Painting Without Paint

There may be times when you just have to paint and you’lve not brough your materials with you. Well, the earliest artists in their ancient caves and skin lodges didn’t have Grumbacher or Winsor & Newton or Daniel Smith, either.

Get down and dirty. Earth colors, then and now, are made from just that. Dirt. Look around, you may be able to find iron-rich reds, yellowish clays that will stand in for raw umber, deep browns and a variety of grays. Of course, you won’t have all the marvelous quinacridone or interference colors you may enjoy at home, but you can create a value study, if nothing else, with one earth color alone.

Dig through the ashes. A half-burned stick plucked from an old campfire can stand in for charcoal—that’s what it is, after all—or for a pencil, if you’ve forgotten to bring one.

Use an edible eraser. A wad of soft bread, kneaded in your hand, can act as an eraser. This is what artists used ages past—no reason it can’t be pressed into service in the 21st century as well (as long as you’re sure to toss it when you’re done).

Make your own paint. Remember when we were kids and “painted” with crushed berries, leaves and other members of the fruit and vegetable kindgoms? The backyard pigments probably won’t create works of art that will last through the ages, but they may help you get your idea down on paper, and will certainly last long enough to let you get back to your studio and translate it to a more lasting medium. (Just be careful not to pluck poison ivy, and don’t be tempted to taste a strange berry. Some are quite poisonous.)

Scott Burdick is an artist and instructor living in King, North Carolina. Find out more about his work at

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