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Making Paints from Minerals

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This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This activity runs over two classroom sessions with a take-home assignment in between. During the initial classroom meeting students investigate the properties of minerals that would be make them suitable for use as a pigment in a water-based paint (streak, hardness, solubility). Students then work with natural materials, including powdered minerals, to make a palette of gouache paints (opaque watercolors) which students can keep.

Over the next week, students conduct online research to find a culture (past or present) that incorporates the class's limited color palette into their painted artifacts, and emulates their art form to create an art object using their paint. Students conduct research on the region and culture through a geological lens: where are they located? What is the climate? What is the general physiography (mountainous, volcanic, plains, etc)? Where do they get their pigments? Do the colors/paints have symbolic/spiritual meaning? What use/meaning would your homemade artifact have in this culture? This information is compiled into an abstract-like form, to be written up as a curatorial display tag in a museum gallery. In addition they must mark the location in which their culture exists on a blank world map.

In week two, students display their works around the classroom, and post their "curatorial tag" and map beside their display. Students are asked to organize themselves (and their displays) by geographic region, in order to initiate student conversation and to place the exercise in a geographic context. In a gallery walk fashion, students examine each other's work, and document similarities and differences between the environments and styles, and the consistency of the limited palette of black-white-red/brown-yellow-(green). The class ends with an instructor-led discussion of the ubiquity of these colors due to the ubiquity of certain minerals in the sedimentary environment (white clay, hematite, limonite, along with charcoal), and leads into a discussion of mineral formation by weathering.

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