Painting with Natural Pigments

I wanted to experiment with something a bit more messy and natural, and using soil seemed an appropriate medium in terms of mapping the landscape. I have come across a few contemporary art cartographers who use earthy pigments in the creation of their maps; Chris Drury and Sally Darlison. I emailed them, sending them a questionnaire to answer for research for my essay, and was delighted to receive replies very promptly.

Chris is an environmental artist who works in a variety of media, from small paper based- works to large site specific installations. I came across him in an excellent book by Katherine Harmon; The Map as Art, which has been my bible of late for the work that I have been doing and researching.


Tumulus and Dew-pond (2012)

His maps Tumulus and Dew-pond (2012), are beautiful, intriguing geometric patterns which have been woven from existing maps of locations that he wished to “marry” together as he felt they had something in common. They were pushed into concave and convex bowls to give them a 3-dimensional quality. I was interested by the fact that Chris stains his maps with soils, and natural materials found at sites, which have even included sheep droppings! To me, these maps have the sophistication and beauty of an oriental surface pattern, and at a first glance I could picture these on the robes of a Chinese emperor. I love the fact that he thinks three–dimensionally, acknowledging the raised Tumulus and the hollow of the Dew pond, yet the latter is almost an optical illusion, which could be either concave or convex, as a floating bubble.

Sally Darlison’s maps are quite different; they are bright, scorching records of her journey to the north of Australia. She mixes a variety of media, using fabric and thread dyed with the soil on the journey in the making of many of these pieces.41-e1308802417856

In Alice Colours (above) you can almost feel the burning heat of this dry Australian landscape. Her compositions are bold and attractive, the choice of colour palette apt for the areas she is illustrating.

Wanting to have a go at using pigments myself, I gathered a few jars of soils from different locations, and also some ashes from the open fire.


I had looked online to try to find out how to make natural pigments, and firstly I noticed that many artists had used PVA as a binder. I began to mix soil into the PVA, which I have to say was horrible…texturally it was almost impossible to stir, worse than overcooked porridge!

IMG_6165PVA and ashes

I began by loosely copying a map which I had made into an artists book – inspired by a walk up Inchewan Path. I was actually quite impressed with the difference in colours, even though I hadn’t prepared the pigment “properly” by using a pessel and mortar.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 19.58.10

Mud map Experiment 1

From different angles, I could see the raised texture of the soils, which the PVA had encouraged. These looked like views of an imaginary landscape or a path that was beckoning to be followed.


This one (above) looks like an aerial view of barren, rugged mountains


After more internet research, I came across the website of Sabine Brosche, who mentions other binders, such as Gum arabic, egg and linseed oil. Having some linseed oil in the studio, I decided to give this a go. It felt much more natural to use, and allowed the pigments to flow more smoothly. I played around by painting a series of overlapping abstract landscape details to create this Soilscape piece, which was just an experiment really..

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 19.14.49

This was just an experiment, but I like the way the linseed oil made the flow of soil painting easier. One more piece I mad was a combination of soil painting and drawing, inspired by the poetry sculpture I had made a while ago… I painted  it from different angles using the soil pigments and also Quink ink, as I wanted to create a darker contrast. IMG_6581IMG_6584I then drew some details of the sculpture in pencil, over the looser painted lines. I wanted to create a small tight ball at the top which was unravelling as it tumbled down to Earth.

These pieces are all just experiments; playing with a medium which is too often overlooked, which we walk upon each day, and never give a second thought until it annoys us by dirtying our floors or clothes.

It is something I will try more in future, but with more patience. I think I will invest in a pessel and mortar, and also have ago at other binders, as suggested by Sabine Brosche. In terms of mapping, I think it is probably the most apt and relevant medium that any artist could use, as it gives a real sense of the environment and the site in question.


Florent Morellet – Colonizing Nature

Florent Morellet, a French restaurateur living in New York shares a similar passion to me for mapping and micro-geographies. His father, am eminent artist and botanist would take him on walks and point out all of the wonders of nature, and this is something to which he believes he owes his obsession. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 14.45.07

 Lichen Empty (2004)

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 15.19.02

Lichen Inhabited (2004)

He made a series of photos entitled Colonizing Nature which began with a photo of some lichens on stone, to which a blue background was then added (Lichen Empty), and then an overlay of tiny map markings, signifying houses/buildings and roads (Lichen Inhabited) . The piece looked convincingly cartographic, not unlike a volcanic island.

The addition of blue as a background has confirmed his intentions of map making, even the shade of blue is that used on geographical maps. The textures on the lichen lend themselves to being hills, forests and grasslands.

Since noticing Florent’s work, I feel excited that someone else has highlighted these natural miniature and fantastical geographies. It almost begs the question -is someone looking down on us in this way and seeing our earth as the size of a marble?

Rebecca Chesney

Many contemporary art mapping projects have involved using data about nature in specific locations. Having a strong passion for plant-life, mapping locations of botanical species is one example of this which I feel is relevant to my interest and my practice also.

Rebecca Chesney is an artist who OCA visiting lecturer Emily Speed advised me to look at. She has similar themes to mine throughout her work, with her interests in landscape, nature and mapping, which she uses to collect and present data visually.

