Natural Pigment Field Guides


Looking to nature is basically the answer to all of life’s questions but when it comes to teaching, nature can also be the best way to clean the slate and reinvent yourself.

I’ve really been enjoying the current unit my early childhood kiddos and I are involved in. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to answer the question:

Where does color come from?


We know that the primary colors are the building blocks for ALL COLOR but once you’ve mastered basic color theory and how to blend to create secondary and tertiary colors, not to mention tints, shades and tones with the help of black and white, you are kind of left mystified about where in the world the primary colors come from and how to “make” them.

Well, that’s our mission!


We got some help from a few really impressive foragers on who search the world over looking for sources of natural pigments, the same way Native peoples from all over the world have done for centuries. It’s pretty cool to witness the passion of people who work to preserve ancient techniques such as pigment derivation.




Students were really captivated by the use of rudimentary tools such as sticks and stones to grind pigment into powder. Mortar and pestles are still the go-to tools for grinding spices into fine powders in many kitchens worldwide. Learning how early man (and woman) used water and animal fats to create binders to make their paintings on the walls of caves more archival was gross to kids but also awesome! Hearing about how artists such as Michelangelo used egg wash to create masterpieces such as the Sistine Chapel was another eye opener for us!


So on day one, we set out to discover what the Maury front garden had to offer in terms of natural pigments. We each hunted and gathered items that we hypothesized would make excellent pigments once mashed and muddled in the warmth of the studio. Leaves of all colors, berries, dirt, stones, sand, feathers, twigs, moss, bark, grass and dandelions were the bulk of our haul.


We were disappointed to learn that the berries outside of Maury were not the luscious red we had hoped for. Inside they were clear and juice-less. Womp womp.  Dirt mixed with water was a pleasant surprise but green grass and yellow dandelion heads took the prize.


On day two, Ms. Bomba brought natural items from the plentiful bounty of the “Whole Foods Market Garden.” This luxury allowed us to sample natural items such as cabbage, beets, carrots, spinach, and berries.

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We began keeping our findings in a handmade Natural Pigment Field Guide after learning about Charles Darwin and his expedition to the Galapagos Islands.  Seeing how instrumental a field guide was to validating his discoveries inspired us to take good records of our findings to share with others. Learning about how important it was for scientists to have artistic sensibilities before photography was invented gave us pride.

Each class period, before continuing our research, we sang the Natural Pigment Field Guide poem together as a class. It goes a little something like this:

I’ve made myself a field guide

that helps me to decide

which earthy things make color

and which ones don’t abide

the vivid hues are natural

from plants and stones and clay

I rub them on my paper

to make them look that way

from green to yellow red and brown

the pigments are so true

not from a store or factory

I’ve found them just for you!

Coffee, tea, and chocolate are in our future, as well as spices such as mustard seed, paprika, turmeric, and cinnamon. Be sure to ask a Mini Darwin to show you their field guild and explain which items from nature work most successfully at creating vivid hues for natural painting. If anyone says carrots, be leery, for their bright orange skin does not translate well on paper. Beets, fruit berries, and spinach on the other hand, are a sure bet!


3 thoughts on “Natural Pigment Field Guides

      1. Miss you too Lauren! I ask because I have 18 at a time always now. So with demo or group discussion, sometimes I face challenges at this Title 1 school with whole group and my small group mind set. I could recruit parents/volunteers or do you have a solo solution if you are by yourself?

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