Natural Earth Paints

Ashland has a truly global economy that is not always visible at first glance. One such example is Natural Earth Paint which has set its roots here in Southern Oregon. Founded in 2011 by professional artist, mom, and environmentalist Leah Fanning, Natural Earth Paint is a world-leading manufacturer of eco-friendly paint kits. Paints are sold all around the globe -from Germany to Japan, Australia to South Africa, Bali and beyond.

Leah had been searching for truly non-toxic, yet very high quality art supplies for years and finally decided to create the products she had always wanted. After realizing that this way of painting created much HIGHER quality supplies than the synthetic, toxic counterparts, she took on her mission to spread the word to artists everywhere. Leah began making natural paints and eliminated all toxins from her own studio in 2009, just after becoming pregnant with her son, Django.

Natural Earth Paint was born a few years later with only two products: the Children’s Earth Paint Kit and the Earth Oil Paint Kit and production took place in one small room of their home. She has been committed to an eco-friendly business model since the beginning as reflected by the prestigious Gold certification from Green America – the highest rank for a green business. Natural Earth Paint is located at 330 E. Hersey St. in the Hersey Street business park next to True South Solar and KSKQ. Their retail store is open Monday – Friday 8am to 3pm. Natural Earth Paint currently employs one part-time and four full time workers here in Ashland, Oregon.

Leah, thank you very much for speaking with us today. Congratulations on the success of your business and launch of your new retail space here in Ashland.

Thanks so much, Shields. We’re excited to reach out to our community and invite everyone to visit and see what we’re all about.  Our main mission is to educate the public about the unnecessary toxins in most art supplies and face paints and how you can easily create pure, safe and beautiful art.

I would love to hear more of your story and how you first started to learn about natural earth based paints.

Yes, absolutely. I had been living in an earthen cob house in the Applegate Valley when I was first introduced to natural earth pigments – which we used to plaster our walls. I had been a full-time, professional artist for 15 years at that point, and had always wanted to find a replacement for my toxic oil paints. But I’d never found an alternative. There was nothing online and my teachers in art school had never taught us anything about non-toxic options. Then one day I was nudged to make it happen for myself – I found out that I was pregnant with my first child and then a week later found out that I would be having my first one-woman art show a few days before my due date. So I would need to paint full time throughout my pregnancy! I quickly disposed of all of my toxic art supplies and dove into researching an alternative. Necessity pushed me to quickly figure it out. I found one artist in Arizona who made natural paints and he recommended an out-of-print book on collecting earth pigments in nature. This book led to finding other paint-making books from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond. I was hooked! Within a few weeks I was exploring the woods of Oregon and Northern CA, harvesting green, red, yellow and orange pigments in creek beds, road cuts and abandoned quarries. There was a lot of trial and error in my steep learning curve. But I found it fascinating that the highest quality, and most archival paintings in the world, from the prehistoric people, to Rembrandt and the Old Masters, were all painted with 100% natural and non-toxic supplies.

I also researched new, scientific developments in non-toxic materials and over that first year figured out a non-toxic and superior quality ingredient for every toxic one that I had always used.

How did you go about tracking down all the pigments and where are they coming from?

Earth pigments are simply clay deposits in the ground that have different minerals in them (usually iron oxides) which determine their color. For the first year of my business, I collected the pigments in nature and hand ground, sifted and sieved them myself. But as we grew I couldn’t keep up with demand and began buying them pre-ground from small, family-owned quarries. I’ve since spent years testing pigments from around the world to find the most radiant and highest quality red earth, the brightest green earth, blue, orange, etc. The location of the quarries just depends on where that color is in great abundance in the ground. For example, Virginia has really beautiful yellow and red earths, Kentucky has great browns and violets, France has the best blues and purples, Italy has the best greens and reds. So we now get different colors from all over the world that have been sustainably harvested for many generations and have been used by artists for hundreds of years. I didn’t want to skimp on getting the absolute best pigments for our products. The rest of our ingredients and packaging is locally made.

Do you ever mix pigments to get colors?

No, we don’t mix colors. They are all the original pigments that came from the ground. The only colors that have been manipulated are the blue and purple, which are mineral based, and are affixed to a clay base and then heated in an oven.

Leah, how are the pigments actually prepared?

Pigments are simply dug up from the ground, cleaned of debris with water, dried, ground, and sifted into a very fine powder.

One of the goals in the formation of your company has been to run a very socially and environmentally responsible business. What considerations go into creating this for your company?

