Sustainable Art: Making Watercolor Paint from Incense Ash

Sustainable Art: Making Watercolor Paint from Incense Ash

Adventures in natural paint-making ◯ 

If we've talked in the past few years, or if you've been following along on my Substack, you know I've been making my own paint out of various forms of natural pigment. I've been using plant dyes, minerals, and household / waste materials to make paint and my paintings with. 

Making my own paint is a meditation on relationship, a coming together of earth and water elements, and a way for me to connect deeper with not only my materials but the worlds around and within me. Plus, it is an exciting and interesting way of weaving sustainability into making art. This practice is always illuminating new meanings in my process, and I love sharing about it.

There is something about the experience of finding, mixing, grinding and mulling the natural color into a means for artistic expression that feels like coming home, in a deep felt senseSpeaking of home - did you know you can forage for pigments without even going outside? If you are someone who enjoys burning natural incense in your home, a very lovely pigment material may be sitting in a little mound right on your shelf.

Ash is in the category of pigments that are repurposed from the waste stream. This includes things like leftovers from burning such as ash and charcoal, kitchen waste such as onion skins, avocado pits, and egg shells, and other rogue items left behind like bricks and broken clay pots. You can read some deeper thoughts about this on my post on Substack, the space where I share deeply about my process, in a post called the poetry of what remains.


Here is how I made watercolor paint from incense ash and how you can too:

First, I burned some incense. I used natural incense without any artificial fragrances. It took quite a lot of incense to create the amount of ash to make paint with - I had a couple of tablespoons of incense ash saved! This is a practice of embracing a slow process. I combined the ashes from multiple kinds of incense.

I put the ashes into a small mortar and pestle and made sure to break up any clumps that formed. Sometimes incense will leave behind hard burnt bits that aren't ash. I removed those with a sifter first, before putting the ash into my mortar and pestle. Safety note: I always wear a fine particle mask such as an N95 when working with any powders.
 incense ash paint materials

The above image is showing my incense ash in the mortar and pestle along with my home made watercolor medium (using gum arabic, vegetable glycerine and clove essential oil), a dropper of water, a pallet knife and some tools for mixing and scraping, a glass plate and a glass muller. A muller is a glass tool with a totally flat bottom. It is used for spreading paint out over a large surface to make sure every pigment particle is surrounded with paint medium. 

Here are the steps I did for making this paint. 

1. I poured the pile of ash pigment onto the glass plate.

2. I created a well in the pile, and filled it with my watercolor medium. 

3. I incorporated the medium and ash. I kept adding more medium as I went. You can see in my photo below that not enough medium has been added yet. If you try this, you will know when it is evenly incorporated, and it will turn into a paint texture. You want it not too sticky but not too runny. Each pigment behaves differently when medium is added, so there is not an exact recipe. I love that this becomes more of an intuitive process at this point.

4. With the muller, I spread the pigment in a large circle. Once it spreads a lot, I scrape it back to the center and repeat until it's creamy and even.

Making watercolor paint from natural pigmentsNow you may be asking, does the paint smell like incense? Yes! When it is wet, at least. 

After I mulled the paint, I scraped off as much as I could into a little silver container and let it dry. It will firm up and dry, behaving just like a watercolor pan. I can simply re-wet it with a paint brush and voila: paint!

It's nearly impossible to get every last bit off of the last plate, so what I like to do is paint something immediately by wetting the brush and using the leftover on the glass. No paint left behind! You can see a fun experiment below I made by painting on a piece of canvas that I dyed with goldenrod:

incense paint

A few days later, I created a small series of eight 5x7 paintings on paper with the incense ash paint. I truly feel that the material guided these compositions, it felt like I merged with its intention and observed the process. The incense paintings are available here to purchase, if you'd like one to add some healing vibes to your space!

View and purchase an incense painting here.

I really enjoy the way this paint came out - the color is such a soft and cozy brown, and the it felt so nice and friendly to work with. What do you think?

Did you enjoy this? Do you want to try to make paint yourself? Do you have any questions? 

I'd love to hear from you! You can contact me here, and don't forget to subscribe to my super fun newsletter to know when I make another post like this. I really enjoyed creating all of this, and I hope this inspires you to make something!