A Paint-Making Experiment with Murdoch’s Mystery Rock

A thoughtful person by the last name of Murdoch, who happens also to know a bit of geology, enjoyed my display over at Kingston Square Arts, bought a print, and then came back and left me a box of rocks. And today I embarked on a paint-making experiment with one of those rocks.

It is so awesome to me that people bring me rocks, because that means when they see a colorful rock somewhere, they remember the work I’m doing with them and they want to help. I love it. Since I didn’t ask permission, I won’t use his full name in this post, but usually when someone gifts me a rock, I try to use part of their name in the name of the paint when I’m done.

There were two bags full of nice large rocks. The first bag contained a tricolor sandstone looking rock from just west of Huntsville, Arkansas. So still an Ozark pigment. The second bag are some other interesting rocks from Texas. My friend Michele and I gathered some rocks the last time I was in Texas visiting her, too. So I have enough now to make a Texas collection. Since my husband is from south Texas, it’s a fitting first ‘other’ place I’ll feature.

The tricolor mystery rock

The Murdoch rock and the three shades of color.
The Murdoch rock and the three shades of color.

What’s so mysterious?

When I grind up a large rock, I have enough pigment to do some experimenting with. So I mixed all the powder in water and let it settle. Immediately after mixing it up good, I poured all the colored water into other jars and saved the sand that settled quickly. That’s what is in the jars to the far right in the photo above.

The first mysterious thing was how little color was left in that sand! Usually it’s pretty much the same color as the water. That part is what I call the ‘heavies’, because it drops out first.

So I let the water settle a couple of hours and then poured off the still densely colored water into more jars. What had settled were the particles lighter in weight than the first sands and I kept that in a smaller jar and put it in the dehydrator to evaporate the water from it. This part is what I call the ‘middles’. These weren’t mysterious. They looked about like all the other middles do.

The ‘lights’, the parts that stay suspended longest, are the other mysterious thing about this rock. Usually they’ll settle overnight, or at most, in a day or two. These showed no signs at all of settling. It must be a very fine clay. If I can get them to settle, I’ll bet it makes a very smooth paint.

Making the suspended particles settle

One of my first jobs in the science field was in a water quality laboratory at a municipal water plant in Houma, Louisiana. One of the tests we did is called a ‘jar test’. The purpose is to see how much chemical is needed to cause the suspended solids in water to ‘flocculate’. When you floc the water, the suspended solids clump together and become heavier than the water.

Then the solids settle to the bottom and the clear water can be poured or siphoned off. Or as was the case in the water plant, the sludge is filtered out in giant sand filters. The sludge is then disposed of. In this case, the sludge is what I want to keep!

A Paint-Making Experiment & a little chemistry

Yesterday’s paint making experiment was with a using charred bone to make black paint. Today’s is on how to make the suspended particles of clay settle out of the water.

I decided to try alum (aluminum sulfate) to see if it would cause the clay particles to settle. The way this works (without going into balancing equations and all that kind of chemistry stuff, which I’d have to learn all over again to explain) is that the alum has loose protons, which are positive charges. The clay particles have loose electrons, which are negative charges.

When the alum dissolves into the water with the clay all floating around in it, the two opposite charges attract each other and make bigger particles than either of them alone. And so they’re heavy enough to sink.

To make it work a little faster, I added the alum to warm water before putting that into the colored wash water I got from the rock.

Paint Making Experiment
I used 1/2 tsp of grocery store alum in 1 cup of warm water, then added it to the 4 cups of clay-colored water. Within a few minutes, I could see the clear water level at the top, another layer of flux, and the bottom layer of still suspended particles.
It's working! The suspended clay is beginning to settle. Clear water is gathering at the top.
30 minutes later: It’s working! The suspended clay is beginning to settle. Clear water is gathering at the top.

The waiting part of a paint-making experiment

So now I’m still waiting. Once all the settling stops, if it’s not complete, I’ll add another cup of warm alum water and let it start again. As it settles and the band of clear water forms at the top, I siphon that off and throw it out. Eventually I should have a good layer of clay at the bottom to work with.

Then I’ll put it into small jars and dehydrate the rest of the water out. Finally, I’ll get to see if it makes a good paint. I’ll let you know how my paint-making experiment turns out with an update here!

Madison Woods is an author, artist, and Paleo Paint maker living
with her husband in northwest Arkansas far off the beaten path. She uses paint made from rocks, and mostly Ozark pigments to create her paintings.

Contact Info:
Email: Madison@wildozark.com
Instagram: @wildozark
Facebook: @wildozark

Use the buttons below if you’d like to see the kinds of things I’ve painted with my Paleo Paints. Raptors are my favorite subject to paint, so I’ve started a project to do a portrait or three of each of the species known to visit or make homes in the Ozarks.

What are Paleo Paints?

The Paleo Paints

My husband once said my handmade paints reminded him of how the cave men made their paints for the cave drawings. And he was right! And so we called them Paleo Paints.

I make them by crushing rocks, clay, charred wood, and extract certain leaves to create pigments which are then added to a binder to make paint.

