Natural Pigments

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Students will explore natural pigment sources on campus and learn ways to harvest, process and use them, which will help them draw connections between the natural world, art, and concepts of stewardship.


  • Appreciate the natural world and cultural history of the area.
  • Understand the connections between art, science and history.


Students will be able to:

  • Describe what “pigments” are, what they are

used for, and what some of their natural sources are.

  • Process and use at least three pigments.
  • Explain connections between this lesson and the rest of their week at IslandWood (soil investigation, team building, stewardship, E1T1, ecosystems explorations).
  • Recognize that they’re using both scientific and artistic skills.

Connection to the Process:

  • Introduction of components of ecosystems
  • Relating human relationships and influences within ecosystems
  • Deeper understanding of stewardship


Formative Assessments:
Summative Assessments:

  1. In sample booklet: at least 5 pigment samples with sources and some details of sources (identification) and harvesting/processing techniques.
  2. Engagement in discussions throughout, especially conclusion
  3. Participation in harvesting and processing throughout
  4. Harvesting and processing notes
  5. Answer final discussion questions


Introduction (10 minutes):

  • Lead an initial discussion to assess what students know about natural pigments (**formative assessment).
  • “What do you think a pigment is?” (a pigment is a substance that gives color to something)
  • “Where do you think pigments come from?" (Show pigment samples: berries, rocks, soil, charcoal)
  • “What can pigments be used for?”
  • Introduce what the lesson will look like (“Today we are going to go outside and gather natural pigments, then come in and process them, and use them. We are going to do science, art, and history in the lesson today.”)
  • Introduce the sample booklet (“You will all make a sample booklet like this. What do you think we are going to put in here? Why are we going to take notes and write down our data?) Talk about importance of artists and scientists recording their data for future use, redoing this at home, for sharing, etc.

Cultural Connections (10 minutes)

  • The use of natural pigments by native populations

Harvesting Pigment (about 20 minutes):

  • Note: you can have students harvest pigments all week around campus in preparation for this lesson. This would be a good way to tie everything from the week together, and it would allow them to explore different ecosystems with a more concrete purpose.
  • (A great place to harvest pigments is in front of the learning studios. There, you have access to soil, Oregon grapes, huckleberries and salal berries, as well as rocks, clay, and compost- by the living machine.)
  • “The first step for us today is to harvest pigment. Turn to a neighbor and listen to what they think harvest means.”  Share out. “Has anyone ever harvested anything else before?” (Apples, vegetables, wood, etc.) **formative assessment
  • Explain stewardship component of harvesting
  • Introduce “crush test” (“A great way to check if something has pigment in it is to crush it between your fingers and see if some color comes out. For rocks, rub them against another rock or pavement.”)
  • Outside: harvest charcoal, clay, soil, compost, rocks (especially red rocks!), and berries and plants. Have pairs of students in charge of different types of pigments (one pair will be the “Rock Holders”, while another will be the “Berry Holders”. This doesn’t mean that is all they gather- it just means that everyone deposits their things in those containers)
  • Once back inside, have students sit in semi-circle and hand out sample booklets and pencils. Have students fill out the “Harvesting Notes” section of their Sample Booklets (things they want to remember: crush test, where and what we harvested, the kinds of things to look for) **summative assessment

Processing Pigment (45 minutes):

  • Lead a discussion about processing the pigments. “Now we have a lot of pigment that we harvested from outside” (show berries, rocks, other things pre-gathered, also). “Are they ready to use?” Explain idea of processing. In order to use these pigments, we have to crush some of them, and filter others, so they will be easier to use.
  • Separate students into 3 groups for processing.
  • Introduce the tools being used (the mortar and pestle, the screens). Ask students if they have ever used/seen these before (maybe in cooking?). Talk about safely using all of these tools. Also, warn that while everyone is using the mortar and pestle, it may be kind of loud!
  • While processing each pigment, share information about where it was gathered, the source, etc. Have students take notes in the sample booklets, then paint each pigment in as it is created.
  • Station 1: Berries and plants
  1. Students will be introduced to the different kinds of berries (using field guides, E1T1 cards, etc.) Some of this can be done in the field, as well. Explain where on campus and when these were harvested.
  2. Students will take turns using a mortar and pestle to crush the different berries into a powder pigment. Depending on seeds and skins, it may not be possible to get a very find powder (it may be kind of lumpy). The goal is to get as much powder as possible. Transfer the powder pigment into small bowls. You can either keep the berry types separate to compare the colors, or mix them together for a composite pigment.
  • Station 2: Rocks & Minerals
  1. Students will be introduced to the different types of rocks and minerals (using field guides and additional resources- there is a great book in the IslandWood Library). Talk about where on campus these were gathered.
  2. Students will take turns processing the rocks using a mortar and pestle, until they are a fine crushed powder. The best way to do this is to kind of smash them (safely) with the pestle. If they don’t break after two or three smacks with the pestle, then they are not a good candidate for pigment. Soft rocks will crumble fairly easily, then it will be able to crush them further until they are a fine powder. Transfer the pigment into small bowls.
      • NOTE: red rocks create the most beautiful pigments
  • Station 3: Soil & Clay
  1. Students will use grating and screening to sift the clay and soil until all chunks of organic matter are removed and only fine powder remains. If there are still chunks, they can use a mortar and pestle to grind it into a finer powder. Transfer the pigment into small bowls.
  2. You may use the soil from your soil investigation, as well
  3. Charcoal creates a beautiful pigment too. It can be harvested from the lightening tree on the Team’s Course Trail, or at Friendship Circle.
  • Come together as a large group. Allow time for students to pair and share about the processing (“Was it harder or easier than you expected?” “What was your favorite part?” “Which of the pigments are you most excited to use?” “Can you think of other methods to process these pigments?”) Have everyone fill out the “Processing Notes” section in their Sample Booklet with things they want to remember about processing (the order we did things in, the tools used, etc.) **summative assessment

