Making your own paints - Water Colours
Sometimes, you need to get have a special paint.


Many pigments are toxic to some degree - either in low doses over a long time or in higher doses in a single instance (cronic and acute poisoning respectively) - so, it is important for your own safety and that of those around you to adopt certain practices that will preclude such events.

To contaminate yourself with pigments (or other painting-related compounds), there are a number of routes into your body. The most obvious of these is your mouth. Others include your lungs, skin, nose, eyes and so on. Avoiding activities that allow things to come into contact with these routes is the most effective way of avoiding contamination. So, when painting or preparing pigments, paint, solvent:

  • Do not smoke. Apart from the obvious fire hazard with organic solvents, you will be putting things in your mouth that you have handled with your fingers;
  • Do not eat or drink for the same reasons;
  • Keep your painting related activities in an area that is away from your normal living area (you will be less vigilant when not painting so more likely to become contaminated);
  • Keep away from pets, partners and children, whether the materials are in current use or not;
  • Pigments are powders that you can breathe in so keep the dust level down by prevention - when mixing pigments, do things slowly and using as little force as possible thereby reducing the energy that can throw powder into the air.
  • Do not paint when intoxicated - you will not be as aware of the potential dangers;
  • Wear protective clothing so that your everyday clothes do not become contaminated - an apron will do, just something that is going to stop whatever it is that you are working with coming into contact with you or your clothes;
  • If you become aware that you might be breathing in more solvent than is healthy, increase the level of ventilation (if you are gilding, don't do it where there are solvents anyway as you cannot have drafts with such an activity.
  • Finally, clean up after you have finished. You don't want pigments mixing together but more importantly, you don't want to pick up any contamination from stuff that has not been cleaned away which you can then ingest by accident.

The above is not an exhaistive list. Feel free to be even safer in areas that are not mentioned above as well as those that are.

Water Colours

In water colours, the medium is normally a vegetable gum and some sort of chemical that makes mixing the solvent with it a lot easier - with water as a solvent, it is normally called a 'humectant'.

Ever since Egyptian times, acacia gum (or gum arabic) has been used and it is fairly easy to get hold of, either in resinous chunks that you have to purify yourself or in powder form. It has many modern uses and is fairly cheap and available - you can source it on the internet very easily.

Normally, acacia honey is used as the humectant and this has some useful properties insofar as: when it has dried out, it turns solid; and, it is readily soluble in water, meaning that when you add water to your block of paint in your palette, it will dissolve quickly and get the gum arabic and the pigment into solution. Some manufacturers of water colours use glycerol which doesn't go solid and as a result, that watercolour never dries out. In fact, unless you make your own watercolours, you don't actually know what is in them.

Water colour paint making kit. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThis is the basic water colour paint kit. It consists of:

  • Stailness steel spatual - this one is around 200mm long and the flattened ends are around 8mm wide. Curiously, it was called a 'micro spatula' which is a different beastie being around 100mm long hand having ends that are around 4mm wide - you don't need one that small;
  • half palettes - these little plastic wells are where your paint is going to go and that fits in a special box;
  • two figure balance - a two figure balance weighs two figures after the decimal place so that is in increments of 10mg;
  • a poringer - aka 'bain marie', 'water bath', 'double boiler', and probably a lot more. You put your stuff in it and then you put it either in or just above some hot water. This means that if you need to warm up a chemical or mixture that can be damaged if heated to too high a temperature, you can limit the temperature that it is exposed to by putting it in one of these and then putting that in a pan with warm or hot water in it;
  • acacia honey - this is just some from the local supermarket;
  • acacia gum - this is powdered but you can buy the raw stuff and filter out the bits yourself using a piece of muslin; and,
  • pigment.

You will also need:

  • a grinding slab;
  • a palette knife;
  • a muller; and
  • a ruberised mat to stop slipping on the surface or damage to the surface.

Here, I have weighed out 4g of agacia gum powder into the lid of the container.

Next, weigh into the poringer 10g of water and add 3g of honey and dissolve it. Put that on the saucepan with the water in it - it will warm through fairly quickly

Acacia gum just added to the poringer. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseNext, tip the acacia gum into the poringer and stir it. It usually clumps like this but after a few minutes of stirring, it starts to dissolve well enough.

Acacia gum now dissolved in the poringer. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseAfter about 10 minutes, it has pretty much dissolved and you can get on with the rest of the process.

If you were using raw acacia gum, you would filter it through some muslin cloth at this stage, clean the poringer and put it back in there to keep warm.

Weighing out some Cornelissen Egyptian Blue pigment. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseWeighing out some Egyptian Blue pigment.

