Our October Lunch and Learn session was presented by accomplished artist and SPRAC member Sylvia Obert-Turner. Sylvia works and has won awards in many media, but today she chose to talk about one of her more unusual art forms.
Sylvia calls these works her “dirt paintings,” but this is not your ordinary backyard dirt. Sylvia’s earth pigment paintings are comprised completely of natural materials she has collected and ground herself from rocks and minerals picked up in her travels throughout the country as well as here in the SW.
Earth pigments are one of the oldest known painting mediums. Think of the early cave paintings as an example of earth pigments. Simply stated, these earth pigments are those which have been ground into a fine powder to be mixed with water as a medium. Rocks and minerals are the primary source for these pigments. Because all the materials are natural earth specimens, the palette and range of values are somewhat limited. However, Sylvia has collected a surprising array of colors ranging from blues, greens, and even purple to yellows, red-browns, deep browns and almost black.
Her sample book of colors documents not only the color of each specimen, but the location where it was found. Sylvia stated that southeastern Arizona is an area particularly rich in source materials because of all the mining which has taken place here. She scours mine tailings, road sides, mountains, and streambeds looking for just the right rock or mineral sample to add to her collection of pigments.
The first step after actually collecting the material is to reduce these rocks and minerals into small segments using a heavy iron mortar and pestle. Once the pieces have been somewhat reduced, she is then able to use a marble mortar and pestle to grind and sift the segments into a powder. This process may be repeated many times in order to reach the necessary degree of fineness. Sylvia stores her finished pigments in powder form until she is ready to use them for a painting.
This is definitely not an easy or fast process, but Sylvia has a lot of patience! She has mastered the art of making her own pigments and uses them to produce some amazing and beautiful paintings.