no tinting power. We take advantage of that by incorporating them into our paints without changing the colour significantly. Filler pigments are not necessary to make artists’ oils paints. However they are quite handy since they can help stabilize some colours, add transparency and, of course, lower the cost by adding volume.
In this demonstration, the folks at Kama Pigments used alumina hydrate. Filler pigments allow you to save on the overall cost of your materials by increasing the quantity of oil paint produced, and they will also stabilize your paint and improve its consistency.
Mix the filler in, just as you did with the pigment in Step 3, adding a little more Siccative oil as you work.
Stabilizing the paint is everything. Incorporate a touch of cold beeswax paste or Rembrandt medium (see painting mediums section ) into your paint if you wish to make it stiffer or more buttery.
Besides preventing oil pigment separation, a wax medium will help with long-term conservation by keeping the paint film more flexible over time.
After all ingredients have been added and mixed, the final step is grinding. At this stage we are dispersing the pigments as finely as possible inside the binder. The more we do this, the more tinting power and colour intensity our paints will have.
For this operation, you may use a glass muller, the traditional oil paint grinding tool that allows the finest possible dispersion of pigments. This is a particularly handy instrument to have when you’re preparing a large quantity of paint. Using both hands, press down and make circular motions.
If you don’t have a muller, no worries you can still make excellent paints using your Flexible steel spatulas to grind. A muller isn’t absolutely necessary to make artists’ oil paints; you can make very good oil paints without one.
The finished product. You now have your very own top-quality artists’ oil paint of perfect consistency and ready to be used.
You can store these home-made paints in closed glass jars, and since oil doesn’t oxidize at low temperature, you can also keep it in the freezer. According to us, the best way to store them is to put them in empty aluminum paint tubes. Scroll through the images (left) to see a quick example of how to get your paints into the empty tubes with the least fuss.
Label your paints with the pigment used, as well as any filler or mediums you’ve added – if you love the paints you’ve created, you’ll have the recipe for the next time you make them.
Paint Making Safety Precautions:
There are many safety issues to be aware of when using dry pigments, and we are providing this information so you can set yourself up for a safe experience when making your own paints. These safety precautions were sourced on the Princeton University Environmental Health & Safety website. See the full document here for even more information about safe handling.
Painters use pigments in oil paints, acrylics, watercolour paints, gouache, encaustic, poster paints, casein paints and tempera. Paints are pigments mixed with a vehicle or binder. Both inorganic and organic pigments are used as colourants. Dry pigments are especially hazardous because they are easily inhaled and ingested. They are used in encaustic, paper-marbleizing and in the fabrication of paint products, and will be discussed more thoroughly in the section below on pastels.
- Avoid eating, drinking or smoking while working. Poisoning can occur if toxic pigments are inhaled or ingested. The main hazard in standard painting techniques is accidental ingestion of pigments due to eating, drinking or smoking while working, inadvertent hand to mouth contact, or pointing the paint brush with the lips. If methods such as spraying, heating, or sanding are employed then there is an opportunity for inhalation of toxic pigments.
- The classic example of a toxic inorganic pigment in painting is white lead, or flake white (basic lead carbonate). Lead pigments can cause anemia, gastrointestinal problems, peripheral nerve damage (and brain damage in children), kidney damage and reproductive system damage. Other inorganic pigments may be hazardous, including pigments based on cobalt, cadmium, and manganese. (See Table 1)
- Some of the inorganic pigments, in particular cadmium pigments, chrome yellow and zinc yellow may cause lung cancer. In addition lamp black and carbon black may contain impurities that can cause skin cancer.
- Chromate pigments (chrome yellow and zinc yellow) may cause skin ulceration and allergic skin reactions (such as rashes).
- The long-term hazards of the modern synthetic organic pigments have not been well studied.
- Obtain MSDSs on your pigments to find out what pigments you are using. This is especially important because the name that appears on the tube of color may or may not truly represent the pigments present. Manufacturers may keep the name of a colour while reformulating the ingredients.
- Wear a filtered mask or respirator when handling dry pigments to avoid inhalation.
- Wear gloves to avoid having pigments come into direct contact with your skin.
- Use the least toxic pigments possible. Do not use lead or carcinogenic pigments.
- Avoid mixing dry pigments whenever possible.If dry pigments are mixed, do it inside a glove box (a box with a glass or plexiglas top and holes in the sides for arms) or inside a laboratory-type fume hood.
- Wet mop and wipe all surfaces when using dry pigments.
- Avoid using dishes, containers or utensils from the kitchen to mix and store paints and pigments.