Playing with Period Pigments:

A Make and Take Class

Jehanne Bening, OL (mka Susan E. Gordon)

Wouldn't it be fun to experience paint making without digging the earth yourself? This class will let you do just that. Without much effort, you will play with earth pigments, used by the world’s earliest artists. Feel what medieval artists’ felt as they combined binder and pigment to make paint. Take away the samples you create, to use on your next project.

Why grind your own paint? Before 1600, artisans made all paint in the workshop, as needed. While many historic artists had apprentices grind their pigments, they had performed those same tasks when they were apprentices. Today's artists, who generally work with commercial paints, have lost the direct experience gained by preparing their own paints. Mixing dry pigment with a binder physically and emotionally connects you to the Medieval or Renaissance artists that similarly prepared their paints.

Why not go ahead, then, and make paint from raw earths rather than commercial dry pigments? While the equipment needed to make paint from “the ground up” is not complex, the manufacture of paints takes much skill and experience. In his Artist’s Handbook, Ralph Mayer states “…an inexperienced person cannot expect to manufacture small batches of color that will equal the commercial pigments either in purity of color or in pigment properties.” (157)

By grinding your own paint from dry pigments, you control the visual effect. Today's pigment manufacturers provide homogeneous, consistent fine grinding for paint producers generally. Artist’ pigments comprise a minor part of the total paint production. A color's visual effect depends on a pigment's physical characteristics. Each pigment has specific characteristics that reflect and absorb light. By mulling and mixing paints yourself, you control its texture and visual effect. Some pigments actually look more “period” when coarsely ground, because paint particles, especially of early native ores, are much larger than similar modern colors.


Grinding paint yourself also enables you to control ingredients. Medieval artists were often concerned about paint adulteration when prepared outside their workshop. While tube gouache, commonly used by SCA illuminators including myself, is similar to paint used in the Middle Ages, ingredients vary between manufacturers. In addition, an artist that works in other media can mix the same dry pigment with other binder choices, like glair, wax, or oil.


This class allows SCA illuminators to acquire basic experience grinding dry pigments with commercially prepared gum Arabic . Feel each pigment's texture, see their fineness and binder absorption, and test their individual characteristics yourself. Learn the skills and safety measures needed to make paint. Finally, take the paints you create home to use on your own project.

Safety Sense


As a universal rule, handle all powders as if they were toxic. Always wear masks, gloves, and eye protection. Any pigment’s chief hazard is its very powdered form. Inhaling them is harmful and sends pigment poisons directly to the blood stream. Before opening the pigment jar, tap its top to prompt the powder to settle. When finished, tightly seal the container to prevent accidental spilling or puffing the powder into the air. Do not let powders disperse. After the pigment powder is wet, a mask is not essential.

Protecting your skin is important too. Cover open wounds any time you use pigments, wet or dry, especially on the hands or face. Wear protective gloves, latex or vinyl.

Never smoke, eat or drink while working. Powder on your fingers may get on cigarettes, drinking vessels or flatware and be spread to the mouth. Always wash your hands after handling artist pigments. Be sure to keep pigments away from food production and eating areas. Do not ever lick your brushes.


Keep all paints, dry or wet, away from children and pets. Like medicine and cleaning products, they should never be stored where children or pets can get to them. Any material that is toxic to adults is even more toxic to small bodies.  

Set-up and clean up with care, to control powder spread. Use a washable tablecloth over your work area. When finished, fold your washable tablecloth from the edges toward the center, closing within any spilled powders. To limit interruptions, gather all supplies before you begin. When finished use a damp paper towel or sponge to wipe your tools and slab. Immediately, discard paper towels in a plastic bag lined, lidded trashcan. If you use a sponge, immediately rinse it under running water, until the water runs out it clear. Before leaving your work-area, double check that it is perfectly clean and all equipment washed. Secure all jar lids and return containers to their correct places.


Breakage safety. If you drop and break a glass pigment jar, instantly hold your breath and leave the area. After all the powder settles, use a damp broom to sweep the area. Use strong gloves to handle the broken glass. A cut from pigment-coated glass puts poisons directly in the blood stream. Put broken glass in a safe container or plastic sack and dispose immediately.

Materials and Tools 


Table covering, washable

Mask—NIOSH N95 respirator mask        

Vinyl(or latex) gloves        

Pigment(s) choice(s) — Rublev®'s Introductory Pigment Set.                 

Binder— a commercially prepared gum Arabic in a solution that includes honey, glycerine and a preservative (This is actually Natural Pigments® liquid Watercolor Medium)        

Scraping tool— palette knife or mini-spatula        

Muller—a glass that has had the bottom roughened        

Grinding plate— unglazed tile, frosted glass, or marble slab        

Storage containers with lids, very clean/sterile        

Distilled water            

Dropper/ pipette

Pigment Preparation          


Pigments look and act unique in different binders. You are already familiar with gum Arabic, an easy binder to work, since it is in commercial gouache and watercolor. While liquid gum Arabic is easy and cheap to make from crystals, this basic class will use a commercially prepared product that already includes honey, glycerine,  and a little preservative. The honey and glycerine are plasticizers included to help the paint be less fragile and brittle.                 


