Making Paints from Minerals

Wayne Powell
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

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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.


Students prepare simple gouache paints using common minerals that are typically of sedimentary origin (e.g., hematite, limonite, kaolinite, glauconite), and use these paints to produce artifacts that are consistent with cultures that are of interest to each student.

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This activity is appropriate for introductory general education courses in a liberal arts context. It is also appropriate for teacher preparation courses. It provides an opportunity for students to investigate a global culture or region that is to which they have a natural curiosity (e.g., region from which their family emigrated), and so is well-suited to a class with significant ethnic/cultural diversity.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have been introduced to mineral properties and mineral identification, and have had an introduction to weathering processes.

How the activity is situated in the course

Minerals and their properties are part of most introductory courses, but commonly the subject matter lacks connection with the lives and experiences of freshmen. At the heart of the design of this exercise is the desire to have students engage with minerals in a personally meaningful, and culturally meaningful way so that they will be more receptive to more in-depth content in their introductory geology class. This activity places mineral properties (color, streak, hardness) in context of the visual arts and global cultures. The art project nature of the exercise makes it suited for an offering early in the term to help set a welcoming tone for non-science majors.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to describe the difference between color and streak.
  • Students will be able to describe an example of a connection between geology and a culture that is of interest to themselves.
  • Students will be able to explain why certain minerals are particularly common in the sedimentary environment based on composition of the crust and chemical weathering processes.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to be able to deduce some minerals available to a given culture based on its primitive painted artifacts.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to use the internet to find appropriate articles for research.
  • Students will be able to write an abstract.

Description of the activity/assignment

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.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Evaluation is based on the two products that are produced by students: artwork and write-up. The artwork will be graded based upon its accuracy. The write-up will be graded based upon the accuracy and completeness of the data. A gallery walk will be used for self-teaching, informal discussion, and broadening of knowledge across additional cultures, rather than for evaluation.

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Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Edwards, L., and Lawless, J., 2003, The Natural Paint Book. Rodale Books, 192p.

Finlay, V., 2003, Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Random House, 464p.

Pigments Through the Ages

How to Paint a Mammoth