Traditional Simple Methods for extending artists' colors

After years of stable prices, costs of art materials are rising just as fast as food prices. Art materials companies are reacting by introducing new lines of lower priced paints.  Regardless of the advertising, nobody should expect better or truer colors for less. 

Rather than buy a lesser grade of artists’ colors consider how you can save money by extending artists’ paints with pigments like calcium carbonate among the oldest, most stable pigments in history.  

calcium carbonate crystal

calcium carbonate crystal

The goal is to increase the quantity of artists’ oil paint with minimum decrease in quality.  As a manufacturer of oil colors I know artists’ paints contain more than enough colored pigments to extend. That means you can easily add dry pigments + oil and increase the volume of paint.  How much?  You will know.  

Perhaps you will feel a difference in texture, which you can adjust by adding more pigment or oil.  You will definitely see it immediately if you ruin color quality.  Make notes about how much extender is too much.  

  • Avoid making chunky paints because these usually do not contain enough binder.  Expect they will dry down dull and potentially crack. If you like the look consider adding cold wax medium to your mixture to keep the matte look but increase stability.
  • Overuse of extender pigments cloud transparent colors and make opaque colors more translucent.   

In general, adding extenders reduces chroma (intensity).  Like painters of the past, I recognize sometimes really intense colors are not required, especially if the painting technique includes layering and glazing.  

Muller and "figure 8"

Muller and "figure 8"

To experiment, buy a 4 fl oz jar of Whiting (calcium carbonate) and an 8 fl oz jar of refined linseed oil or refined walnut oil which are drying oils.  

The more patience you can muster for the process, the better the result.  Both pigment and oil have to be added to extend artists’ colors and linseed oil binder takes its own sweet time coating particles of pigment.  Makers of oil paints also use time, heat and pressure to accelerate the paint making process but most painters really have only time to use.  Think of this as a more meditative activity.

Start by extending artists’ grade Titanium White, which is, in my opinion, too strong for 80% of painting techniques anyway.  Extending Titanium white is a money saver and rarely a failure.  

  • Make a tint mixing artists’ grade Titanium White and your favorite color for reference.Remember while you are INCREASING the volume of your paint, you are making a mixture. Try not to make more paint than you want to use during the painting session.  
  • Place a blob of Titanium white on a glass palette and surround with a generous amount of oil.  Blend together slowly with a broad knife into a soupy mixture. 
  • Add Whiting calcium carbonate pigment slowly and keep mixing.  Mix thoroughly until you’ve increased the volume of your mixture by approx. 20%.  
  • Stop. Test the color for texture and intensity.  Match the tint to your reference.  Does your mixed white + favorite color make comparable tint?  
  • The maximum you can extend artists’ grade Titanium white paint is 50/50.  


extender paint compared to titanium white.  The mixture on next picture is 50/50

extender paint compared to titanium white.  The mixture on next picture is 50/50

Also consider making a small batch of extender paint. 

  • Instead of beginning with artists’ color paint, begin with a small pool of oil on a glass palette.  
  • Slowly add calcium carbonate pigment and blend with a MULLER using a “figure 8” pattern until you make a smooth paste to your preferred viscosity.  
  • Using the same slow patient mixing technique, you can make enough for a single studio session or store in a glass jar.  
  • Blot off any excess oil on top of the extender paint before using again.  For better storage, experiment with adding a bit of cold wax medium while mixing.
  • When painting with your extender paint and artists’ grade Titanium white, you can mix up to   50/50.  Use less when extending mixed whites and lead white.  


The modern organic colors (Phthalos, Quinacridones, Perylene, Indian Yellow) cloud more easily than the more opaque mixed metal oxides like Cadmiums.  

Consider not extending the oil colors you use for glazing.

Raphael and Lemnine Clay

A couple of years ago an artist asked me if I had noticed unusually bright red chalk drawings by Raphael in the Vatican Museum.  Immediately I knew the ones she meant. I did notice the drawing media seemed more cherry than mahogany red with a slightly greasy look.  

Seeing a bright red on an old drawing means the drawing media had been boosted the with organic dyes (madder root for example) to make the pigments look brighter.  If that were true, the Raphael drawings I saw had to have been kept in a drawer so no light ever fell on them. Color made from dyes fade. More likely Raphael found some unusual rare pigment in its natural state. Where did Raphael get the bright red earth pigment from?

The island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea seems to be the place.

Lemnos was sacred to the Greek god of metallurgy, Hephaestus, who landed there after Zeus threw him out.  According to archeologists, Lemnos has been inhabited since the 12th century BCE.  Iron cooking pots and weapons have been dated to the 9th BCE.  Since the time of the Greeks, at least, Lemnos has been renowned for its red clay considered most famous for its healing properties.  Pliny defined the earth as “rubrica Lemnia”

While there were mystic stories of miners mixing goat blood into the clay, the unique color was actually the result of hematite in its chemical composition (approx. 5%).

