Making Watercolor Pigment from Mud

I’ve been wondering if pigment could be made from clay and I learned that it can from a book called, “The Complete Decorated Journal” by Gwen Diehn. First I used clay from the Matanuska River flowing near us. It is a glacier-fed river with lots of silty clay along the shore.  There is also a stream a few miles away near Sheep Mountain with golden-yellow mud along the bank. Perfect for pigment!

I started by mixing the silty clay with water, then strained it through a fine mesh sieve. That got rid of the sand. Using several layers of cheesecloth, I strained it again. Finally, I strained it through a terry cloth. I tried to use a tee-shirt as suggested in the book, but I couldn’t get anything but clean water to go through it. After allowing the muddy water to settle, I poured the clear water from the top and allowed the remainder to dry to a pudding-like mud, then mixed in several drops of gum arabic.

I used the silty river pigment to paint this scene of the Matanuska River below. I was so disappointed with the deadness of the color.

Matanuska River painted with glacier silt pigment and a little bit of Sheep Mountain mud.

Painting with the river pigment is like painting with…well, mud. Watercolor pigment should be responsive by moving across the paper, not turning to sludge. I repeated the process with the Sheep Mountain mud. This was entirely different! This pigment was rich and moved across the paper beautifully.

The grass in the foreground is Sheep Mountain mud.

This sketch below is looking over the Matanuska River, very near our home. I used some of the Sheep Mountain mud and none of the silt from the river.

Chugach Mountains and the Matanuska River

The sketch below is of a neighbor’s house.

The leaves have been gone for a while, but it was fun to paint them when they were golden.

Sketching Among Falling Rocks

Much of Alaska received record rainfall this week. Flooding has been the main news. One section of our highway becomes impassable from huge rocks loosened by the rain and crashing to the road.  It truly is the most dangerous part of the highway.  The sun came out yesterday and I raced off in the car to go sketch on the side of the highway among the piles of rocks plowed to the side. I could hear little pebbles falling nearby, but I kept sketching, alert for crashing rocks.

Long Lake Hill. The highway is on the right and the lake is behind my sketchbook.

Sketching the Fleeting Fall Alaska Days

September in Alaska can be beautiful. We have had a few days that were spectacular with blue skies shining on snow-capped mountains and the foothills a brilliant red with their covering of alpine bearberry and blueberry leaves.  One day I stopped to sketch at Eureka summit on the Glennallen Highway. The spruce trees are so scrawny and gray, but their summer is only a few weeks long and their roots have only a few inches of soil from which to gather nutrients before they hit permafrost. It is amazing they grow at all. All too soon snow will blanket them until May.

Our deck was so pretty this summer. I took the photo below on August 31. Since then, we have had several frosts which made the plants look very sad. Now, everything is stored away for next year. Sniff, sniff…

Sketching the End of Summer

Here in Alaska the leaves are beginning to turn and the air smells of autumn now. I’ve been happily sketching on our deck and in the neighborhood. It feels so good to get out and enjoy the mountain air. I hope you get a chance to do the same. Below are some sketches from my sketchbook and at the bottom are some links to artists’ blogs whose sketches are so inspiring to me. The link at the bottom is full of resources if you catch the sketchbook bug.

Morning Glories painted on my deck.

Matanuska Glacier

Grasses where I walk

Sketching the Alaska Forget-Me-Not

Alaska’s State flower is the Forget-Me-Not. It is such a simple and delicate little flower ranging in color from pale to deep blue and even shades of pink. With a gentle fragrance of baby powder, it is one of my favorite flowers.

I’ve been taking part in a fellow artist’s “75 Day Sketching Challenge” and the last several sketches posted have been part of the challenge. Some artists are sharing every sketch on their blogs, but you really don’t want to see some of my experiments. My first sketch of the Forget-Me-Not looked like I had run them over with the car before I sketched them. They were very sad.

Spotting a Wild Alaskan Snow Dog

Snow dogs are wily creatures. Usually spotted clinging to trees after a heavy snowfall, they will appear only if there is no wind for several days after a snow storm.  I was able to photograph this one, but it disappeared soon afterward because of wind.  Other creatures, such as this one below often accompany the snow dogs. It looks like a member of the sloth family. What do you think?

Alaska Winter Sky

Winter Sky

Yesterday the clouds cleared away after a huge storm and this was the view from our windows. The wind is blowing fresh snow from the mountain into the sky. It was very dramatic. And cold. I took this photo around one o’clock in the afternoon. January is such a bleak month here in Alaska. We appreciate the bits of light gain every day. At our house, we don’t see the sun for about a month. What you see in this photo is what we get. Glow. Yesterday my dear husband shoveled tons of snow around the house. My self-appointed job is the deck. One shovel full at a time.

This is the view of the deck from my studio. It might take some time.

Painting Plein Air, or…Is That a Bear?

"Eureka Pullout" or ?... (8 x 10 palette knife oil painting)

Plein air painting (painting outside, instead of in the studio) is something I’ve been trying to tackle lately. “Tackle” might be a strong word, but consider what takes place. First, I must prepare supplies and not forget ANYTHING. I’ve remembered paper, paint and palette, then forgot brushes, not intending to finger paint. I’ve remembered a water bottle only to forget a container to hold the water, an important element in watercolor. If I remember everything (and never do), the next hurdle is to find a place where the wind will not blow over the easel, the sun isn’t glaring into my eyes, and bugs will not carry me away. A nice view is a plus, but that brings up the third hurdle of what to paint, or maybe what not to paint? I gather the equipment I’ve remembered and look around. From one side of my peripheral vision to the other and as far as my head will turn each way, I have to focus on one small piece of what is around me. All of it won’t make it into the 8 x 10. Then there are the distracting sounds of birds, wind, traffic and possibly the footfall of a moose…or was that a bear?

I wonder if painting might be the easy part of plein air, but my efforts don’t indicate this. Focus is obviously key and a major hurdle. I’ve decided that for me, painting on site is sketching and gathering information. At this point, I don’t think I’ll attempt to complete a sale-able piece.

One day, at the end of my school bus route that meanders through two mountain ranges (which shall be explained in another blog), I pulled my yellow chariot into a pullout near Eureka Lodge on the Glenn Highway. The colors were stunning with purple mountains, red hills, green trees and golden grass. I pulled out my bag of supplies, this time using oils. I sat in the pullout on a little piece of foam and played with the palette knife and colors. It was so much fun and I didn’t even mind when some Japanese tourists looked over my shoulder. The photo above is my first plein air seen by the public. I’m happy that it says “mountains, trees, grass” and reminds me of the fall air around me as I sat in the gravel, looking out at the mountains and glaciers with the clouds drifting by.

Normally, I don’t have a problem coming up with a title, but “Eureka Pullout” just doesn’t speak to me. Do you have any suggestions?

On another note, I’m trying to get this blog as user-friendly as I can and hopefully I’ve set it so you may leave a comment without leaving your email address. If it doesn’t work, here is my email: If you want to subscribe, however, you must leave your email address and every post will go to your inbox. How often do you think a blogger should post? Please let me know your thoughts and any suggestions you have. I’d love to hear from you.