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Most pigment people are hands-on, down-in-the-dirt, hard-core diy'ers, sowe're adding this new section with recipes, processes, or other bits of

pigment diy, lore and fun stuff, so check back each month!

Traditional style NW Coast painted drum with red ochre, black iron oxide and Vivianite

Fig 1: 'xoots, 22in drum painted with black iron oxide, red iron oxide, vivianite, hide glue. Original artwork: MA

Over the years I’ve done a lot of painting on wood and leather and experimented with all sorts of recipes, but the one I like best is distemper paint. Made simply from hide glue and pigment, it’s an easy paint to make and produces a beautifully silky paint that is lovely to work with. And as you can see in the image, it plays very nicely with natural pigments. It doesn’t alter the color of even the most finicky of pigments (I’m talking about you, Vivianite!), produces a lush, velvety matte finish and, unless you get it wet, will last centuries. Except when I’m deliberately working in watercolor, this is the kind of paint I always use now.


Distemper has been used for thousands of years around the world. It is the traditional binder used in Nihonga and other Asian painting, as well as having been used by the ancient Egyptians, Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. The binder-of-choice for Tibetan thangka paintings, unless damaged by water, these paintings done on cotton or silk remain vibrant and intact. 


The binder for distemper paint is made from collagen that is extracted by soaking and boiling animal hides. This binder has been used for millennia by artists and woodworkers (it’s the favored glue for making wood musical instruments). It’s an easy binder to work with and makes a durable but not waterproof paint.

Hide glue needs to be kept warm to keep it open for working; as it cools it gels up (exactly like Jello!) and must be warmed again. Never heat collagen glue over 140F/60C! If you heat it higher than 140F/60C the molecular structure of the glue breaks down and won’t bind. I keep an instant read thermometer on my work bench to keep track of the temperature of the water below it. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t rewarm your glue more than a few times, but I often have to rewarm a container of paint a couple dozen times over the course of a painting and so far have had no problems with the binder breaking down. And my grandfather used hide glue for woodworking and rewarmed his glue pot every morning for weeks without problems.

This is a simple, economical way of making paint and I encourage everyone to give it a try. You’ll be surprised at the ease of making it, but also by the quality of the paint.


Interior of Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, China. From

Example of the use of pigments in Thangka painting

Shakyamuni-Thangka painting from late 1800's.

distemper paint
by Melonie Ancheta

To make an easy "hide glue" binder right out of your pantry, add 1 tsp. gelatin to 1 cup water and heat it up to 120 degrees. If you heat it over this temperature, the glue will be weak and may not perform well. While this mixture is still warm and liquid, combine equal parts pigment to get a paste. When this paint dries out, simply wet your brush and use it like watercolor paints! 

Hide glue and gelatin both provide a low cost, easily formulated paint called distemper. Diluted with water, it is good for color sketching, as well as for painting. Distemper paintings have lasted for centuries without change. 


1 part hide glue (dry)

10 parts water

Soak the glue in water for 30 minutes to one hour.

Warm this swollen glue by placing the container in another vessel filled with hot tap water. This will cause the glue to completely dissolve. Never heat collagen glue over 60 C (140 F). First soak the glue granules in warm water for 30 minutes and then gently heat in a water bath (a container with the glue placed in a larger pot with water half way up the outside of the glue container) until completely dissolved.

Using a palette knife, work a small amount of water (I add it by the drop) into dry pigments to make a thick paste (not a puddle!). Then, grind the pigment paste into the warm glue solution. Keep the paint warm enough to remain in solution while painting with it and use warm water to dilute it. You can paint with distemper to get watercolor effects by thinning and glazing, or use like gouache (you can add a little chalk for opacity if you like). For painting, apply the paint in thin layers to glue-sized paper, cardboard, Masonite, wood panel or canvas. This method is excellent for alla prima painting and for thin underpainting. To harden and preserve the paint film, spray the dried painting with a 10% solution of water and alum. 

Apply with a brush while warm or with a spatula when allowed to cool to room temperature (it will gel when cool). For gilding, use as an adhesive for metal leaf, such as gold leaf. Mix with gilder's clay or whiting to make a base for gilding. Add calcium carbonate (calcite, chalk or marble dust) for chalk grounds or calcium sulfate (gypsum) for gesso grounds.

Notes from Melonie:  

This is my go-to binder for working on paper, wood and leather. I love the way distemper paint moves on both wood and leather; it’s like painting with liquid silk. It flows beautifully when properly open and lays flat on the support leaving a nice, velvety, matte finish.  

When working on leather, take a damp sponge and press over small area where you will be applying paint next, or lightly mist small areas; this opens the collagen (what hide glue is made from) in the hide and adds extra adhesive power for your paint.  

It takes a little practice to manage the temperature of the water to keep your paint flowing. I use a make-shift bain-marie --one of those pot-pourri warmers —add about an inch of hot water and set your container of paint in it. The warmer will keep your water hot enough to keep your paint flowing. Keep your water at about 130F. If your paint starts to tighten up, just add a couple drops of warm water and it’ll open up.  


I keep an old instant-read thermometer handy to check the temp of my water. Remember the temp of your water bath will always be a few degrees higher than your glue. I try to keep my water at 130F (55C). And, you can dilute with water straight from the water bath. Add one or two drops at a time until it’s loose enough for you.


Distemper stores for a week or so as long as it’s tightly covered (if it starts smelling funky, you’d better make a new batch.). You’ll need to warm and probably dilute it after storing. Some people refrigerate it over night; I don’t because I don’t like taking it from such a low temp to workable; I think it degrades the adhesive qualities.

Set up for keeping hide glue binder fluid

My water bath set up. A pot pourri warmer with a couple inches of water, an old tin pan with water, and my paint container in that. You don't need the tin pan; you can just set your paint container in the main water bath. I've also used a coffee cup warmer with a tin pan of water. 

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