Painting with raw pigments

Orchard and Crows

Orchard    40 x 50 cm

iron oxides, lamp black and cobalt blue on paper

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Many of my paintings have a textured surface. The numerous layers of transparent and sometimes opaque paint create blocks of colour in which small lumps of pigment can be identifiable. Some people are surprised by the description of my work as watercolour. There has been a heated debate around the question ‘ what is watercolour?’ and after much discussion, the Royal Watercolour Society settled on: ‘A water-based medium on a paper based support.’ Richard Sorrell, a past president of the RWS, said ” The virtue of this definition is that it is inclusive of traditional ‘pure watercolour’ and of the many and growing combinations of this and other media.”



I have rarely ventured underground, so when invited to explore a disused ochre mine by friends who spend their spare time caving in the Mendips I had mixed feelings.


compton martin ochre mine


Red Ochre is a familiar substance in my studio, where I have a large collection of jam jars filled with pigments of many hues. I have used them for a number of years alongside tubes of watercolour.

ochre mine

I mix the pigments with a binder, usually an acrylic medium or gum arabic (the traditional binder in watercolour), to make the paint I need, and find that it’s a direct and uncomplicated process.

Each pigment has its own characteristics and it takes a little practice to get to know them and to find the best way to prepare or apply each one. I particularly like using transparent iron oxides. They appear quite dull in their dry state, but once worked into a medium become clear, bright, intense and transparent earth colours. The iron oxides help me to create oranges, yellows and reds, so the opportunity to visit an ochre (red iron oxide) mine, no more than eight miles from home, was one I could hardly turn down.


pastel made with ground ochre from the mine

The mine is located in a wood on the edge of Compton Martin, a small village on the north side of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. A network of underground tunnels which were probably worked for some considerable time, it fell into disuse just after the Second World War. Knowledge of its existence faded from local memory and the villagers were surprised when cavers rediscovered it about 15 years ago.

Late one November evening, my wife Jane and I met our three guides in a dark lane high on the Mendips and were kitted out with helmets, lamps and boiler suits. The only entrance was on a steep hill side and the approach was physically the most difficult part of the trip – we needed ropes to negotiate the slippery climb.The colour was vivid in the light of our lamps and consistent throughout, whether as muddy clay at our feet or solid rock.  It’s similar to an English red with a slight blue tinge. Not quite like any pigment I have in the studio; I was delighted to collect a small bag full.


Gold Fish  15 x 24 cm

pigment, goldleaf and ink on paper



Drawing using pencils and a pastel made from Compton Martin pigment



White Net    42 x 38  cm      SOLD

pigments including crushed oyster shells and acrylic on paper