In the past few months, I have been experimenting with making my own watercolour paints and have been very happy with them. They perform as well as the commercial brands, and in some cases I feel more tuned with the paints I made myself. Here is a selection of my homemade vegan paints, shown below in Figure 1.
I suspect that the majority of people would not consider beginning to learn watercolour painting by first making their own watercolour paints. In fact, many books and tutors don’t think its necessary to understand materials; what matters, they say, is that you know how to paint and draw. Even as a beginner, I strongly disagree. In April 2020, on a watercolour painting forum I was told that there is absolutely no reason to make paints at home, and without even having seen my paints in action (I was in the process of uploading my images) some people said that my paints were inferior to their beloved – and expensive – commercial paints of whichever brand!!
As a Chemist/scientist, I cannot separate the study of materials from learning to draw and paint. They are very much connected. Historically, many students began with learning to mill the pigment, then combining the pigment with a binder, and only after several years of experience were they given active instruction in painting.
There are many advantages for experimenting with paint-making as a process of learning to paint:
- Opportunity to understand pigment and watercolour paint behaviour. I feel this would help me define and develop my own style, and I see it as an integral part of learning to draw and paint.
- Even commercial artist grade paints contain some form of fillers and preservatives and, yes, while they may contain higher pigment levels than student grade paints the level of pigment in even in most artist grade paints possibly on average does not exceed 35%. Please visit the Handprint website for a detailed discussion. https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/pigmt1.html. I am afraid that, although most watercolour paint manufacturers are sincere, the marketing and misinformation which can spread on art forums and books can be misleading. The big advantage of making your own paints are that you can ensure higher levels of pigments, no additional fillers or extenders. However, for me as a vegan the biggest advantage for making watercolour paints, is that I am fairly certain they are vegan-friendly! Making and using my own paints also means that I am able to “tweak” my paints with experience. Paint manufacturers may alter their paint formulations at any time without any pre-warning to improve the performance, replace a pigment type or alter the carrier to lower/maintain manufacturing costs. With my watercolour paints, I can ensure that I maintain the quality of the paints in the long run.
- Most commonly used watercolour paints (based on earth pigments like ochres siennas etc, French Ultramarine, Prussian Blue, some organic based pigments) can be made significantly cheaper at home. I will discuss this in detail further.
I would like to share my experiments without going into too much detail, as a deluge of detail might take the fun out of paint making. Here are some useful tips to begin with:
- SAFETY FIRST!! Pigments can be hazardous to health, even some benign earth pigments can affect your health due to their small particle sizes which can enter your body through respiration. Some pigments maybe dangerous such as cadmium or cobalt based pigments. Always wear a dust mask (FFP2 minimum), and work in an open and well-ventilated area. Always wear gloves (I use nitrile gloves) when working with pigments, paint mixing and transferring the prepared paint into containers. I also use the gloves for cleaning the equipment and work area. A work overall or a lab coat is also helpful.
- If you use fine-artist pigments they are already finely milled. Please consult the manufacturer and ask them for the particle size distribution range, if this information is not available on technical and or safety data sheets. In my opinion, the action of “grinding” pigment by hand using the glass muller and the glass plate is NOT going to make a signicant impact on the pigment size. The idea of mixing the pigment with the binder is to: (i) de-clump and disaggregate pigment clusters and to mobilise them, and (ii) coat and blend the pigment particles with the binder.
- There is no need to invest in an expensive glass muller and a glass slab (see the reason listed above). An inexpensive ceramic or glass pestel and mortar is sufficient for preparing these paints. Here is an image of my pestel mortar I use to make my watercolour paints, see Figure 2. I also find it a lot easier to clean compared to mixing the paint on a glass slab.
- For vegan-friendly paints, I use a gum arabic solution, QoR synthetic Ox gall (improves the flow and dispersion), glycerine and clove oil to prepare my binder. Its relatively simple, I used the recipe for the binder on the Earthpigments.com https://www.earthpigments.com/artists-watercolor-and-gouache/. I used vegetable glycerine in the binder. I also added about 1% QoR synthetic ox gall and a few drops of the binder.