It’s always been most important for me to build a business with true integrity. Because of this, our costs are very high and we make a very small amount of profit, but it’s completely worth it. It would be very easy to buy our materials and packaging at a fraction of the price from China, use plastic instead of glass, and use non-recycled and non-biodegradable packaging – but at the end of the day I wouldn’t be able to live with myself knowing that I was contributing to the poisoning of the Earth. We donate to social and environmental causes regularly, have tree-planting campaigns, and pay our employees a living wage. We do know that we are using the Earth’s resources for this business to exist – so we’re always looking for ways to give back and replenish her resources.

Please tell us about the original “aha” moment you had when you realized you should make a business?

Yes, it’s funny. I had been using these natural materials and techniques for my own art for over a year and had been also experimenting making natural children’s paints for my growing baby too. One day, I was quietly nursing my son, Django, in our tiny cabin in the woods and it literally hit me in a flash – a true “aha” moment – that I should create a business to share what I had learned and re-discovered! I was so excited about it, I felt like I was going to explode – it felt so right and so meant-to-be.

I had been researching the ingredients in conventional children’s paints and face paints at the time and was utterly shocked at the harsh toxins and chemicals in almost all of these supplies. So everything seemed to conspire and lead me right to the path that I was meant to take.

Natural Earth Paints is really one-of-a-kind in the creation of 100% non-toxic products.

Yes, we are the only 100% non-toxic art supply company out there right now. Many of our customers have chemical sensitivities and can’t paint with acrylics or tempera or conventional oil paints and have had to completely give up making art. We get so many gratitude emails thanking us for creating these products so that they can once again make art. Other customers say they’ve always been scared to begin painting at all because of the toxins involved and now they can! And ironically, we have another large segment of customers who aren’t concerned about the toxins but are simply drawn to the purity and high quality of the paints that are free of fillers, preservatives, petrochemicals and additives – which get in the way of the luminosity of the paint.

Leah, please tell us more about the toxic ingredients that are commonly used in conventional painting and art supplies.

This is a scary topic. Conventional children’s paints don’t have their ingredient lists on the packaging but are still labeled “non-toxic”. The only way you can find out what’s in them is by having a licensed physician call Poison Control. After doing my own investigation, I discovered that the most common preservative used is formaldehyde, the pigments are petroleum or heavy metal-based, and there are a variety of chemical additives. There’s an article on Art Supplies and Poison Control by PediatricSafety.net that states that, “In 2009, the nation’s 57 poison control centers received more than 35,000 calls about exposures and reactions to art products; of these, more than 26,000 calls concerned children younger than 6.” Conventional “non-toxic” face paints are even worse, with recent studies showing that 10 out of 10 of conventional face paint kits tested included a variety of heavy metals, and all included lead.

Adult artist materials include a host of even harsher toxins – heavy metals, petrochemicals, VOC’s, toxic preservatives, solvents and more.  My main advice to parents and artists today would be to read the labels or find out the ingredients of your art supplies and face paints, just as you read the labels on your food. Because when paints touch the skin or are inhaled, they go directly into the body, just as food does. And when you see “non-toxic” on any art supplies it doesn’t mean that it won’t make you or your child sick, it just means that it won’t poison you immediately.

What are the side effects and problems long-term artists experience when using toxic materials?

I recently interviewed a famous illustrator, who paints for Rolling Stone magazine, who came very close to death a few years ago from the use of solvents in his painting process. He now uses our “Eco-solve” which is a 100% non-toxic solvent replacement. You can read the interview on our blog for all of the scientific and medical details of what inhaling solvents actually does to your body. I personally had many health issues from using heavy-metal oil paints, solvents, and acrylic gesso: severe allergies, which I’m still trying to heal, as well as intense headaches and trouble breathing while painting.

I have heard the whole gamut of testimonials from artists who email us and tell us the many health problems that have developed from using toxic art supplies.

According to the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition, exposure to the toxic chemicals found in some art supplies, (including paints, glues, markers, solvents and glazes), can result in problems including: headaches, nausea, burns, breathing problems, lung and kidney damage, and even cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable to toxins because of their small size, higher metabolisms, and immature immune systems.

What types of feedback are you receiving from artists and individuals using your paints?

