Natural Pigments

By Patsy Harper


     For millenia, humans have beautified their world, adorned their bodies and clothing, deccorated their dwellings, and expressed their thoughts by painting. Pigments are the basis of all paints, and have come from natural sources from the beginning of time through today.


     The focus of this project is to determine sources of Natural paigments and binders used prior to 1840, with methods and recipes for their use on a variety of surfaces, with an emphahsis on painting on buckskin and rawhide. It will also include modern pigments and paints that can be used to replicate those old-time colors for surface decoration with a period-correct look.


      Paint in it's simplest form, consists of ground up pigment suspended in some sort of liquid, or binder. When the liquid dries into a film, the ground pigment is mechanically bound or stuck to the painting surface. Dyes on the other hand are chemically bound to a material generally with the use of a mordant (alum, chromium, copper, tin and iron.) This project will focus on ground mineral pigments, binders and application methods.


     The first paintings were Cave Paintings. Ancient peoples would decorate walls of protected Caves with paint made from dirt or charcoal mixed with spit or animal fat. In Cave paintings, the pigments (often carbon black or ochre) stick to the wall partially because the pigment gets trapped in the pourous wall, and partially because the binding media (the spit or fat) dries, adhering the pigment to the wall. Over the years, countless graves unearthed by archaeologists, exposed bodies covered in red pigment or chunks of pigment buried alongside the bodies. Red, associated with blood, the most life sustaining of body fluids, was the appropriate color to symbolize life's meaning and end. The word Hematite (the source of many iron oxide pigments) is derived from the Greek word "hema" meaning blood.


     The predominant colors used in rock art and cave art are black(from charcoal, soot, or manganese oxide), yellow ochre (limonite), red ochre (hematite or baked limonite), and white (kaolin clay, burnt shells, powdered gypsum, or powdered calcium carbonate). All of theses pigmeents may be used on leather or rawhide as well. Early cave art in Seminole Canyon was monochromatic, in red, and as culture grew more sophisticated, the color palette expanded.


     Many colors of pigments were obtained from both organic and inorganic sources in ancient times, and used to paint various surfaces such as braintan leather clothing and accoutrements, rawhide, the human body, etc. Blue color was obtained from powdered azurite and lapis, duck manure, and certain clays. A fine Blue-green clay was obtained from deposits near Mankato, Michigan. Organic sources of blue include Turkey's Tail, a greenish blue polypore that grows on dead decaying wood (not tannish ones). Native Americans could get Indigo from either Guatemala or Ecuador, which was traded well up onto Kansas, long before the Spanish ever set foot here. American Indigo has purple tones to it, but Indian/Japanese indigo has green tones. Berries and crushed flowers were also used to obtain blue color, by rubbing the plant material directly on the leather. Violets and Broadbeard Beardtongue (Penstemon angustifolius Nutt. ex Pursh) were examples of the flowers petals used for blue.


     During the reservation period in 1880's-1890's, laundry bluing was used as a replacement for organic blue pigments used by the Native Americans. It's main ingredient in the begining was powdered synthetic ultramarine. It was obtained in trade, came as a liquid or as a powder compressed into stick, and was used on many buckskin items, particularly by the Kiowa. Here are some examples of Kiowa artifacts from the National Museum of American History.

Kiowa women's moccasin stained with laundry bluing

Photograph by Paul Calcaterra

Kiowa men's moccasins stained with laudry bluing



Kiowa's men shirt front,

fringe stained with laundry bluing


Sample Swatch of bluing on commercial braintain,

left is undiluted,right is diluted with water,

by Jack Smith


     An organic source of red was Cochineal. It was native west of the Mississippi, and is produced from the bodies of small insects that grow on the prickly pear cactus. Lady's Bedstraw gives a good vermillion red color. Harvest the roots, dry them out, clean the mud etc. off of them and then grind the roots really fine, then soak them to extract the red coloring. The key here is drying the root first. Blood was also used as red pigment. Pucoon roots also yield a red pigment.


     Powdered catlinite stone dust can be used as a pigment on buckskin as well. Just moisten the leather with spit first, then rub in the powdered stone pigment and let it dry. It produces a dark dusty pinkish red, as in the horse quirt below, made recently by Jack Smith of South Dakota.


