Raw materials from nature play a huge role in my art. It inspires me to know that the paint I use once was a soybean or a linseed – or even a walnut or a stone. It’s fascinating to be aware of the origins of these things. I vividly remember when it all started: At first, I realised that my brushes looked all eaten up after a while. When it dawned on me that the acrylic paint caused that damage, I began to question my materials.
I never liked having acrylic paint on my hands or anywhere on my skin anyway – it always felt wrong. All that convinced me to look for alternatives. I found them in a book about natural home decoration. Reading this, I first learned about painting with eggs tempera and casein. The authors also provided recipes and I began to experiment. I was so intrigued that I bought some other books and completely switched from acrylics to natural paints in a few weeks.
Birch, earth and a rusty knive
The possibilities to use art materials from nature are endless. Instead of paints I bought linseed oil and earth pigments for a start. How fantastic to explore the distinct colours of the various regions of the earth – from France to Morocco or Island. That already brought me closer to the essence of it all. It is just an enormous difference to realize that the ochre I use once was part of the earth – and not the result of a human-made chemical process.
But the real pleasure is to collect materials from nature itself. A few years back I was totally into dyeing textiles and I enjoyed being out for a walk collecting lush birch leaves – only a few at a time. My husband and I took small bags with us and looked for birch trees along the way. They give a lovely pale yellow when you use them as dye. When you also put the rusty blade of an iron knife or an old rusty nail into the stirring pot, the colour turns into a warm green. It was back then that I also discovered how to paint and dye textiles with soymilk. And I made a real mess dipping textiles into buckets full of soy and dirt.
Walnuts and whiskers – natural art materials
It is also wonderful to collect ripe walnuts and make ink out of the shells. It’s great to be aware of all the effort and time that went into making that ink: The walnut tree took many years to grow – and now it gives us walnuts to eat, to make cookies from or to dye cloth or paint with. I like to think that just because I knew the walnut and picked it with gratitude makes a difference. And it is a great experience to make art materials with my own hands – I know all the ingredients and the whole process of making it.
Nature is so rich and provides us with so many things. I recently bought a book that shows how to make paper and brushes with natural materials. I like the idea to collect the whiskers that my cat loses. It’s like a tiny gift that will at after years of collecting maybe turn into a brush. That does not mean that I don’t buy art supplies in a shop. But isn’t it great that we can make our own paper out of grass – or charcoal by simply using fire and a tin can?
Soybeans and a pale pink madder lake
A few weeks ago, I even considered growing my own soybeans – next to the tomatoes and beans into our garden. And that is when I learned that soybeans need a special bacterium that bonds with their roots. In Asia, this bacterium is a natural ingredient of the soil. In my own garden I would have to add it artificially. Ah well, I am sure that bacteria are harmless – but I decided that it is fine to paint with soy someone else grew for me.
Does that sound freaky? Maybe. But it is great fun to go back to the source of the materials I use. It is also great fun to make madder lake in the kitchen. And yes, it also makes a mess. In the end, the colour was a pale pink and tot the flaming red for which I had hoped. But it was fun nevertheless – and a nice pink is great too
Grinding time and blurry colours
But what has that to do with my art? A lot. For one of my projects, I paint with soy and pigments on discarded textiles. I could not do this with artificial paint. Because it is part of the process to be aware where my art materials come from. It is also a key step to grind the dry soybeans to make my paint. My thoughts wander while the soybeans turn into a yellowish flour. When I finally add water, it requires some time until the soymilk is ready. Yet another chance to prepare maself before I start creating the art.
I love how the soy reacts with the different textiles. For one of my textile paintings, I used a rough linen tablecloth that was easy to paint on. The pigment looked bright and crisp. But for another painting I used an old bedlinen – a bit flurry and difficult to paint on. The textile sucked in the paint and made the colours look blurry. But I like these difficulties. Yes, I could simply drive to the art supply store and fill my cart with the fines materials I can afford. But that is not the point.
A tender rebellion
We live in a time and age where everything seems unlimited, and everything is available – always and at ridiculously cheap prices. We buy stuff that comes from the other end of the world where people unknown to us work for a tiny wage. We poison rivers, the air and whatnot just to spend a few minutes a satisfaction because we bought yet another item that we do not need and do not care about.
Maybe using these materials is my way of rebelling against the monstrous capitalism and the unsatiable greed of these times we live in. I like the idea that I have enough and that I only need time, dedication, and stories to make art out of what nature gives me freely.