This is done into the lid of the pigment jar so I'm not contaminating anything else with the pigment.

Pile of pigment on the grinding slab with a depression pushed into the middle of it, ready for the medium to be added. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan Grosse Pile of pigment on the grinding slab with a depression pushed into the middle of it, ready for the medium to be added.

You can see that the pigment is quite coarse.

Mixing the medium into the pigment. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseMixing the medium into the pigment.

You can see that how gritty it is. This is with a few drops of medium added and, just so that I don't add too much, I have also added some drops of water - excess water will evaporate off and that process is how it dries out to make the final block.

Use to palette knife to make sure that it is all incorporated so that it make a homogenous pile of pigment in the middle of the slab.

Grinding the pigment using the muller in a circular motion. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseGrinding the pigment using the muller in a circular motion. When you start doing this, you can hear the gritty bits being crushed between the muller and the slab. As you progress, that gets quieter.

Keep going round and around using the pattern in the section above and the paint will satay away from the edges of the slab.

Breaking the seal of paint between the slab and the muller, using a palette knife. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan Grosse Breaking the seal of paint between the slab and the muller, using a palette knife. The palette knife is tapered so push it in a little way then slide the muller towards it and it will break the seal. Take your time with this as you don't want to apply so much force that you damage your palette knife.

After a while, you will notice that the paint builds up around the edge of the muller and regardless of how the muller is designed, it doesn't find its way beck beneath the muller.

When this happens, you need to use the palette knife to scrape off the paint from around the edge of the muller and put it on the slab. Whilst you are at it, you can also gather up any other paint on the face of the muller and on the slab, mix them up with the palette knife and put it in a heap in the middle of the slab again.

Also, if the paint starts to get too viscous, just add a few drops of water to it, mix it in and carry on.

Seeing how fine the pigment has been ground using the palette knife. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseWhist you are at this stage, you can also smear the paint across the surface of the slab with the palette knife so that the blade is in contact with the slab and the rest of the blade is at a shallow angle as you can see in the picture.

The purpose of doing this is to see how fine the paint is - how much further you need to go in the grinding process.

Seeing how fine the pigment has been ground using the palette knife. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan Grosse You can see that in this instance, as the knife meets larger grains of pigment, it makes the palette knife blade lift up as a whole and you get the lines that run perpendicular to the direction of travel that you can see catching the light. This tells you that there is still more work to be done.

The final half-pan of Egyptian blue watercolour paint. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThe final half-pan of Egyptian blue watercolour paint.

Once you have finished the grinding, the paint should be fairly thick - about the same as the viscosity of molasses. If it is not as thick as that, just use the palette knife to spread the paint over the surface of the slab to let some evaporate off.

Once it is ready, scrape it up and put it in the half pan. Put this to one side, somewhere that is free of dust, to let it dry out over a few days. You can use it straight away but if you don't need to, just let it dry out.

My watercolour, non-sulphide palette. Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan Grosse This is my non-sulphide palette. Like a kid's set of paints you can buy at any supermarket where they have a pot of water, dip the brush in, wet the block of paint and then paint with it, that is what you do here except that here, you are using pigments of your choice, whether they are an ancient Egyptian palette of genuine pigments, a palette that was available to the people that made the medieval illuminated manuscripts or anything else. You palette is the real thing.

The Alizarin and ultramarine is a convenience mixture giving a purple.

The Ultramarine is the modern, man-made version of lapis lazuli. Being transparent, the more you paint on, the darker it gets so the Ultramarine and white is a convenience mixture that gives a standard blue which is quite useful.

My watercolour, sulphide palette (apart from the verdigris, of course). Copyright (c)2019 Paul Alan GrosseThis is my sulphide palette. With the exception of the verdigris and minium (which were used in the Lindisfarn Gospels and somehow has managed to survive), all of these pigments are compatible with the sulphur-containing pigments orpiment and cinnabar. Lapis lazuli also is a sulphur containing compound but it seems to be stable enough not to be of concern.

The vergaut is a mixture of orpiment and either woad or as in this case, lapis lazuli (depending upon which recipe you are following). It was used for foliage and so on in illuminated manuscripts as a convenience mixture that brought a bit of stability to the greens which, if you made the mixture on the fly, would vary too much.

The purple is also a convenience mixture of woad and rose madder.

In water colour, only use verdigris on its own. It is a beautiful colour but its copper will blacken with free sulphides and the acetic acid in it will attack carbonate compounds such as azurite, malachite and lead white. You can put a layer of clear medium over the areas of verdigris to stop it interacting with the other colours in the work if you feel you need to.

All images and original artwork Copyright ©2019 Paul Alan Grosse.