In Unwanted, Chesney has created an individual weed map for each of 10 species growing in Preston city centre and exhibiting them adjacent to the plants respectively.

page30_1Unwanted (2006)


page30_6I love that she has displayed the real plants alongside the maps which chart their locations, and has also elevated their status by placing them on plinths.


Natura in Minima Maxima (2012)

In another of her more recent weed mapping pieces, Natura in Minima Maxima (above), Chesney has made illustrations around a map of Preston of 28 species of weeds found growing in the city.  Her wonderful illustrations give me the urge to grab my pencils and draw some of the uninvited guests who are currently inhabiting my own garden. The piece serves as both an informative and factual work, as well as being aesthetically accomplished. It really is a great example of an interesting info graphic, and even the typography has been rendered with the same beauty as one might find on an Emma Bridgewater mug.

These two pieces are of particular interest to me, as I have based much of my recent work on weeds and invasive species. Having made contact with a GIS cartographer who maps colonies of Giant Hogweed, I am optimistic that there may be an opportunity for me to get involved in a collaborative project in the future to map these encroaching Umbelliferaes.

World Wide Web

I took some shots of amazing spiderwebs earlier on a walk around Scot’s Wood.

20141121_091750 I couldn’t help but wonder if spiders actually admire their own webs, or if they have secret competitions with each other, as they are just so amazingly beautiful…and that’s coming from someone who is terrified of them!20141121_091947 20141121_092254Wow…what a complicated route this little creature must have walked to create such an intricate movement map.
20141121_092706This one looks like a street map of a city, with a few large green belts/parks in the centre.

I wondered if anyone else had considered spiderwebs to be maps, and after a bit of Googling (Spider web artist) , I came across Nina Katchadourian, a contemporary artist who makes awesome maps amongst other things, and also enjoys repairing spiderwebs!


 Mended Spiderweb #19 (Laundry Line)


Her Mended Spiderweb series consisted of broken spiderwebs which she repaired meticulously using red sewing thread. Interestingly, the spiders  rejected the mended webs, choosing to do their own repairs instead, and throwing the threads down to the ground!  The repairs which were glued retained their shape, and were photographed at the site.

I think Nina’s web repairs are a stroke of genius, and wish I had thought of this. I still think that the webs look like maps though, so may explore other ways of showing the imaginary geographies which lie within them.

Impressions of the landscape – Bryan Nash Gill

Having being inspired to “document the landscape” by the works of Frans Krajcberg, I have also been looking at the work of Bryan Nash Gill. Pat Rosoff, an art critic for the Hartford Advocate describes him as”… not simply a naturalist, he is an artist rooted in nature, he draws his vocabulary from the world of New England’s woods.” Gill records his connection to the world using a variety of media, including installation, monotypes, sculpture and printing from nature.  Although he doesn’t mention Gyotaku, he uses the same technique of inking or painting objects then rubbing with his fingers over paper to make a print.

bswoodc2One of Bryan Nash Gill’s beautiful prints

Having spotted some logs and tree stumps on my walk along the banks of the Tay at West Kinfauns near Perth, I decided that I would carry a couple of them home and have a go at printing from them. This would be another element of this part of the landscape which I could include, along with the Hogweed, the tree knots, the dyes, plants and possibly the sand, stones, driftwood and water.

I found a video of Bryan Nash Gill on youtube, in which he talks about his work and his relationship with nature and trees and it also gave me a glimpse of him sanding the logs and burning them with a blow torch before printing them.

I decided to use the same preparation methods with the logs which I had found :


Sanding one of the logs which I found on my walk near the Tay


I inked the logs up using oil-based relief printing ink from TN Lawrence. I decided to use white (surprise surprise!) and to print onto ivory coloured handmade paper.


I started with the smaller more circular log slice, and was very pleased with the result. I took a few prints incase I wanted to try to alter them or use them within experiments later on.


Below: A successful result!


Next I tried the larger sliced log…



Inked up and ready to print…
An interesting result…I really like the shape of this print
My prints aren’t anywhere as good as Bryan Nash Gill’s but I have really enjoyed trying this process of printing from another aspect of nature and the surrounding environment. I think that the results have been successful, and now I am pondering how (or if) I can incorporate them with other elements which I have created to describe the landscape around the Tay.
I still intend to try out as many experiments as I can before deciding how (or if) I will put them together. Meanwhile I don’t want to stress about a final result, and just want to enjoy the experimentation and processes which I am trying out.

A Walk at Dusk by Caspar David Friedrich

00104601A Walk at Dusk (Getty Museum).

I came across this beautiful painting by Caspar David Friedrich and it reminded me of my recent trips to various megalithic sites around Perthshire.

The man in the painting is staring at the stones, which perhaps are symbolising sorrow or death, and the land around him is quite bare, with leafless trees in the foreground, which makes one suppose that it must be a Winter’s evening. The moon lights the scene beautifully, giving the landscape a warm red which echoes the rich red of the man’s robes.

The misty background adds to the atmosphere, as it did when I visited the stones at Killin. This is one of many gems which Friedrich painted which echoed his love of nature and the sense of spirituality which it gave him.