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Make Your Own:

Watercolor Paints

with Plants

Foraging with:

Laura Tucker and Natalie Plumb

Beachcombing Enthusiasts

Living on the Santa Barbara coast, we are surrounded by an expansive variety of plant and animal species.  In just the time it takes you to ride your bike from Coal Oil Point to Davidson Library, you can see hundreds of species of flowers, fruits, and other vegetation, many of which can be turned into natural paint.  Whether you are an experienced artist or have never picked up a paint brush in your life, making your own paints from the plants in our local environment is a perfect way to spend the day.  For this project, I teamed up with local beachcombing enthusiast and UCSB student, Laura Tucker.  While Laura has taken several environmental and ethnobotany courses and is somewhat familiar with identifying plant species, she has little artistic experience.  On the other hand, I have been painting practically my entire life, but I have no foraging experience or skills in identifying particular plant species.  We made the perfect team!  Inspired by local Chumash paint making traditions, we began our own paint making journey beachcombing the bluffs above Devereux beach.

Early Paint Making:

Though we often think of early native groups as ‘one with nature’, not changing or impacting but simply living off the land, in reality, the Chumash actively engaged with and altered their environment, creating a living artifact which continues to be shaped today” (IV Ethnobotany).

Making paint from natural materials is not a new phenomenon.  Archaeologists have dated the earliest cave paintings to the Paleolithic age, stretching back as early as 23,000 BCE, with the creation of Pech-Merle and Lascaux, two of the most famous Paleolithic cave painting sites in France.  These early painters ground up red and yellow clay, often referred to as ocher, into powder that was mixed with water.  They made their paint brushes from reeds and twigs taken from their environment (Kleiner p. 17). 

While the Chumash were certainly not the first people to make paints from natural materials, oral traditions and archaeological studies provide insight into the paint making techniques of the communities that initially inhabited the land that is now Isla Vista and the UCSB campus.  The Chumash made black paint from grounding up charcoal and used iron oxide to make red, purple, yellow, and orange.  They mixed these paint powders in stone cups with water, milkweed, cucumber seeds, animal oil, or the whites of birds’ eggs to create different consistencies.  They made their paint brushes from yucca and animal tails (The Chumash People p. 69).  The tradition of Chumash rock painting has been preserved in caves throughout the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez areas.  You can view one such cave and appreciate the beauty of early Chumash paint making for yourself by visiting the “Chumash Painted Cave” in the Santa Barbara mountains, or by taking a virtual tour on the CYARK website. 

Image of Chumash Painted Cave, Santa Barbara

Photograph by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

  • Flickr

Our Isla Vista Paint Making Journey:

For our own paint making project, we decided to take inspiration from Chumash foraging and beachcombing practices, combining them with recipes from my favorite arts and crafts online blogs.  In the true beachcombing spirit, we began our paint making journey on the bluffs overlooking Devereux beach, then continued on bike around the slough and North Campus Open Space, across campus, and concluded at Campus Point.  Since we had never made paints before, our foraging experience was an exciting experiment.  We had no idea what to expect, which plants would make the best paints, or even if the flowers we found would produce usable pigment.  With only a basket to hold the products of our foraging strapped to Laura's bike, we set out in search of vibrant flowers and juicy fruits that we could use to make water color paints.  As we stopped to collect flowers, we took photos of each plant so that we could identify them later using the IV Ethnobotany website and the PlantNet mobile app.  Along the way, we discovered parts of Isla Vista and campus we had never seen and encountered a wide range of wildlife, including a Great Egret.  We returned home not only with a basket full of brilliantly colored flowers and fruits, but also knowledge of brand new places we could enjoy in our very own backyard, namely the slough and North Campus Open Space. Whether you are an avid runner, bird watcher, or in search of a gorgeous nature walk, the North Campus Open Space offers something for you.

