If animal fats and water were the first paint mediums, then tree saps were the next. From a North African conifer a sap was extracted and boiled to make an alcohol-based paint–sandarac. It was so widely used during the ensuing millennia that sandarac became the generic name for paint.
Boiling the sap of pine trees produced turpentine, and from the pine nuts came an oil. Together with wax extracted from bees’ nests and shellac, there now existed the raw materials for paint manufacture and the creation of varnishes and oil finishes!
Like so many other products we now have in industrialized society, the new synthetic paints copy the good, enduring science of the old formulas, but the new versions also pollute! Natural paints are very beautiful. Here is an old-time formula for water-based paint using natural materials.
1 ounce gum arabic (about 2 tablespoons)
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespooon natural pigment
This paint is suitable for hand-painted details on absorbent surfaces. Gum Arabic is a resin exuded by several species of acacia trees. The resulting tears are crushed up and then dissolved in water to form a gum solution. Gum Arabic has traditionally been used as a binder for two artists’ paints: watercolor and gouache. Whether you end up with a really transparent paint or something more opaque depends on the type and quantity of pigment used. The honey is added to keep the paint flexible.
Grind up the tears of gum Arabic as finely as possible in a mortar and pestle. Put the water in the top of a double boiler, add the gum Arabic, and heat the mixture gently until the gum has dissolved. Add the honey, then remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool.
Put your chosen pigment in a small bowl and add a little of the binder, blending it to a smooth, lump-free paste. Gradually add the rest of the binder.
Use a soft artist’s paintbrush to apply this paint, leaving half an hour between coats.
One source for natural plant pigments and gum Arabic is Kremer.
Adapted from The Natural Paint Book, by Lynn Edwards and Julia Lawless (Rodale Press, 2002).