The type of binder used determines what kind of paint it is: gum Arabic for watercolors, linseed oil for oil paints, and egg yolks for tempera. Other binders can be used to serve the same purposes, but these are the three most people are familiar with.

I crush the rocks by hand with a mortar and pestle. But before that, I collect the rocks or herbs, or clay or char.

Some typical rocks that look like good pigment rocks. I'll pick out the one between the two larger ones.
Some typical rocks that look like good pigment rocks. I’ll pick out the one between the two larger ones.

When I see a rock that looks like it’ll make good pigment, sometimes I’ll crush a part of it on a larger rock out in the field to see what I might expect from it.

A tested rock. Excellent source of pigment for Paleo Paints!
A tested rock. Excellent source of pigment for Paleo Paints!

You’ll often find me with bulging pockets because I’ve seen something wonderful that needed to be made into paint and didn’t go out prepared to carry more than a handful home.

Crushed red sandstone that I'll use as a pigment for my Paleo Paints.
Crushed red sandstone that I’ll use as a pigment for my Paleo Paints.

The colors in my palettes are earthy, and rich with the essence of place. Each color carries with it a story that tells the origins of earth’s history for that particular spot where it lived.

Some of the colors from my first set of handmade watercolor paints.
Some of the colors from my first set of handmade watercolor paints.

By working with these materials to make paint, I feel a sense of collaboration and partnership – a harmony I have no other way to translate other than by making art.

I hope it brings the sacred tunes of ancient and ever-adapting life to your soul when you work with them, too.

Paleo Paint Workshops

Do you prefer hands-on learning? I offer workshops to share the information I’ve learned so far. Most are single day workshops, but some of the more advanced ones will meet more than once because the process can’t be finished in one day.

Where to Find my Paleo Paints?

They’re at Etsy! Whenever they’re ready to ship, I list them on Etsy. The sets available can change quickly, though, so check back often.

You can also see them (and try them out!) in person on Sundays when I’m at the Kingston Square Arts. Check my schedule to see when and where I’ll be.

I’ll also try to keep them stocked at Kingston Square Arts in Kingston, Arkansas. There’s a corner of the gallery back by the register that belongs to Wild Ozark. Lots of excellent pottery and art in there, so it’s worth a stop if you’re going through town on the way to your outings on the Buffalo!

Original Works?

Some of my originals are for sale. You can see all that I’ve finished so far at my Paleo Paints page: www.PaleoPaints.com.

If you see one you’re interested in, contact me to inquire.

Madison Woods is an author, artist, and Paleo Paint maker living
with her husband in northwest Arkansas far off the beaten path. She uses Ozark pigments to create her paintings.

Contact Info:
Email: Madison@wildozark.com
Instagram: @wildozark
Facebook: @wildozark

The Birds of Prey are generally not for sale at this time. I sold all of the kestrels before I realized I’d be working on a complete collection of them, but now I’d like to keep the entire collection intact until I’m finished with it. Eventually I’d like to have an exhibit with just the Ozark Birds of Prey… and to do that, I’ll need the paintings 🙂

Anything not a bird of prey is generally for sale. Contact me if you see something you want.

Prints, Stationery

I have a lot of derivative products like prints, stickers, note cards! Those are all at the Etsy shop, KSA gallery, and farmers market too.

E-commerce options:
Wild Ozark shop

About The Artist

I live in northwest Arkansas with my husband on 160 acres far from paved highways. This gives me a front-seat ride with nature and is a huge influence on my life and work.

When I’m not painting or writing, I’m probably smashing rocks or out soaking up some nature and gathering photographs. I use the earth around me to create the paints for my works. My focus is on the Ozark pigments, but I will on some occasions use sources purchased, donated (people send me rocks!), or collected during travels. I love to capture the essence, the very soul of a place, with its earthy colors.

In direct contrast to that, my favorite subjects are creatures of the air. Raptors fascinate me because they’re gorgeous, yet deadly. I believe I like to paint them not only because they’re challenging, but also because they’re a dynamic opposite of the earth from which my paints are made.

When I choose a subject I look for flow of movement, intended movement, or an expression in the eyes that I want to capture.

Additionally, since most of the colors I use are created from wild-crafted rocks here in the Ozarks, I look for subjects with colors I can represent with the earthy colors in my palette.

I’m self-taught and only use the paints I make for paintings. I also use Prismacolor pencils for drawings.

News Coverage/Accomplishments/Honors/Awards

010819- Interviewed by KUAF about the Ozark pigments and my art

011319- Juried into Artists of Northwest Arkansas Annual Member’s Show 2019 (Fox No. 1)

1-29-19- Works accepted to the Arkansas Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ 2019-2020 Artists Registry. They’ll be uploaded to the website (acnmwa.org) by February 4, 2019. (not sure which works yet, will update after Feb. 4.)


Here’s my Etsy link: www.etsy.com/shop/wildozark

Here’s where you can see the paintings I’ve done so far: www.paleopaints.com/paintings/

Follow me on Instagram to stay current with what I’m doing: www.instagram.com/wildozark