As I mentioned before, we receive regular emails from artists who are relieved that there’s finally a non-toxic option. We also receive regular feedback about the radiance of our paints. Most children’s paints on the market, have a very tiny amount of pigment mixed with mostly filler – which is usually chalk or a “bulking agent” to make more paint. Our children’s paints are mostly pure pigment! They are so highly pigmented and vibrant that adults buy them to use as a water-based paint. They can be painted on wood, rocks, fabric, glass, paper and more. The most common feedback is that a small amount of paint seems to go on and on forever, which is because of the pigment amount. Our face paints are the same, as well as the oil paints. Because of the lack of fillers, preservatives, additives and toxins – all of the paints are as pure and radiant as you can get.

Leah, can you please introduce us to your product line?

Absolutely, we have a line of fine art supplies and a line of children’s supplies. The most popular fine art product is our “Complete Eco-friendly Oil Paint Kit” which comes with ten pigment colors, refined walnut oil, Eco-solve and an Eco Oil Painting Guide. We have 19 different earth pigment colors and we sell a lot of these pure pigments to artists who make a large variety of different art supplies by simply adding different binders to the pigment. We have recipes on our website to make your own watercolors, pastels, gouache, oil sticks, encaustics, house paint, egg tempera and many more. We also sell the world’s only non-toxic and vegan Gesso for priming canvases. Other items we carry are organic cotton canvas, bamboo palette knives, glass mullers, glass palettes, Natural Soap for removing oil paint from skin, natural impasto medium and natural adhesives.

Our children’s products include our classic Children’s Earth Paints, Natural Face Paints, a Natural Egg Dye Kit and Wooden Eggs Craft Kit for Easter, bamboo paint brushes, and an “Earth Flags Craft Kit” which includes hemp flags and rope, paints, brushes and mixing cups.

Your natural face paint kits are a big hit.

Yes, they’re our year-round best-selling item because they are the highest quality natural face paints on the market today – creamy, opaque and richly pigmented. They come in ten beautiful colors with professional bamboo applicators and are used by children, adult festival-goers, performers, pregnant women and professional face painters.

I’d love for you to introduce us to your team.

I would love to! We have a fabulous team over on Hersey Street including Hollie Piccirilli (who has been with us since we were operating out of a small bedroom!), Daisy Varley (our office manager, photographer & videographer), Jess Volk (a local ceramics artist at Slip Studios and paint maker), and Elijah Boor (a painter/ inventor/ sculptor). We’ve also had many great interns over the years and support from many others. This entire business began with absolutely no capital, loans, or cash flow in 2011. We simply began slowly and by doing lots of trades with very talented friends, we built it up bit by bit, as we were able. This business would not exist without the support of many amazing Ashland-ers and I will be forever grateful.

Leah, what are some of your proudest moments and achievements of Natural Earth Paints to date?

We’ve been awarded a few prestigious awards including the National Cribsie Award, the Red Tricycle Award and the Green America Gold Certification. Another great achievement happened this year when we were picked up by distributors from around the world including: all of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and a few others that are in the works. But the most gratifying part of this business is creating something that is missing and much needed to reduce the toxic load of the Earth and our bodies.

I am curious to hear how you are seeing your products being used around the world.

We’re always getting emailed photographs of what people are doing with our products and it’s fascinating. Some of my favorites include an outdoor painting installation on tree trunks and boulders that gradually faded away as the rains came. Another couple had a wedding where the guests threw our pigments on them like a mini “color run” and then did their photo shoot covered in colors. We’ve had filmmakers use our face and body paints in VERY creative ways and send us the videos. We had a fraternity use the paints in paint guns for a fundraising “battle” so that the paint that landed on the ground wouldn’t poison the earth. Well-known artists around the world send photos of their new works created with our paints and supplies. Some artists invent new types of paints or supplies using our pigments like one person last month who invented “flax seed gel paint”. We’ve seen murals painted with our paints in Bali, and children in the Dominican Republic making earth play dough and animal masks with them. We’ve had testimonials from cancer survivors who found healing in painting again with natural materials after being scared to touch anything toxic for years.

What is your vision for the company as you move forward? Any last thoughts or comments you would like to share?

Our vision is to continue to develop, invent, and create urgently needed supplies that do not currently exist. We’re excited to release the world’s first non-toxic varnish and fast-drying paint medium next month after much testing, research and experimentation. We have other revolutionary projects in the works that could eliminate massive amounts of toxins regularly washed down drains around the world. We look forward to meeting our local artists, parents and community members and would be delighted to show you around our workshop and answer any questions. We’re very passionate about these ancient paints that have been in use for over 100,000 years and we’re always eager to share these time-tested techniques.

Learn More:

Natural Earth Paint
Ashland, OR  97520
Naturalearthpaint.com