Catlinite dust was also used on the exposed rawhide on this

Crow-style knife sheath, also made by Jack Smith.



     Grasses will produce green pigment, gathered fresh, wadded up and crushed, and rubbed directly onto the leather. Color varies with type of grass and water content. Other crushed leaves will produce green pigment as well, from the chlorophyll content in the leaf. Powdered malachite can be used as green pigment as well. Lambsquarter and pond algae can be used for greens. Yellows can be obtained from curly dock root and sumac root. Winged dock is a nice yellow orange.


     Walnut hulls, boiled or soaked in water, produce a dark brown stain that can be used to dye buckskin. Pecan hulls, processed the same way, produce a lighter golden brown stain. In Norman Feder's srticle on bottom tab leggings of the Sioux, he states that the brown paint used for stripes was made from powdered lignite. Lignite is a low-grade coal that can be found in many places in Eastern Montana, for example, in rocky outcroppings on erouded hillsides. It is a dark brown-black as it comes from the ground.


     Native Americans used yellow and red ochre extensively as stains on buckskins garments. Here is an example of Mescalero Apache woman's skirt stained with both, from American Museum of natural History:


A Kiowa dress with Cowrie shells and yellow ochre stain on

the bodice,from Sotheby's 1998 auction catalog (Note green

pigment stain at the bottom hem)


Here is an outstanding Kiowa dress with green pigment stain,

yellow ochre, and red ochre at the bottom.


     Some of the first European and American artists to travel west used Natural pigments to paint a record of Native American tribes and their lives. Until paint was produced commercially during the Industrial Revolution (circa 1800), painters had to make their own paints by grinding pigment into oil. The paint would harden and would have to be made fresh each day. Due to the difficulty of transporting slow- drying wet oil paintings, many worked in watercolors or charcoal sketches in the field, and came home to make the oil paintings later from their field sketches. Often, they made their own pigments from available materials, mixing pigments with water and honey. The honey acts a humectant to keep the paint softer and more easily mixed, and to bind it to the paper.


     Binders in paint make pigment stick to the surface; similar to the way mordants make dyes stick to fabric surfaces. Various sealers may also be used after the pigment is applied. Sometimes a substance such as hide glue is used as a sizing, applied to the clean white braintanned hide before the paint is applied, or before it is smoked to leave a white area on the hide. Paint it on the areas or lines that you want to remain white, and let it dry. Then smoke the hide and the other blank areas will turn darker but the hide-glue-painted portions will not. This technique was used on painted Buffalo Robes.


     Some common binders that were used historically by Native Americans include human spit, hide glue, bone marrow fat, other animal fats such as bear grease, prickly pear cactus juice (may leave a green residue or tint), and soapy juice from yucca roots or leaves. California Indians also used a local plat called soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Egg whites were used (bird eggs), milkweed (Asclepias sp.) sap and other plant saps, also urine.


     If the pigment is clay based, then the only thing that would need to be done is to add water to the processed pigment to make it stick together. If the pigment is pure mineral, then a small amount of glue should be added to the water to help it hold its desired shape. A thin mixture of hide glue works well. Hide glue, which is also known as rabbit skin glue or horse hoof glue, was traditionally made from cooking down all of the left over parts after an animal was butchered. Skin, bones, tendons etc. were cooked until they were reduced to basically solids, fats and gelatin. It is the gelatin that makes the glue.


     When choosing a binder, the questions you have to ask yourself are: What is the material that you are applying the pigment onto? How long do you want it to last? Will it need to be waterproof or at least water-resistant? Answers to all these questions determine the binder that will be used. The basic rule of thumb for applying pigments onto any surface is: the binder should be as similar a material you can find as the material to which you are applying it. Plant based oils, juices and saps should be used on woods and plant fibers; animal based oils, fats, egg yolks, eye and hide glues on hides, skins and bones. Experience using hide glue and milkweed sap as a binder has shown them to be water resistant on a variety of surfaces. Binders are as varied as the cultures that used them. Local materials would have been known and used.


