How To Make and Use Primitive Paints and Pigments

Below are general how-to instructions for use with our Primitive Paint and Pigments Kit. If you are interested in individual natural earth pigments and hide glue stabilizers you can find those in our Glues, Hafting, and Pigments product category.

Even though their main focus was usually utility, Native Americans did not tend to skimp on colors in their work. Whether this was for “medicine” or for simple effect, the finest of modern made primitive replicas and other traditional art will seek to echo this sense of color and flair. In addition, if the restoration of actual artifacts is desired, using natural pigments can benefit historical collectibles by maintaining accuracy of raw materials used.

Considering the choice of raw materials available for the ancient needs, as well as the subtle color effects of natural pigments on finished goods, the use of acrylics or modern colors is not recommended.

Creating Paints From Earth Ochre Pigments

Too mix and use natural paints you will need the following items:

• Brushes appropriate to the specific project
• Small shallow plates of plastic, ceramic or metal
• A small metal cup or jar lid that is heatable
• Heat source and water
• A small flat-surfaced mixing stone

Natural oxides and earth ochre pigments may simply be rubbed onto art objects to achieve a color effect, but the piece will tend to smear pigment onto everything it touches. Paints are mixtures that combine pigments with a stabilizing medium that keeps the pigment where it is applied. The simplest way to stabilize pigments in primitive paints is to mix the pigments with a dilute solution of natural glue. Natural Animal Hide glue is a perfect traditional medium for this task.

Animal hide glue is a water soluble, heat-sensitive material available in the form of small amber colored granules. It will dissolve slowly in cool water and much more rapidly in hot/warm water. Solutions that are thick enough to gel when cooled are generally too thick to use for paints and should be diluted.

For a natural paint base, a very dilute (watery) solution is best. The solution must be strong enough to bind the pigment particles when dry, but not so strong as to gel when it cools before drying.

Place about two tablespoons of water in a metal cup that can take some heat. Almost anything will do, even a large spoon. Heat the vessel gradually until the water is hot (but not boiling). Put a very small amount of hide glue into the hot water and continue to heat, stirring once or twice at first to help the glue dissolve.

The solution will appear to get cloudy as the hide glue dissolves. When it is cloudy enough to become non-transparent, the solution is about right. The un-dissolved glue will be in the bottom of the cup. A very slight stir or two will help to ensure the mix is even.

Place the desired color of pigment on a plastic or ceramic mixing plate in a small pile.

Pour a small amount of the dilute hide glue onto the pile of pigment. It takes less liquid than you might think to get a good mix. Leave any partially dissolved glue in the heat-able container as you want only pure liquid on your mixing plate.
Take the mixing stone and grind the pigments into the wet glue until a consistent color and texture is obtained. If your paint tends to gel immediately upon cooling to room temperature, add a very small amount of clean warm water to the pile and remix.

Using a mixing stone is not necessary if you are wanting a thin paint mixture for detail work. For a thin mixture simply add more of the glue and water binder solution and mix thoroughly with a paintbrush until desired consistency and thickness is reached.

If you smear all of your paint onto the bottom of the mixing plate during mixing, don’t worry. After you do the immediate project, you can let your mixing plate dry and the next time you use it you need only spit into the plate or add a little water to re-liquefy the paint. The hide glue is still there. Use your brush to mix the paint before every stroke.

Paint your project with enough to be just thick enough to color but not too thick to avoid build up.

Make sure you use a different mixing plate and brush for each color, then store them for the next use and re-liquefy as stated above.

Hide glue stabilized paints are colorfast but not at all waterproof. Protect your finished painting project with paste waxes as outlined below.

Sealing and Protecting Pigments

After your project is artfully pigmented, you may wish to avoid the just-off-the-assembly-line look that most modern pieces have by using paste waxes and natural ochre pigments.

Paste wax such as Johnson’s is a good medium to use for stabilizing a finished surface. Mixing pigments with wax will tend to blend and unify the colors to give an overall pleasant appearance. Polishing with a buff or a soft cloth after the wax dries gives a hand-rubbed look that improves almost any piece.

Be sure your piece is thoroughly dried, especially the hide glue and bindings. Application of wax will stop the drying process and should only be done with completely dry projects.

Heat your wax until it is very soft, and/or almost liquefied. This is best done in the sun, as open flame and wax vapors are a fire hazard and dangerous to your health. Most sealing wax vapors are toxic to breathe, so avoid allowing the wax to heat to the point of creating excessive vapors. If vapors are a problem, do this task outside and uitilize a fan to blow any vapors away from the project area.

Mix the appropriate amount of ochre pigments in the softened wax. Generally, a half teaspoonful of dark pigment in a cup of wax is plenty, but you may need to experiment to get the best mix depending on the desired effect you want for your project.

Most useful colors are the dull/dark yellow and the black magnetite or iron oxide. The color of the wet wax should be a dark greenish black for a used and ancient look.

Apply pigmented wax liberally to the piece. Be sure to get wax into all the recesses. Wipe away excess and dust the piece to ensure dirt in the crevices. Allow piece to dry thoroughly.

Buff with a rotary buff or by hand with a soft cloth to bring a polish to the high points of the piece. If done correctly (and maybe after some further experimentation to perfect the process), you will most likely be impressed by the final results.


We hope you were enjoyed the information in this how-to article. For other lessons in primitive skill building and traditional weaponry replication please check out our GoKnapping Kits product category. There you will find other all inclusive lessons in skill sets like flint knapping, knife making, and arrow making.

Copyright 2020 Elliot Collins