The 2nd century Greek physician, Galen, wrote about traveling to Lemnos to witness the preparation of Lemnine clay.  Under the auspices of the priestess of Artemis in early August, the red clay was prepared into cakes , dried and sealed with the sign of Pan (the goat) in an ancient process which continued throughout the Dark Ages.

The seal must have been very distinctive if its purpose were to authenticated the package.  Usually called “Sphragis” or sealed clay, Lemnine earth was sold as a medicine until the 19th century.  Raphael as resident painting master of the Vatican had access to any pigment available in the world.  Whether or not the pigments were intended for art making (fresco and painting), they could be had for a price.  Obviously very few artists would buy expensive medicines to make drawings unless the color was irresistible even iridescent, bright.  

I liked the color. After enjoying the research into ancient medicines, I realized I didn’t care. I care about the working properties. I called Diane Townsend, master pastel maker for Diane Townsend Pastels, and a world class expert on pigments and their history for a consultation.  She was curious too.  She started to make prototypes of “figment sticks.”  The name evolved because during the early formulation process a quote from Andy Warhol oddly re-occurred.  He said he’d like to have only the word “figment” on his tombstone.  Plus Figment Sticks are truly figments of our imaginations. More info on our formulation process and evolution from Raphael to Figment Modern Pastel next.  

If you want to try some: and contact Diane Townsend here:




Traditional Egg Tempera

Apelles of Cos "Venus" Fresco Pompeii   

Apelles of Cos "Venus" Fresco Pompeii


Egg tempera painting was the primary panel painting medium for nearly every painter in the European Medieval and Early renaissance period up to 1500. For example, every surviving panel painting by Michelangelo is made with egg tempera.

One of the oldest permanent painting media, artists have used egg tempera to create delicate, detailed works of art since antiquity.  The technique evolved from “secco fresco” which is the application of pigment on to dry plaster using egg as a binder. The fact that egg tempera paint has a short shelf life would not have been a concern to mural painters because they were accustom to using up their materials within a work day.

However many artists today are accustom to storing art materials for a long time.  Unlike artists' oil paints and many brands of acrylics, manufactured brands of egg tempera have to be laced with strong chemicals and preservatives to keep the paints stable.  Think of egg tempera like organic food which also cannot be stored for more than a few days. Painters who enjoy working in this luminous media should continue the tradition and make their own paints.

Here is a reliable recipe:

1.  Add enough water to wet pigment, grind together.  Continue adding water and grinding pigments until you make a paste.  This is difficult and takes time!  Place paste in covered jar.

2.  Separate egg yolk from egg white.  Discard egg white. Gently roll yolk back and forth from palm to palm until yolk feels dry.  While holding egg yolk between index finger and thumb, pierce the egg yolk sack so that yolk drains into a cup.  Add an equal part of water (doubling the volume) and shake until a pale emulsion is formed.

3.  As you paint, add equal amounts of pigment paste to egg/water emulsion.

You can grind pigments directly into egg/water emulsion if you plan to use all the paint you make in one painting session. While it may be easier to grind pigment into egg/water emulsion, again the mixture does not store well. 

100,000 years of Paint Making

100,000 years ago paint makers were mining soil for veins of ochre and iron oxides – yellow, orange and red pigments, mixing them with calcium carbonate white and bone black to make two types of paint according to archeological research.

Why did humans start making paint?

Ancient paint makers, it seems, mixed two kinds of paint:  one for application to skin and one for wood and stone. Making paint like henna for skin is simple.  Nut oil and/or oil from fish eggs would make good binders.  Earth pigments and most plant dyes are non toxic.

Ancient paint makers had to create more complex mixtures to make binders strong enough to adhere pigment to stone. Relying on the sciences of experience and intuition, I proposed the radical technology was the invention of oil varnishes.  An oil varnish is made by slowly boiling commonly found resins such as mastic in vegetable oil.  This work was very dangerous.  Most vegetable oils explode at temperatures below 500 degrees F.  I know personally, how hard it is to control the heat long enough to dissolve natural resins in hot oil without boiling over.  Kaboom.

Well made oil varnish is magical.  When extended with the correct measure of solvent, the varnish sinks into a substrate then hardens.  After a few applications, wood is sealed against water, buoyant.  Every boat building culture had to invent ways to make boats float.  For most the risk of exploding resins/oil was not as significant as not fishing. When and who added colored pigments to the oil varnish?  Fisherman perhaps marked their boats to tell them apart for ownership and competition.

Perhaps they hired a shaman to apply a design to the boat to protect against storms or vandals.  Perhaps their homes were painted and their clothes were dyed colors that are now extinct and I cannot even imagine.  Perhaps only specialists like physicians and magicians handled colors, binders and solvents because they were the ones with visions?

I think “visionary” especially since seeing “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” a film by Werner Herzog.

“Taking Color Off the Wheel” is a blog about ideas and images generated at the intersection of artists’ minds and art materials throughout history.

These first few posting will be about ancient paint making and early artists’ tools.  Some information comes from spectacular finds like the one linked above.  Some insights come from making Gamblin Artists Colors for almost 20 years.  Some come from helping contemporary painters figure out the right combination of art materials to best materialize their visions.