     There are several differnt application methods that may be used, with or without a binder. Brushing the powdered dry pigment directly into the leather with the fingers is one way. Moss or fur can be used to daub and blend. A pointed stick or bone also works quite well for drawing lines. Using different kinds of primitive brushes to apply it is another way. Brushes were made of cut animal bones, hollow bones with animal hair inserted in the end, yucca fibers bound with cordage, feathers (trimmed or untrimmed), and dried yucca leaves.


   Below are pictures of some types of primitive brushes


     Many of the beautiful rock images found in the European caves as well as the myriad of hand stencils from around the world were made by spraying the pigment out of the artists' mouth, sometimes through a tube. Any hollow tube of approximately .25 inch (6cm) diameter will work; bird or animal bones, bamboo, reeds etc. You can also blow the pigment out of your mouth without using a tube. Although this technique may not be as controllable, the Australian Aboriginal people still use this method today. (Caution! When spraying any pigment out of your mouth, make sure binder does not contain any harmful materials, i.e.: poisonous or toxic plant saps, juice, etc.).




An Experiment in Rock Art Painting

     At the SHUMLA School in Comstock, Texas, archaeologist who were studying the 4000-year-old rock art in Seminole Canyon State Park did some experiments to try and replicate the paints used in the rock art. They found sources for the colors used in mineral deposits near the park, and obtained the pigments there. The pigments were ground to a fine powder using stone tools such as a mano and metate (flat grinding stones), or a molcajete (mortar and pestie).


     The next important ingredient in producing paint is the"binder". A binnder is the liquid in paints that holds particles of pigment together and fastens them to the support (in this case the support is the shelter wall). Chemistry professor, Dr. Marvin Rowe, and his students at Texas A&M, determined that the binder used in the paint was of an organic nature, however; they still  did not know what kind of organic binder was used. In an attempt to answer this question, artist and archeologist Dr. Carolyn Boyd began the process of trying to rediscover the binder used 4000 years ago through experimental archeology.


     Native Americans are reported to have used a variety of substances as binders in making paint, including blood, egg whites, sap from plants, animal fat and even urine. As an artist well experienced in mural painting both indoors and outdoors, Boyd knew that the binder required to produce fluid continuous lines in an arid environment needed to be a slow drying substance. This eliminated such possible binders as blood, urine and egg whites. The binder also should be close to colorless when used to make such colors as yellows and whites, which again rules out blood. Quanity was also a consideration. The amount of binder required to produce some of the pictographs would be sizeable. Given these considerations, she determined that animal fat seemed the most likely source. In considering the fauna available 4000 years ago, Deer would have been an excellent source of fat. Dr. Boyd communicated with Dr. Jerry Cook, a wildlife ecologist at Texas A&M, and was informed that the highest source of fat on a deer is contained within the bone marrow, especially in the long bones of the tibia and radius, too red in the humerous and femur. She noted that the quanity and color of the marrow varied according to age, season, and health of the deer. The finely ground mineral pigments and the deer bone marrow blended easily, however, the consistency was too thick to be used for painting. A "thinner" was required to acheive the necessary fluidity.


     Water could not serve as the thinner due to its immiscibility or inability to mix with fat. Boyd needed a third ingredient that would act as an emulsifying agent to allow the water and the fat to be dispersed one into the other. She asked Dr. Phil Dering, a botonist and archeologist at Texas A&M, if there was a plant that could provide the needed emulsifier. He informed her that yucca, also known as soap plant, contains an ingredient known as saponin. Saponins are molecules that act like a detergent and are composed of a steroid attached to a sugar molecule. In aqueous solutions, sapponins have an ability to foam, thereby acting as an emulsifier. In reviewing the ethnographic literature, she found that yucca was not only used by various Native American groups as a detergent, but as a binder in paint as well.


     The roots of the yucca contain the most saponin. After removing the woody bark, Boyd pounded the roots enough to break them open and allowed them to soak in a small amount of water over night. The next day the roots were pounded into a pulpy mass and squeezed to render a soapy liquid.


     The yucca juice, combined with the water added in the processing of the yucca, served as an excellent emulsifier-thinner. The liquid mixed well with the fat and pigment, creating a silky, fluid paint. The consistency of the paint could be adjusted with varying quantities of yucca juice. The proportions needed of each ingredient varied depending on which mineral pigment was used, the quality of fat, and the concentration of yucca juice.


