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The Usage Of Natural Pigments In Traditional Art Forms

A Pioneer In Creating Natural Pigments And Dyes

Ancient India was very advanced when it came to the innovative use of natural substances. We were exporters of spices, medicines, and even paint! The practice of using natural pigments such as Indigo to dye cloth continued until the late colonial period. The royal blue indigo, the earthy Madder, and the bright Turmeric enjoyed immense popularity, not just as dyes but also as paint.

Every traditional art form employed the use of natural pigments, though the process of creating the paint might have been different. Plants, minerals, and animals are typically the three sources of natural pigments. All of India’s traditional art forms, such as Pichwai, Gond, Bhil art, etc. use natural pigments to create paint. 

Let Rooftop guide you through some of the positive and negative attributes of using natural pigments in traditional art. First, let us get the negatives out of the way!

Exploring The Shortcomings Of Using Natural Pigments

Natural Pigments
Palette with crushed natural pigments (image source:

1. Natural Paints Have A Short Shelf Life

Natural pigments can last in powdered form but may change colour and develop fungi if stored as mixed paint. Pigments made from fruits, vegetables, and grains may attract insects and other pests if not mixed with other substances. There are no standard recipes for creating natural pigments, as the ones used in traditional art forms used to be heavily guarded family secrets.

Natural Pigments
Some ingredients that are used to make natural pigments (image source:

If the pigments are stored in powder form, they will have to be activated by mixing them with other ingredients to create paint. For example, in Phad painting, natural pigments are mixed with water and gum. As the paint needs to be prepared before each painting, the artist may find natural paints inconvenient to work with.

2. Using Natural Pigments Is A Time-Consuming Process

Natural Pigments
Sohrai wall painting made using natural colours (image source:
Making of a traditional Madhubani painting (image source:

Let’s face it, it is easier to buy paint than it is to make our own. The process of creating natural paints from pigments can often be tedious and time-consuming. The raw materials, such as minerals, plants, and insects, need to be sourced, then washed, filtered, crushed into powder, and mixed with other organic materials to create the desired shade.

Sohrai is a form of wall painting in Jharkhand. It is mainly practiced by women in villages, who paint peacocks, elephants, and similar motifs on the walls of their homes. This art form is fading due to the process of sourcing natural colours. It is difficult for the women to spare the time to find the materials and pigments required, as they have other chores and responsibilities.

Artists that use natural paint can stay authentic to the traditional art form and experience art in the same way their ancestors did. However, it may not be possible for everyone to make natural paints for a variety of reasons, such as lack of time, limited access to the required materials, not knowing the proper methods of preparation, etc.

3. Natural Pigments May Fade

Natural Pigments
Handpainted Madhubani saree (image source:
Natural Pigments
Handpainted Kalamkari saree (image source:

Natural pigments may tend to fade over time. However, it is easier to preserve artwork that is painted on paper than on fabric. Additional measures would have to be taken in the conservation of textile art forms such as Mata Ni Pachedi and Kalamkari. Naturally painted fabric can be sensitive to light, so it is advised to store it in a dark place. Most handpainted wearable traditional art is done nowadays using synthetic paints, as clothing needs to be washed and worn frequently.

Also read: Are Artists Abandoning Traditional Painting Techniques In Favour Of Modern Technology?

4. Natural Pigments Can Be Reactive

Natural pigments are extremely sensitive to light. They fade quickly when exposed to direct sunlight or even artificial light sources. They may also react with natural substances to produce unexpected results. For example, dropping lemon juice on a naturally coloured surface may bleach it. Thus, art made using natural pigments should not be exposed to harsh lights or substances that may alter its ph value.

5. Natural Paints Can Age Poorly

When natural pigments are added to certain organic elements, they may not age well due to the composition of such substances. The binders used in most natural paints may not be as long-lasting as synthetic paints. Gum Arabic is one such substance that is frequently used as a binder for natural watercolour paints. Unfortunately, it becomes dry and brittle over time, thus causing the paint to crack or flake. It then becomes difficult for the painting to remain in good condition. Restoration of such paintings may prove to be a tedious task.

Another example is the Ajanta cave paintings, which are made in the Tempera style with mortar made with organic elements. While some of the colours of these murals are still vibrant today, the mortar has been rotting, and insect infestations are threatening to peel off the layers of paint.

Also read: Ajanta Cave Paintings: 5 Measures Taken In Their Conservation And Restoration

Now, for the best part, the positives.

What Are The Advantages Of Using Natural Pigments?

Natural Pigments
Natural pigments were sold in large quantites in Indian markets (image source:

1. Using Natural Pigments Is Eco-Friendly And Sustainable

It is recommended to carefully dispose of the water used while painting with synthetic paints. Water-based synthetic paints can restrict the breathing of fish and make the water murky, whereas solvent-based paints can contain harmful chemicals such as lead, mercury, chromium, zinc, etc. that poison any living creatures that come into contact with them. Synthetic paints harm the environment because few artists take the necessary safety precautions.

Natural pigments are good for the environment as they do not use toxic chemicals or binders. The artist knows exactly what goes into the dye, which makes natural colours safer to work with. If any waste is produced by these paints, it will not be harmful to the environment.

2. Using Natural Paints Provides Artistic Freedom and Therapeutic Benefits

Painting with store-bought paint is a different experience from painting with natural colours. Artists who make their own natural paint often do so because they enjoy the process and because it gives them complete control over their artistic decisions. Paint can be customised to be exactly the right shade and texture. The process can be therapeutic for some and lend a touch of uniqueness to an artwork.

Also read: Preserving Indian Heritage: CCRT’s Efforts in Cultural Conservation

3. Preserving Traditional Methods Of Using Natural Paints

Mata ni Pacchedi (image source:

Indian art forms such as Kalamkari, Phad, Pattachitra, and Mata Ni Pachedi are traditionally painted on textile surfaces, while Warli, Saura, and Bhil art were painted on walls. All the traditional art forms of India used natural pigments, but each style of painting required a different process to create paint due to the differences in the materials used. 

In Warli painting, white paint is created using rice paste, whereas, in Phad painting, the natural pigments are mixed with warm rice water to create a paint-like consistency. Despite the use of perishable materials, there are many examples of Indian art that have survived thousands of years with very little fading of colour. The continued use of natural pigments prevents these traditional methods from being lost to time.

Also read: Natural Colours And Their Significance In Indian Art

4. Traditional Techniques Can Increase The Lifespan Of Natural Pigments

Red pigment made using organic substances (image source:

While natural colours may be susceptible to fading on their own, traditional art forms often use techniques to increase their lifespan. The canvas is prepared before and after the painting process and treated with mixtures of natural substances that act as mordants, fixing the colour onto the surface. Different art forms use different methods that increase the longevity of the painting so that the artist’s hard work is not lost to time.

Traditional methods vs. technological advancement: which is the better option?

Natural pigments are an important part of traditional Indian art forms. Artists used natural pigments in the past because there weren’t any alternatives. Those who still work with these pigments prefer their appearance and enjoy the process of making and mixing their own paint. Nowadays, many traditional artists are choosing to work with synthetic paints due to the convenience they offer. Both natural and artificial paints have their pros and cons. Ultimately, it is up to the artist to decide what best suits their art and use materials accordingly; there’s no right or wrong technique. 

Download the Rooftop App from GooglePlay or AppStore and enrol in our maestro courses to learn more about using natural pigments in traditional art forms.

Discover us on Instagram @rooftop_app for all things on traditional Indian art.

By Melissa D’Mello

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