Laura Tucker biking/foraging along Devereux bluffs

Video by Natalie Plumb

The Fruits of Our Foraging:

Despite being the end of February, Laura and I found ourselves enjoying a warm and sunny day while foraging.  Hopping off her bike to gather lavender, Laura, overlooking the breathtaking Goleta slough, perfectly summed up our foraging adventure: "I can not imagine a better way to spend today."  To the right, you can view images taken of the various flowers and fruits we collected.  While Laura was able to identify some species on the spot, we had to rely on the IV Ethnobotany website and PlantNet to identify the majority of the species.  To find out where you can locate for yourself some of the plants featured in our project, visit the IV Ethnobotany website.

Here are a few of the plants we were able to identify and where we found them:

  • Devereux bluffs: California bush sunflower, sage, ice plant, mustard

  • Goleta slough: lavender, Indian cres

  • North Campus Open Space: firethorn

  • Sueno Park/Orchard: strawberry guava

  • UCSB campus: natal plum

Before foraging on your own, make sure to consult the IV Ethnobotany "Foraging Guidelines" to ensure that you are staying safe, following the law, and being mindful of the ethical implications of foraging.

Slideshow of the plants we collected while foraging

All images by Natalie Plumb

Beachcombing the Devereux bluffs

Video by Natalie Plumb

How to Turn Plants into Paints:

Following the Chumash tradition of grounding up plant matter, then mixing it with water, we began experimenting with the different plants we foraged.  The foraging part is without a doubt the most time consuming and difficult part of the paint making process, but it is also the most fun and rewarding.  After you have gathered the plants you want to make into paint, the process is straightforward and requires very few materials. 


All you need is:

  • containers (to sort the flowers by species or color)

  • blender (for grinding up petals and berries)

  • strainer (use for berries and fruits)

  • hot water (for mixing and drawing out the dye)

  • glass containers/jars (to pour the paint into)

  • paint brush

  • paper

Each plant presented its own challenges when it came to blending.  For the fruits and berries, we found that we had to run the initial water-berry blend through a strainer in order to get a less grainy consistency.  Overall, our favorite paints came from the California bush sunflower (yellow), an unidentified blue flower (blue), and the natal plum (deep pink/red).  

Plants sorted into containers by color and species

Image by Natalie Plumb

Step by Step:

  1. Gather all desired plants and fruits from your local environment.  (See guidelines above).

  2. Sort plants into containers by color or species.  For this step, we combined the California bush sunflowers with mustard flowers to make the yellow paint.  However, we kept all berries and fruit separate because we were not sure what color pigment each berry would produce.

  3. Remove all petals from each flower and stems and leaves from fruits. Place the stem and leaf material in a pile to be used for compost later.

For each container/plant:

  1. Heat 1/2 cup of water in the microwave for 45 seconds (nearly, but not boiling).  Then pour hot water into the blender.

  2. Add the flower petals or berries to the blender.  Blend until smooth.  For berries/fruits, pour the blended mixture through a strainer into a small bowl to remove all extra grainy material.

  3. Pour blended mixture into glass container.  Let sit for a few minutes, then you are ready to paint!

Store leftover paint in covered containers in the fridge.

Tutorial by Natalie Plumb

A Message from Laura:

"Just do it!  You have no idea what it's going to turn out to be, but even if you're not an artist, like me, it's going to be worth your time just to have the experience of doing it and being able to connect with nature on a little bit of a deeper level."

Interview with Laura Tucker about her paint making experience

Video and interview by Natalie Plumb


  • Kleiner, S. Fred.  "Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Concise Western History."  Cengage Learning, 2015.  Print.

  • "The Chumash People: Materials for Teachers and Students."  A Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Docent Project, 1991.  Print.

  • "Chumash Ethnobotany: The Chumash, Isla Vista's First Foragers" (IV Ethnobotany Project).


  • Image of "Chumash Painted Cave" by Kristina D.C.  Hoeppner, 2011.

  • All other images and video by Natalie Plumb, 2020.

  • Tutorial music: "Upbeat Party" by Scott Holmes.  Inspiring & Upbeat Music .  Free Music Archive.

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