Looking for an interesting watercolor technique? Here's one you probably haven’t explored before. To get a nice, gritty, textured look in your watercolor painting, you can turn to your own backyard. Did you know that the colors "Burnt Sienna" and "Burnt Umber" are named for the areas in Italy whose soil provided those pigments? Here’s how you can turn your local soil into a rich, brown watercolor pigment.


- Wide-mouth glass jar
- Trowel or old serving spoon
- Water
- Tablespoon or teaspoon
- Hot pads
- Jar of Gum Arabic solution for watercolors (from most art stores)

Collect about a cup of soil in your wide-mouth glass jar, using your trowel to scoop it up. Add water to the jar so that the water covers the soil. Begin to stir the dirt, and watch the sedimentary action begin to work. The light-weight, organic matter (twigs, grass, leaves, roots) will come to the top of the solution. Remove it from the jar. The heavier pebbles will drop to the bottom. Remove them. Continue stirring and removing, until you have a homogeneous mixture. Add a little water if you need to during this process, so that the soil mixture is easy to stir and the detritus can easily separate.

Once you're satisfied with the smoothness of the soil mixture, cover the jar with a bit of paper towel and microwave it for 2 minutes on high. CAUTION: remove the jar with hot pads, as the glass will be hot. Allow the mixture to cool. The reason you microwave (or cook or bake) the mixture is because soil harbors living organisms that you won’t want in your painting.

Now that the mixture is cool, scoop a little out into a painting cup or your paint palette. Pigment won't cling to surfaces once it dries unless you add a binder. There are multiple binders for watercolor, but the one used most often and that is used in commercially prepared tubes of paint is Gum Arabic. It dries clear, binds well, and constitutes when you want to use the prepared pigment for your next painting session. Add water and Gum Arabic to your dab of dirt. Experiment with the amount of Gum Arabic used. If you don't use enough, the soil will flake off when it dries. If you use too much, the Gum Arabic will make the pigment look too shiny and may crack. Finding the right amount is not difficult, however. Just spend a little time practicing.

Now think about the wide range of browns you can create by collecting soil from different areas of the country. If you live in the US, you’ll find some wonderful reddish-browns in the southwest and southeast from all the iron in the soil and rock. If you live in the midwest, you’ll find some deep black-browns. Some soils are sandy, and this can be more of a challenge to adhere to paper, but you can also use the grittiness to your advantage, depending on your subject matter. Again, experiment and enjoy the visual richness of your paint!