Commercially made period pigments come from the manufacturer in a powdered form.         With a palette knife and a “plate”, you mix the powder with drops of distilled water, making a paste. Next, because scroll painting uses small amounts of paint, you add drop(s) of binder, one at a time. After the binder is evenly spread through the pigment, switch to grinding with a small muller. (You can substitute a small beverage glass that has a flat, roughened bottom.)         




To begin, place about 1/2 teaspoon of pigment powder on your plate. Add a drop or two of distilled water. Be careful not to add too much water, as you can’t take out any excess. With a palette knife or plastic spatula, smear the water and pigment around the plate’s         surface, but not more than necessary to make it uniform. Next, using your muller or substitute, rub in a circular or figure-8 motion, repeatedly pushing the paste back to the plate's center, evenly moistening the pigment. The idea is to grind over the entire amount of paste with each stroke. (OOPs—It’s too soupy! Try spreading the paste evenly around the plate and let it dry for a short time.) When ready, drop a drop of liquid binder into the paste and go on grinding. Continue adding binder a drop at a time and grind until the paint is near creamy consistency. When necessary use your spatula or palette knife to scrape paint from the muller back into the plate’s middle.


Each pigment requires its own special binder to pigment proportion. Plan to experiment to learn each pigment’s desired, optimum consistency. Illumination colors should be smooth and well dispersed, but unlike watercolor paint, not necessarily finely ground. Test your paint by brushing a small swatch on some paper, your notes or vellum and let it dry. If the pigment doesn't rub off when dry, then you have a usable paint. If it rubs off, add a little more binder. If the paint is too transparent, try adding more         pigment paste. (Remember, these pigments do not include any ground chalk or eggshell to make them opaque as in gouache paints. If you have to add more paste, most likely you’ll have to make it again.) Also, check for shine. Some pigments need more binder than others, but the more gum Arabic you add, the glossier and more brittle the paint becomes. Pigments bound with too much gum Arabic, even with honey and glycerine, will be more brittle and flake off easier.         

Using powdered pigments is more experimental than using tube paint, it is good to make notes or keep a journal of all self-made products. You may want to include date, pigment, manufacturer, binder and your abbreviation for them. Also note measurements, a brief description of grinding (i.e. easy to reach creamy consistency or coarser than desired), results (i.e. too shiny or very transparent) and changes to consider next time (i.e. try adding a drop of alcohol to get powder to disperse).         

Finish by scraping the paint off the muller and plate and into a container and put a lid on it. Last, label your preparations with your chosen abbreviations for color, manufacturer, binder, and date.           


Working with period pigments is a continuing quest. Please, seek out other illuminators that use period pigments and trade ideas, tips and tricks. Continue your hunt for information and sources. Your experiments will be an informative, fun teacher.  Be safe and careful.         




Anfuso, Linda. "A Palette of Period Pigments." The Compleat Anachronist #43. 43. Ed. Wolf Weiss. Milpitas: Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc., 1989.


Boucher, Elyse C.( ska:         Merouda Pendray). "Pigments and Paints: A Brief Survey and Set of Instructions on Making and Identifying Period Illumination Paints." 1999. 

11 September 2009         <>.


Gottsegen, Mark David.         The Painter's Handbook: A Complete Reference, Revised and Expanded. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006.


Johansen, Tony. 2006.         East Sydney Academy Of Art. 14 September 2009         <>. Wonderful website chocked full of paint making information.


Laurie, A. P. (Arthur Pillans). The Painter's Methods and Materials. New York: Dover Publications,         Inc., 1967 reprint of 1960 .


Mayer, Ralph. The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. Ed. Steven Sheehan. 5th. New York: Viking Penguin Division; Penguin Books, 1991.


Merrifield, Mary P. Original Treatises On the Arts of Painting. Two vols. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967 reprint of 1849. Now also a Google Book.


O'Hanlon, George. "Do         Natural Pigments Offer More to Modern Painter?s" Natural Pigments. 9 June 2013 <  >. accessed 9March 2016


O'Hanlon, George. "Make Your Own Water Based Paint." Natural         Pigments. 25 June 2015         <>. Accessed 9 March 2016


Thompson, Daniel V. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting.         New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956.         


Trimble, Bjo (ska: Flavia Beatrice Carmingniani). "Exploring Period Pigments." Monrovia: Griffin Dyeworks, 2007.


Tools and Materials        

Basic Pigment Grinding Kit." Natural Pigments < > accessed 10 March 2016 Kit includes a muller and plate sized for smaller quantities and 6 pigments. About $130.

"Pocket Pigment Kit." Ancient Earth Pigments . <> accessed 10 March 2016 Great place for a beginner to start. Kit is about $30.

"Watercolor Medium." Natural Pigments. 1 October 2009 <>.  




Playing with Period Pigments: A Make and Take Class

Jehanne Bening, OL (mka Susan Gordon)