Additional Art Project Using the Pigments (if time allows)

  • If time allows, expand this lesson to include a more extensive art project using the pigments.
  • Possible Ideas:
  1. Draw one of the pigment sources and use the pigments to watercolor the picture (like a page from a field guide).
  2. Draw a map of IslandWood and label the different pigment sources on campus. Use the pigments to watercolor the picture.
  3. Have them use these pigments later in the week for another watercolor project.
  4. Use pigments to print with leaves and ferns.

Conclusion (15 minutes)
Possible debrief discussion questions:

  • “What kinds of colors did we find in the field today? Were you surprised at all?"
  • "At what points during this lesson did you feel like a scientist? When did you feel like an artist?"
  • “What colors did we not find? Why do you think that is? What sources do you think we could use to get those colors?”
  • “Has this changed the way you look at your natural surroundings?”
  • “How do these pigments fit into the ecosystems you have been studying and exploring at IslandWood?”
  • “How did team work fit into this activity today?”
  • “What kinds of pigments do you think you can find in your home neighborhood or at school?”
  • “What else could we do with these pigments?”

Background Information:

The process of making pigments is fairly simple. For berries and plants, find something that dries the color you want, dry it very slowly (the slower you dry it the more color will be preserved) then grind it into a very fine powder. Rocks and minerals can simply be crushed, and soils and clay just need to be strained and sometimes ground into a finer powder.

While it may seem like there is a lot of background information necessary to complete this lesson, it is important to realize that this can be modeled as an investigation and exploration, where the outcome is not as important as the process. Stress to students that natural pigments are volatile and results will vary. Even if you are not the most knowledgeable about this process, it can still be a really valuable experience for students (and you!). Remember to be flexible, be curious, and have fun.


  • Pigment: Anything that produces a color can be called a pigment. Pigments are used for coloring paint, ink, fabric, food, and other materials. Most pigments are usually ground into a fine powder then added to a binder, a relatively colorless material that suspends the pigments and helps it adhere. Common binders include glue, milk, egg, and gum Arabic. Pigments can be either synthetic or natural. Natural pigments come from a variety of sources, including berries, bugs, plants and minerals. Natural pigments (often called earth pigments) can be found all around the world, but certain geographical regions are famous for producing certain minerals. The Pacific Northwest is limited in what pigments are available, especially in the winter. Natural pigments are sometimes not light-fast, and often not as permanent as manmade pigments.
  • Harvesting: to gather a crop. Harvesting pigment differs depending on the type of pigment being used. Berries can be harvested in the summer, dried and used later in the year, or used fresh. If pigments are going to be stored, then they must be entirely dry (or mixed into a paint recipe). Soils, clays and minerals can be harvested and used at any time.
  • Processing:

Pigment Recipes:
Acrylic Paint

  • Ingredients: acrylic medium & earth pigment
  • Prep time: 3 minutes per color
  • Combine 1 part acrylic medium and 1 part pigment by placing the medium on your palette and carefully adding the pigment. For more opacity, add more pigment. Store paints in airtight containers. Thin with water.

Watercolor Paint

  1. 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  2. 1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup
  3. 3 tablespoons baking soda
  4. 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  5. Natural pigments


  1. Combine white vinegar and light corn syrup in the bowl.
  2. Add baking soda and cornstarch, and stir until the mixture is combined and stops fizzing.
  3. Pour about 1/4” of mixture into container slots.
  4. Add food coloring to each section, and stir with wooden craft sticks until mixed.
  5. Allow the colored mixtures to dry uncovered, overnight or until completely dry.
    •    Tip: Add an extra 1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup if needed, to make the consistency of the paint easier to handle.

How to make a simple folded sample booklet:

  1. This booklet can be made out of any sized paper (preferably watercolor or something thicker than copy paper)
  2. Have students fold it in half, then again, then fold it in half the other directions (they will have 8 sections)
  3. Unfold the paper until it looks like the image below, then cut only where shown
  4. Open up the paper all of the way
  5. Fold the booklet in half so it is long and skinny, then push the ends towards each other.
  6. The booklet will have 8 pages- just flatten it out and it’s read to use. Students may tape or glue pages together if they would like, but it holds together well as is.

Skills: walking, grinding  pigments (applying pressure)


Age group: 4th-6th grades


Venue/s: Art studio, plus various locations in the field


Materials: sample booklet example, examples of items using pigment (dyed yarn, baskets), trowels, yogurt containers for harvesting materials & holding pigments, 2-3 mortar and pestles, paintbrushes, pencils, water droppers, sample booklets.


Time: about 2 hours


Set up: set up pigment stations on 3 art studio tables. Arrange stools in semi-circle for discussion, with white board.


If time is tight, you can pre-gather pigments before the lesson. You can also have students gather pigments throughout the week.

Created by Jenna Catsos on January 21, 2014 .