- If its possible buy gum arabic in powder form, as it is easy to dissolve. I spotted an inexpensive 1L bottle of gum arabic solution (pre-made) on gerstaeker.at https://www.gerstaecker.at/Gummi-Arabicum-Streckergummi.html. I achieved similar results using this pre-made gum arabic solution and my homemade gum arabic solution. I can easily dissolve powdered gum arabic in the pre-made gum arabic solution by gently heating it using a hair dryer or a heater. This pre-made gum arabic solution is really easy to work with and it’s also relatively inexpensive.
- You can use pre-made commercial binders , but they are unlikely to be vegan-friendly. The advantage of making the binder at home is that I can alter the binder composition very easily to suit different pigments and to keep a more experimental approach.
- Don’t expect all pigments to play nicely. Make a record as you go along and experiment with increasing and decreasing certain ingredients in your binder.
- Begin with inexpensive earth pigments such as Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber first, then move to Raw sienna, Raw umber, Ochres. The reason for starting out with Ochres, Siennas and Umbers is that they are relatively benign (compared to cadmium or cobalt pigments) and this allowed me to work out a practical and safe procedure. For example, after mixing the paint I figured that I needed a spatula or some pallet knife to help transfer the paint into containers, what the best type of container was, etc. French ultramarine, Lemon yellow, Pyrrol Scarlet were also relatively easy.
- Prussian blue was one of the hardest pigments to work with. So be prepared to change how you mix the paint. Perhaps adding the dispersant (QoR synthetic ox gall) and a few drops of water before adding the binder might help.
- For most pigments I have listed here I would say they worked pretty well. For each paint, the average time of mixing the pigment with the binder took roughly 5-10 minutes. You can increase the blending time, but I was happy with what I got. I didn’t particularly see a big impact of lengthy “mixing” or “mulling” time, contrary to the instructional videos circulating online. However, that’s my experience.
- I would recommend using an air-tight pallet to store the paints. I am currently using small jam jars and then found some inexpensive plastic lotion containers about 10 mL each (shown in Figure 3).
- I prefer using the paints as paste (shown above in Figure 1). Don’t be deterred if the paints look dry after a few weeks, I use a tip of a clean palette knife to take small bits of prepared paints and they combine with water very rapidly. You can always add a drop of binder and water to reconstitute the paints (you can even transfer them into the pestel and mortar and sort of “freshen” them up by adding a few drops of the binder or any one of the ingredients you used to make the binder). However, there is absolutely nothing to worry about if the paints do dry out. I am reluctant to state how much humeactant to use in the paints, as I expect it would depend on the pigment quality, pigment type, climate/weather conditions, storage containers, etc. Commercial paints would use high levels of humeactant and additives to keep the paints in “fresh” looking form. As a chemist, I don’t see a problem if the homemade paints dry a bit, from my experience over the last six months I haven’t seen any changes when using fresh paint or slightly dried paints.
- Feel free to tweak the paints after they are made, even after months.
The cost of making watercolour paints:
- Gum arabic powder (4.40 euro for 100 g bag https://www.kremer-pigmente.com/de/gummi-arabicum-pulver-63330.html)
- Hueber Gum Arabic solution 1L (https://www.gerstaecker.at/Gummi-Arabicum-Streckergummi.html) for 9 euros
- Gum arabic chunks 250g bag (https://www.gerstaecker.at/Gummi-arabicum.html) for 6.25 euro
As I mentioned above, the pre-made inexpensive gum arabic solution worked as well as the homemade gum arabic solution. The only ingredients listed in the technical data sheet for Hueber Gum Arabic solution are gum arabic and water. If you want to concentrate the gum arabic concentration you can leave the gum arabic solution in a separate open container without a lid on, use a breathable mesh or a cheesecloth to allow some water to evaporate for 2-3 days. Alternatively, the approach I opted for was adding additional powdered gum arabic into the gum arabic solution, it dissolves rapidly with the application of gentle heat using a hair dryer or holding it in front of a heater.
