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How Do You Make Paint?

In this episode of But Why we're learning how to make paint from an artist who wild-crafts his own pigments, and we're visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to learn about the value of art.

There are a lot of different ways that paint is made. If you're painting your house you're probably using industrial paint that was made in a very big factory. There are lots of chemicals involved in making the paints we typically use for things like houses or cars or other things that need to be resistant to rain and dirt and kids drawing on the walls!

There are also paints used in art projects. Some of these are also made in big factories. But you can make your own paint with just a few household items. A lot of the recipes include food coloring as one of the ingredients you need. Well, that's kind of cheating if you really want to make your own paint, because food coloring is already a blended up pigment, the thing that makes paint whatever color it is.

So we thought we'd ask a guy who makes his art materials from scratch for a lesson in how you can make your own paint from start to finish!

"How do you make paint?" - Addison, 5, Edmonds, WA

Credit Photo Courtesy Addison's Mom.
Five-year-old Addison lives in Edmonds, WA. She loves to be outside, hiking, riding her bike, and doing CrossFit Kiddos with her friends. She plays Minecraft and watches YouTube videos on her tablet. And even though she is a picky eater, she loves to cook.

Nick Neddo is an artist in Vermont. At his home studio he has all kinds of supplies for making art, and he makes most of them himself. So his paintbrushes might be wood from a local tree for the handle and the hair of a deer for the brush! His process for making paint is pretty cool.

Click through the slide show above to see how Neddo makes paint!

"People have been making paint for thousands of years from various sources of pigment. Pigment is what makes the paint colorful. It's the little particulate that gives the paint its color. Basically you can break it down to getting pigment from rocks or from plants, fungi even. I'm really interested in using rocks to make paint," Neddo said.

He gathers them up and puts them into his granite mortar and pestle: that's a stone bowl with another stone that you use like a hammer. He smashes the rocks into pieces, then grinds them into powder.

Then he carefully pours the powder — the pigment — into a jar with a lid.

"The next step is to add a little bit of water to it. I want to use just enough to cover the pigment. The next step is to put the lid on and shake it vigorously. The larger of those pigment particles, the heavier ones, those are settling down to the bottom of the jar first. All of the fluid that's floating around in the top of the jar, I'm going to pour that into another jar and save it.

"From there you have a nice pigment, and you can add another ingredient which is your binder. The job of the binder is to keep the pigments suspended in the solution as you're mixing it with water. You need a binder to keep those little particles floating in there rather than just having them settle to the bottom. The binders can be egg, they can be glue, they can be honey, a wide variety of things. If you want to make oil paint, your binder would be some kind of oil. It can be as simple as spitting in it."

— Artist Nick Neddo

Nick Neddo makes a lot of other art materials too, not just paint. While we were in his studio he showed us a few other things he has made over the years, like pens and paint brushes.

Listen to the full episodeto hear about that.

Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
A photograph of the Hercules fresco in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

We also pay a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to talk about the value of art. What makes art priceless to one person and worthless to another?

Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
The Tragedy of Lucretia by Botticelli hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Read the full transcript


Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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