By Hedwig Braam
‘I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will’. This statement is attributed to Eugene Delacroix in describing the interaction of different colours in painting lifelike images, such as skin colours. The citation evokes an image of mud being a material of little value, with which one can paint beauty despite it only being mud. Though mud may not be as scarce or expensive as mineral pigments made from gemstones, the components (such as iron oxides and manganese oxide) can provide beautiful inorganic pigments such as ochre, umber, sienna and terre verte. In fact, the colours found in soil and rocks have been used by humankind in art and mark making for more than 40,000 years.
I started painting with ‘mud’ in 2019; I’m not that much of an early adopter. That autumn I graduated from the conservation program at the University of Amsterdam and started my own freelance business. I specialise in modern and contemporary art and work with many synthetic materials and ephemeral artworks. I chose this discipline because I love doing research, testing new methods and materials and the trial-and-error process through the unknown.
After I graduated, I had more time available for my favourite pastime: hiking and spending time in nature. I have always collected nature’s treasures, coming home with shells, feathers, bones and rocks in my pockets. One day I came across a beautiful golden ochre in the soil under a fallen tree. Who would have guessed that such a beautiful earth colour existed, hidden away in this Dutch landscape? I surely thought these colours were limited to pigment sanctuaries such as Roussillon in France and the deserts in Australia and the United States.
Not being a paintings conservator and not knowing much about the history of pigments (I have only made one lake pigment during my studies), I discovered a new field to explore and came home with a Pringles box full of soil. Over the following weeks, I read multiple books, articles and websites about the history of earth pigments and the making of paint. I learned about iron oxide, bog iron, rock determination and levigating pigments. Working with these natural, ancient materials stirred an inspiration in me that I sometimes missed in modern materials—there is something magical about them not being man-made, but having been around for millions of years. I did research about ethical foraging and quickly had many labelled boxes full of rocks and soil from places I visited in the Netherlands and abroad.
And then corona hit. My conservation business, which had just started to get off the ground, came to a halt and I was homebound. Pigment foraging and paint making became my daily obsession. After waking up I would start grinding a rock before my first cup of coffee, and when I went to bed I would wish my drying paints a goodnight. A phase of playing and learning started: my windowsill was covered in jars of pigments drying in coffee filters, my fridge was full of different watercolour binders, and my garage contained piles of undetermined rocks to be ground into pigments. My arm muscles grew stronger with each rock I crushed and each paint I mulled. I discovered a love for dull-looking rocks and how they all carry a hidden colour, which is brought to the surface by the process of grinding and mulling. I spent many weeks looking for and comparing binder recipes collected from other people until I finally realised there is no such thing as a perfect recipe. Rather, every rock, every soil, every pigment is different and can have different requirements. It was a valuable learning experience for a freshly graduated academic who is used to taking knowledge from other people’s research and books.
I finally let go of my research and rediscovered the value of experimenting. By trial and error, I learned about humectants, plasticizers, preservatives and fillers. I noticed the effect of humidity on drying. I learned to recognise the characteristics of a colour and to understand qualities such as activation, flow and granulation. I became familiar with the hardness of different rocks, learned how easily ochre can be mulled compared to slate, sandstone or quartzite, and which will win against my granite pestle (the current status is 1.5 broken pestles). I learned about making pastel sticks from clay-based pigments that don’t need a binder. And during all of this, I felt my connection with nature and the origin of these art materials grow. I felt a connection to artists from all over the world and from any era that used these same materials, which they foraged in their local environments.
The consequences of the corona virus have been a curse and a blessing. I ended up doing a lot less conservation work than I expected after starting my own business. But it gave me the freedom to fully explore and enjoy this new road. By now, I have started my side business Grondstof (Dutch for ‘ground stuff’, meaning ‘raw material’ as well as ‘dust from the ground’), which focuses on research, experimentation, pigment foraging and paint making with these earth pigments. I started an Instagram account (@grond.stof) and connected to other pigment workers worldwide who taught me and inspired me to continue experimenting. I realised many more people are interested in this journey and are fascinated to see the magical alchemy of turning a rock found on the street into paint.
People were amazed by the colours that could be created, and my fellow Dutch were surprised by the colours present in our seemingly bleak landscape. We seem to have drifted away from the origin of colour in a world where everything around us comes in artificial and synthetic bright colours.
In response to this, I want to show people the ancient practice of producing colours and the fascinating practice of paint making in order to decrease the distance between ourselves and the colours in our environment. It makes me happy to help people see colour everywhere they go and to promote a natural and sustainable paint medium.
Something else I quickly noticed was that this hobby provided me with large quantities of paint. Although I love some occasional painting or mark making on a free night, I would by no means call myself a watercolour artist. The meditative process of making the paint is my kind of art, and I definitely have no need for fifty pans of paint. This is why I decided to start selling small batches of earth palettes, with handmade watercolours from my foraged pigments. I am very happy to inspire artists to incorporate nature into their practice, and I found that many artists are interested to hear about the origin and background of the pigments and paints and appreciate the earth colours and the texture the paints leave on paper.
Within a year, I have moved from mainly working with synthetics (‘kunststof’) to working with mostly natural materials (‘grondstof’). Combining conservation with my own creative process has been very satisfying, especially since the former is largely dormant in these challenging times. It has broadened my scope from the small bubble of high art and conservation to the larger world of creative individuals and artists.
It has been a great barrier to overcome my hesitation to listen to my own creative spark, but I can now highly recommend to anyone to keep exploring by doing, and to once in a while make a detour from our academic approach towards more playing around. In this way I believe we can learn a lot about materials and the creative processes which may help us understand the art we encounter in our conservation practice. That is why I walk around with dirt on my hands and rocks in my pocket, following the advice of my fellow Dutch nature-lover, Van Gogh:
Try to walk as much as you can
and keep your love for nature
for that is the true way to understand art more and more
Painters understand nature
and love her and teach us to see her.
If one really loves nature
one can find beauty everywhere
Hedwig Braam is a conservator-restorer specialised in modern and contemporary art. She works as a freelance conservator-restorer in the Netherlands and has been a guest-lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. In 2020 she started Atelier Grondstof, where she makes natural earth paints and educates others by providing workshops in pigment foraging and natural paint-making.
(Read the full article and see all the beautiful images in the October-November 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 80, p. 68-71)