Other ingredients for the watercolour binder were:
- Vegetable Glycerine (1 L for 6 euros from Amazon Germany)
- Golden QoR synthetic Ox gall (59 mL for about 9 euros)
- Clove oil 100% pure (25 mL for 6 euros)
You can also use vegan-friendly alternatives to honey: maple syrup or agave. I opted to leave this out.
I hope you agree that the ingredients for making the binder are relatively inexpensive. The most expensive part of the watercolour paint is of course.. the pigment. Here is a list of different pigments I purchased to give you an idea of the costs.
- French Ultramarine Kremer Pigments (4.28 euro for 100 g). Kremer pigments have a wide range of french ultramarines to choose from (ultramarine dark, ultramarine reddish, ultramarine greenish). I also have French Ultramarine from Gerstaeker and Sennelier (similarly priced if not slightly cheaper).
- Prussian Blue Kremer Pigments (4 euros for 100 g)
- Alizarin Crimson, Kremer Pigments (14.76 euros for 100g)
- Cadmium Yellow No. 6, Kremer Pigments (11.90 euros for 100 g)
- Cadmium Red middle No. 2, Kremer Pigments (16 euros for 100 g)
- Raw Sienna Badia, Kremer pigments (3.69 euros for 100g)
- Burnt Umber dark brown, Kremer pigments (3.69 euros for 100 g)
- Indigo synthetic, Kremer pigments (5.95 euros for 100 g)
- Raw Umber, Kremer pigments (3.81 euros for 100 g)
- Cadmium Red light no. 1, Kremer Pigments (16.01 euros for 100 g)
- Gold Ochre DD, Kremer Pigments (3.81 euros for 100 g)
- Burnt Sienna French, Kremer Pigments (3.81 euros for 100g)
- Green Earth Verona, Kremer Pigments (3.81 euros for 100 g)
- Wassergrün (watergreen), Apatina (3.80 euros for 100 g)
- Cadmium Yellow light, Apatina (9.50 for 100g)
- Pyrrol Red, Gerstaeker (13.10 euro for 200g)
- Lemon Yellow, Sennelier (12.90 euro for 100g)
As you can see the pigment prices vary considerably. Cobalt Blue from Sennelier costs about 50 euros for 100 g while from Kremer pigments it costs about 13 euros per 100 g (it’s not on the list, as I’ve not bought even the cheaper one yet). Generally speaking, earth pigments such as ochres, siennas and umbers are inexpensive and safer than many pigments. They are a good place to start with. I am not comfortable with using cadmium pigments due to their impact on the environment. My long term goal is to use them while learning how to paint (various books and online courses suggest them) and then to compare them with less toxic paints, for example Gold Ochre here could be an interesting option.
Here are two paintings I made using my homemade vegan watercolour paints. I painted these back in Feb 2020, as part of understanding basic transparent washes following Peter Woolley’s watercolour lessons (Narvik Fjord lesson by Peter Woolley is available on youtube). My painting inspired by Narvik Fjord demo by Peter Woolley is shown in Figure 4.
This painting of Derwent Valley (inspired by Peter Woolley’s watercolour lesson) was produced in Feb 2020 (shown in Figure 5). I used my homemade watercolour paints: French ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow middle, Cadmium Red middle and Burnt umber. I used similar techniques used for making the Narvik Fjord painting. The paints are very easy to control and I am happy with the results.
I will share more watercolour paintings and drawings here to see these paints in action and compare them with some vegan-friendly commerical options, such as Cotman, Van Gogh, Kuretake, Rembrandt and Daniel Smith paints.
Winsor & Newton, Kuretake, Kremer pigments and Schmincke have given me permission to share my experimental studies on the painted surfaces using my IR-spectrometer etc., which I will share soon in the future.
There will be more detailed and on-going discussion on watercolour painting using my own paints alongside commercial paints. Thankyou for reading this post and for considering using cruelty-free art materials.