Driftless Terroir: Making My Own Driftless Paintbox From Scratch

by Esther Hill

We often speak of terroir in the world of food and beverage, which is the world where I’ve earned my living for over a decade. I hear about the importance of the land’s character in vineyards, vegetable beds and beehives, but I have not often heard it used in the context of the art medium of paint. I’ve given this concept of “paint terroir” some thought and, together with an interest in the history of paint-making, I was inspired to make my own paint using colors from our Driftless region’s soil.

In essence, paint is simply a pigment, a binder and a thinning agent. It’s fascinating to think that all the varying effects of paint including the transparent glow of watercolor, the sheen of oil paint and the playful chalky texture of gouache essentially come from the same three ingredients.

Esther ground limestone in a mortar and pestle by rubbing the stone directly on the bottom of the mortar, then refined the pigment powder by grinding it with the pestle.

There are three different natural binders that can be found in our area: I could use milk from the dairy farm where I work, an egg from a friend’s layer flock, or even oil derived from the black walnut trees that dot our landscape. I have used none of these three binders in my painting practice thus far, so I ended up playing it safe and using the quintessential old masters’ binder of linseed oil. It’s true that linseeds aren’t local to our landscape, but I wanted to focus on the color pigments being from here. Additionally, there is the added bonus that the smell of linseed is nostalgic and brings me back to my free-spirited 20s.

The pigments I derived from my surroundings as I used stones and earth from what I gathered over the summer. I found some small pieces of limestone on those magical evening walks that occur at dusk when the sky is filled with the colors of coral and lavender. On a particularly sunny Friday afternoon, I ran into Spring Green for a work errand and I stopped at the Wisconsin River beach to scoop up some sand before returning. As a first-time homeowner, I had the privilege to dig up dirt from my very own backyard and I found black earth flecked with sandstone. These findings are all variations of brown, of course, and although monochromatic painting can be dynamic when done right, it is nice to have a few more options.

Esther’s mixed-media vignette with limestone paint, marker and pencil on paper titled “Vague Memory Under a Harvest Moon.”

When I think of Driftless colors, I can’t help but think about green. The prairie grasses, the wispy white pines, majestic oak canopies and lush ferns. However, I think that trying to replicate the greens of nature cannot do justice to standing in it. I’ve long had the opinion that if I want to see green in a painting, I’ll stage a plant in front of it. I had the privilege of walking through Frank Lloyd Wright’s residence recently, and I like to think he and I share this philosophy of green as I noticed there is no green paint at Taliesin. His palate choice of mostly warm browns, whites and reds are a perfect compliment to our natural landscape. Why be inside and try and replicate the greens of nature when clearly the best way to see green is to see nature itself?

Mixing limestone and linseed oil with a pallette knife.

As for additional sources of natural colors around us, lead and zinc are an important part of Mineral Point’s mining history and have both been used as a source of white paint for centuries. However, for the sake of the health of people and pets in my house, I thought it best to leave zinc and lead as historic sources of white and not revive the practice.

Barn red is essential to our landscape and in the past the distinct red hue was created with iron oxide, i.e., rust. I didn’t find a source for a large amount of rust so I think I’ll put an old shovel outside over winter and harvest my pigment come May.

On this first run of paint-making, I am left to work with brown tones and I had varying degrees of success with each substance. The limestone, linseed oil and Gamsol mixture was the only formula that produced a workable paint. The gray stone was soft and ground up in my mortar and pestle with relative ease. When mixed with water it was the color of a bottled Frappucino you find at the gas station, but when mixed with linseed oil, which has a yellow tint, the limestone powder made a paint of greenish brown, the color of cloudy Winsor & Newton Raw Umber oil paint.

Mixing paint, with the paint on the left too thin, but thickened to the desired consistency by gradually adding more pigment powder.

Sadly, my other two soils did not produce a useable product. The dirt from my backyard was a beautiful black-brown, the color of flourless chocolate cake, but the texture was thick and cement-like as opposed to the limestone paint that was slightly coarse but flowed like commercial paint. The sand from the riverbed I was unable to grind down into a fine enough powder and it needed too much linseed oil added to ever dry out properly.

I successfully used the limestone paint to make a small painting. The act of painting with homemade paint was different than my previous commercial paint experiences as the fine bristled brush I used clogged easily with the coarse texture of homemade paint. The drawing paper I used wasn’t primed and couldn’t handle my heavy-handed application of linseed oil resulting in some bleed to the back of the paper. Slowly I started to get a feel for the medium as I thinned out the paint with more Gamsol and applied it like a watercolor wash. When the layer dried I went over again with a pallette knife to apply thicker paint to achieve darker shades. I produced a small landscape vignette of a view I remembered from this past summer. While sitting eating burgers with friends at the Pleasant Ridge Store, I was captivated by the horizon off County Road Z with a full moon rising. I felt proud of the painting and it’s hanging up on the refrigerator as any proper art project should.

Esther’s paint from backyard soil, linseed oil and Gamsol was thick and cement-like.

I ended my paint-making session with more questions than answers as there are many variables to this process: What are the best ratios of linseed oil to thinning agent to pigment? How fine should I grind the pigment? On what material should this paint be used: wood, primed canvas, paper or fabric? After seeing some red-hued scorched stone in the Taliesin walls, I wonder if I should responsibly scorch my own stones to see what the resulting colors would be?

Then there are all those questions about delving into local binder options of eggs, milk and walnut oil and there are new minerals to find and use. I have a long way to go to be content with the colors and processes of the Driftless paintbox, but the project has fallen in my lap right before winter, when the dark nights will be perfect for an ongoing indoor experimental project such as this.

Esther Hill lives in Dodgeville with her husband and their two cats. She works for Uplands Cheese and in her spare time enjoys eating, hiking/canoeing, painting and putzing around the house and garden. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, email info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.