     The final product produced intense earth colors. The paint was highly fluid and easy to work with as commercial oil paints. The deer bone marrow served as an excellent binder when used in combination with yucca juice as the emulsifier-thinner. Although we do not know for certain that this combination of ingredients was the formula used by the ancient artists, we do not know that the formula works and the resources to create the paint would have been readily available to the atrists 4000 years ago in the lower Pecos River region of Texas.






Using Natural Animal Hide Glue



     Use a premium quality hide glue formulated to be water soluable and usable at different thicknesses.


To Mix:

Prepare a pan that is clean and can take some heat.


Mix approximately 50% by volume glue and water. Allow the glue to absorb the water completely.


Apply heat to thoroughly mix and liquefy. Add more water as needed to bring the glue to the proper consistency. Most people try to use glue that is too thick. If you add too much water, either add more glue or cook the extra water out of the mix.


Do  not scorch or boil the glue mix, as this can hurt the properties of the glue and cause objectionable odors.


To Use:

Keep the workplace clean and free of excess glue by careful application and quickly wiping spills with a wet cloth.


Hide glue is liquid when hot or very warm and will gel or thicken if allowed to become cold. Do not hesitate to add more water or change the temperature of the glue to make it more usable. After the final application layer, use a warm, wet finger to smooth the surface of the glue and even out lumps or thin spots.

Set piece aside and allow 10 to 24 hours for glue to dry completely before using.


Natural hide glue will become sticky if exposed to excessive moisture, but must be soaked for hours before it will soften enough to lose it grip.


Hide glue can be sanded smooth after drying, but pains should be taken to do the best job possible during the wet stages.


Natural hide glue is compatible with natural sinews, gut hafting material, rawhide and leather. It will adhere to these materials and make a very strong, fiber reinforced bond. It is not compatible with waxed artificial sinew, nylon or other water resistant materials.




     Native Americans used many different "canvases" as places to apply pigment. Cave walls and rocks have already been discussed. Here are some more places where pigment was and is applied.


Natural pigments paints are a traditional source of color among Native Americans for face and body paint on humans and horses as well as paintings on rawhide and finished hides. These guidelines describe some techniques for application.


Face and Body:

For the face and body, the paint can be mixed with bear grease into a thick, rich color. Mix with pigment for desired color. Apply with fingertips. Solid areas of color can be etched to create a pattern.



Horses were often decorated with paints to signify ownership and battle honors. Paint can be mixed very thickly with water and painted with the hands and fingers since larger designs are desired. Paint can also be mixed with grease for this purpose, although will be harder to remove from the hair.



Rawhide articles such as parfleche were painted while still damp in order for the pigment to penetrate and mix with the natural glues in the hide. We have created instructions for painting rawhide dry using our hide glue to produce a similar result. "Brushes" of varying widths were generally made from porous bone or willow sticks which soaked the paint into them. The paint could then be worked into the fibers. After drying, a protective coating (called sizing) was applied to the surface to protect it. Native Americans often used the juice of Cactus for this purpose.


Hides or Cloth:

Pigment paints can be used for intricate designs, and for coloring larger areas on hides and cloth. To stain a large area, use the pigments dry and apply by dipping a piece of buckskin or similar material into the powder and rubbing it onto the surface until the desired effect is acheived. When rubbing paint in dry form, shake off any excess outdoors, then use a clean applicator to continue to rub off or "transfer".  To make an authentic, colorfast liquid paint for hides, pigments can be mixed with water and hide glue.


     For authnetic use and style of application of natural pigments to clothing and accessories, you need to study plenty of artifacts to get a feel for design and color. Here is a treasure trove online of Native American artifacts from the Natural Museum Collection:

It allows you to search by tribe, region or object name to view photographs of items of evreyday living from clothing to utensils, etc. There you will find several examples of earth paint on parfleche, other rawhide and hide items, shirts, moccasins and clothing to inspire and teach you.



