Driftless Terroir: Manifesting Art From the Earthy Pigments of Place

By Esther Hill

I moved to Iowa County from a suburban landscape and lifestyle — from concrete and landscaped lawns to here where the land is paramount to individuals’ livelihoods.

I did some reflecting on the importance of the land and soil, and so I started a project that linked my act of painting to the historic practice of artists creating pigments from minerals and rocks from their local earth. Creating paint from dirt was born out of necessity as for many centuries there was no commercial source of paints, inks or varnishes. One could not simply go to the art supply store on Main Street or receive them in the mail from a catalog, so artists had to dig in the dirt to find their palette. This made color unique to place and truly an expression of terroir. In Italy, the paintings of Siena were of a different palette than in Umbria or Verona. We still have evidence of this in the names of commercially manufactured paint such as Sienna or Umber brown and Veronese green.

Last year I started to create my own Driftless paintbox by finding rocks and minerals around where I live. As the weather turned cold and not as hospitable to rock collecting, I turned to a natural resource that I found right in front of me. Rust.

Last year I started to create my own Driftless paintbox by finding rocks and minerals around where I live. I worked with sand from the Wisconsin River bank and limestone rocks and dirt from my backyard. The paint I created was primitive, course in texture and the colors much less saturated than what I’m used to. And then the project shifted as art projects so often do. As the weather turned cold and the outside conditions not as hospitable to rock collecting, I turned to a natural resource that I found right in front of me. Rust. I stumbled upon this as rust is a common sight on farm equipment. I work at a creamery on a farm north of Dodgeville and there is heavy machinery that is used daily and it gets corroded and oxidized over time with wind, rain, snow and dirt. During the winter months machinery gets repaired as there is more time than when the farm is in full swing with grazing dairy cows on summer pasture and making cheese with the sweet milk. It was easy for me to collect rust that was scraped off wheels and cross-braces. I treated the rust as I did my other pigment sources, grinding it up in a mortar and pestle and then mixing it with linseed oil. The farm rust I found was impure, containing bits of dirt and gravel and it did not produce the rich red paint I am used to seeing on the barns that surround us. With time, I was able to refine the powder and use the correct binder to give me the texture of paint I was looking for. The color from rust is still not the same as the vibrant red that I see on modern barns, but a beautiful reddish brown not unlike Sienna brown you can find on the art store shelves.

The barn paint train of thought led me through the rural landscape and I started thinking about the quilt pattern images that adorn many of the barns here in Iowa County. Barn quilts have always intrigued me as they are striking designs and are so intentionally visible to passersby, a geometric stark contrast to the rolling hills and soft shapes of plants and animals. After some research, I found that barn quilts were started in Ohio by a woman who wanted to honor her mother who was an avid quilter and they have since spread throughout the country.

Thus began a series of work in a monochromatic palette of iron oxide and white and painting geometric patterns inspired by barn quilts. I found the work to be tedious and precise as the use of a monochromatic palette and exact geometric patterns requires patience and discipline. It stretched me to create within such a small box, but it felt limiting, heady and arbitrary at times. Sometimes I just want to use all of the colors regardless of whether they’ve come from a store or from a source in our landscape.

I paint because it’s a technical challenge and an intellectual exercise, but also because I enjoy the act of painting and color-mixing. I find myself faced with a dilemma: grinding my own pigments and creating my own paint, an exercise in painstaking technique, or using commodity paint and focusing on expression through a wide array of color via manufactured sources. Where should I focus my efforts? But one of the great things about an art practice is that I don’t have to make that decision, I can do both. I make my own art studio rules.

I’ll continue to experiment with making my own Driftless paintbox, using colors from the earth around us here in southwestern Wisconsin. I have more resources now to create better pigments in a finer texture, which will create a paint with better viscosity, and I have more experience as I know ratios of mixing pigment to binder, drying times, etc. I’m drawn to the idea to create paint specifically from right here where I live. However, I also need to paint with everything available to me, which goes beyond our region — to where I can find any color I might want to use regardless of the dirt that happens to be where I live. I guess it’s the age-old question of local or global focus manifesting itself in paint, and I think there can be both.

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. Contact her at estherhill12@gmail.com.