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How to Use Primitive Pigments for Paints & Antiquing

While Native Americans’ primary focus was utility, they did not tend to scrimp on colors in their work. Whether this sense of color and flair was for “medicine”, aesthetics, or both, the finest of modern reproductions will seek to echo these traits. In addition, antiquing pieces with pigments will benefit the look of nearly all traditional-style collectibles. Considering the choice of raw materials available to the ancients as well as the subtle color effects of natural pigments on finished goods, the use of acrylics or modern colors is not recommended. Native Way's glue, pigments & hafting materials are a must for the replicator who wants to produce fine prehistoric, historic or primitive-style tools, weapons, and art


 To mix pigments for use as paints you will need the following items:

  • Brushes appropriate to the job
  • Small, shallow, plastic, ceramic, or metal plates
  • A small, metal cup or jar lid that is heatable
  • A small, flat-surfaced mixing stone
  • Heat source and water

Natural oxides and pigments may simply be rubbed onto art objects to achieve a color effect, but the piece will tend to smear pigment onto everything it touches. Paints combine pigments with a stabilizing medium that keeps the pigment where it is applied. The simplest way to stabilize pigments in primitive paints is to mix the pigments with a dilute solution of natural glue. Granular animal hide glue is perfect for this task.

Animal hide glue is a water soluble, heat-sensitive material available either premixed or in the form of granules. It will dissolve slowly in cool water and much more rapidly in hot water. Solutions that are thick enough to gel when cooled are generally too thick to use for paints.

 A very dilute glue solution works best for a binder base for powdered pigments. The solution must be strong enough to bind the pigment particles when dry but not so strong as to gel when it cools before drying.

Place about two tablespoons of water in a metal cup that can take some heat--even a large spoon will do. Heat the vessel until the water is too hot to touch. Put a small amount of hide glue into the hot water and continue to heat to almost boiling. The solution will appear to get cloudy as the hide glue dissolves. When it is cloudy enough to become non-transparent, the solution is about right. The undissolved glue will be in the bottom of the cup. A very slight stir or two will help to ensure the mix is even.

Place the desired color of pigment on a plastic, ceramic, or metal mixing plate in a small pile. Use a different mixing plate and brush for each color. Pour the dilute hide glue onto the pile of pigment. It takes less liquid than you might think to get a good mix. Leave any partially dissolved glue in the heatable container as you want only pure liquid glue solution on your mixing plate.

Take the mixing stone and grind the pigments into the wet glue until a consistent color and texture is obtained. If your paint tends to gel immediately upon cooling to room temperature, add a very small amount of clean warm water to the pile and remix. Prepare paint thick enough to create desired color coverage, but not too thick. Use your brush to mix the paint before every stroke.

If you smear all your paint onto the bottom of the plate during mixing, don’t worry. After you complete the immediate project, you can let your mixing plate dry and store away to use again. The next time you use it, you need only spit into the plate or add a little water to re-liquefy the paint. The hide glue is still there.

Hide glue stabilized paints are colorfast but not at all waterproof. Protect your finished painting project with paste wax as outlined below.


After your project is artfully pigmented, you may wish to avoid the just-made look that most modern pieces have by finishing with paste wax and the same powdered pigments.

Paste wax such as Johnson’s brand is a good medium to use for antiquing and stabilizing the surface. Mixing pigments with the wax will tend to blend and unify the colors to give an old look. Polishing with a buff or a soft cloth after the wax dries gives a hand-rubbed look that improves almost any piece.

Be sure your piece is thoroughly dried, especially the hide glue and bindings. Application of wax will stop the drying process and should only be done with perfectly dry projects.

Heat your wax until it is almost liquefied. This is best done in the sun, as combining open flame with wax vapors is dangerous. Mix the appropriate amount of ochre pigments in the softened wax. Generally, a couple of tablespoons of pigment in a half-cup of wax is plenty, but you may need to experiment to get the best mix.

Dull yellow ochre and black pigment are the most useful colors. If you are low on black powdered pigment, a black wax shoe polish can be substituted. The wet wax should be a greenish-brown to greenish-black color for antiquing.

Apply pigmented wax liberally to the piece. Be sure to get wax into all the recesses. Wipe away excess and dust the piece with fine, powdery dirt, working the dirt into crevices. Allow piece to dry thoroughly. Buff with a rotary buff or soft cloth to bring a polish to the high points. You will be amazed how these final steps add to the finished look of your project.