     Dr. Solveig A. Turpin is a recognized authority on the rock of the lower Pecos Region, with a P.H.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas. She has unique insights into the hunter-gather lifeways of the lower Pecos people and the probable shamanic origins of these rock art paintings. From the rock art foundation website, she comments on the probable spiritual significance of color in those ancient times: "The dominant color used in the paintings, no matter their age or subject material, is red. This is true in all the styles, from the earliest Pecos River shamans to the latest historic autobiography. The names given to two of the styles-Red Linear and Red Monochrome-attest to this overwhelming popularity. Some of the selectivity can be attributed to obvious factors-such as availablity and durability; other factors are more esoteric and aesthetic...the first response that leaps to mind when asked about the color red is blood, the essential fluid that courses through the veins of all humans and animals. Of course, early people were aware that loss of blood meant loss of life, but they also knew that new life arrives in blood as well...Psychologist and linguists studying people who still live at a very elemental technological and social level have found that the first colors to be distinguished (i.e., named) are black, white, and red. These we could call 'all color', 'no color', and red. The strongest impulse on the chromatic wavelength is red so we are in a sense hard-wired to react to red before any other color...To me, it is not merely a coincidence that the most sophisticated art-and the most clearly rooted in a ritual context-uses more than one color...we can envision the Pecos River and Bold Line Geometric styles as developing within a trance-oriented religion, where multi-colored visions are expectable".


     Color is the most basic form of human artistic expression, and pigments are the simplest forms of color-in essence, they are all reflections of light. Since these ancient artists are long gone from this world, we may never know  the true spiritual significance of the colors in their rock art. But we can see how deeply color affects our own mood, our self-esteem, and our sense of beauty; and how it touches our soul. And we can take care to learn these ancient methods and traditions and preserve them for generations to come, after we are long gone as well.


Patsy Harper                              





1) Pigments through the ages-how artists have colored our lives-   


2) Rock Art Foundation, Seminole Canyon rock art-color significance 02.htm


3) Paint-Making in Prehistory


4) Tom Haukaas, museum curator from Europe, e-mail to Plains Indian Seminar Yahoo group.


5) Use of Oak galls for black dye and polypores for blue dye, other pigments: Kimberly Packwood on pigments and dyeing, e-mail conversation, April,2005-Native Ameerican Skills Technology Yahoo group.


6) Peter Bowles, e-mail conversation on the Plains Indian Seminar Yahoo group list, Sept.,2005


7) Kiowa artifacts from the National Museum of American History, photographed by Paul Calcaterra, posted by e-mail to the Plains Indian Seminar Yahoo group list, Sept.,2005


8) Jack Smith, e-mail conversation and photos posted to the Plains Indian Seminar Yahoo group, Sept.,2005


9) Patsy Harper, independant research


10) Allen Chronister, artifact collector and author, e-mail conversation 12/15/04 on the Plains Indian Seminar Yahoo group.


11) Kathy and Bill Brewer, nationally recognized creators of reproductions of Native Ammerican artifacts for collectors, movies, and museums, e-mail conversation on the Plains Indian Seminar yahoo group-Sept.,2005


12) Using Natural Animal Hide Glue for primitive weaponry projects:


13) Primitive Ways article: "How to Paint a Mammoth", by Chuck Krizon, published in The Bulletin of     Primitive Technology. (Fall 2002, #24) a mammoth.html


14) Rick Hamilton, ethnobotanist, primitive skills instructor, e-mail conversation on the Native American Skills Technology yahoo group.


15) Using Painted Cliffs Earth and Mineral Pigments: id=36


16) Symbolism to this artist Lorena Moore ("Ironwing"), of earth pigments, and sources for them


17) Tara Prindle, e-mail to the Native American Skills Technology Yahoo group


18) Gary Winder, e-mail to the Lodge Owners Yahoo group


19) "Art and writing on the Frontier", by Cathy Johnson in Muzzleloader Magazine's "The Book Of Buckskinning VII".




Home Page | Membership and Requirements | Application/Contact us/Other Links of Interest | Pictures of the Sisters | Camping Primitive Style | The Two Hide Dress of the Upper Missouri | Trade Wool Dresses | Wool in the Fur Trade | Decorating the Two Hide Dress | Belts, Bags,Headcoverings and Other Assessories | Side fold and Winter Moccasins | Winter Doings for Women | Fort Bridger-2006 | Aux Alimente DuPay | Bullboats and the WFT | Dog Travois | Nationals 2007 | Decorative Robes | Natural Pigments | 5-day travel down the Snake River
Copyright © 2007 women of the fur trade.. All Rights Reserved.