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Woman makes paint from U.P. rocks

Photos courtesy of Carlynne Welch Carlynne Welch, a local paint maker, dries earth for pigment making next to her wood stove. Welch moved to the Upper Peninsula in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, falling in love with the scenery and plethora of natural products that could be transformed into pigment and watercolor paint.

ESCANABA — For many, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is seen as a hidden paradise — a refuge from the fast-paced nature of city life. With forests full of beautiful creatures, thousands of miles of coastline, and a wide-variety of foliage, the general allure of the U.P. attracts those seeking a nature-based lifestyle. Other times, however, travelers stumble across the Mackinac Bridge on a quest to explore as many remote areas as they can in their lifetime.

For Carlynne Welch, both of these scenarios are true.

“It has always been difficult to keep me at home,” Welch said. “If I have any time that is open, I want to go drive somewhere.”

Like many, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic left Welch in an uncomfortable situation. After relocating from her hometown of Houston, Texas to Cincinatti, Ohio, the bombardment of safety protocols and lockdowns were enough to make anyone go stir-crazy. However, Welch, who had spent years seeking out the cultural and natural areas within the 100-mile radius of her hometown, could not be contained by the quarantine. While citizens were being told not to leave their home unless it were essential, Welch did what any lone wanderer would do — pack up all of their things and isolate in the wild.

“With the quarantines, they were like ‘Stay in your house,’ and I was like ‘Oh no, I cannot do that. I am going to stay away from people somewhere nice,'” Welch said.

Photos courtesy of Carlynne Welch Carlynne Welch’s handmade earth pigments, packed in test tubes and ready to be shipped to customers.

Accompanying Welch’s outdoor isolation was a newfound passion for creating handmade pigments and watercolors using natural ingredients. On a quest to find vibrant rocks and soils to transform into paint, Welch ventured into the Lower Peninsula while living in Cincinatti. When visiting Sleepy Bear Dunes for the first time, Welch began to collect what she had thought to be colorful rocks. After conversing with area locals, however, Welch was advised to wander farther north to find what she was searching for.

“Everyone I had talked to about what I was doing told me that I needed to go to the U.P. They told me that the rocks I was picking would look like pastels in comparison,” Welch said. “So I started visiting and I could not stop coming up here. I probably came up here five times in a few months, car camped, and just fell in love with the place.”

After spending days on the Lake Superior shore, picking agates, Yooperlites, and magnetite in the Grand Marais area, Welch had convinced herself that the Upper Peninsula was the place to be. Trading her home in Cincinnati for a “Yooper hunting camp,” her dream of making and selling pigments, watercolors, and other forest projects became a reality.

“I am always looking for new things that could be paint. In the U.P., it has primarily been rock pigments, clays, and different types of soils,” Welch said. “I have been most impressed by specular hematite, just because it is so shiny. I would say that my favorite one to work with would be sandstone because it is so easy.”

Welch begins her creative process by running the pebbles and rocks that she has gathered through a rock crusher, which breaks them into a fine powder. With harder rocks, like granite, the amount of grinding effort needed to create the fine powder is much larger in comparison to softer rocks, like sandstone.

Andie Balenger | Daily Press Carlynne Welch, a local paint maker, demonstrates her paint making process using a teal-colored pigment that she created by combining copper sulfur pentahydrate and sodium carbonate. When these two chemicals react, they form a vibrant substance that acts as a chemical malachite. Welch will take the pigment and combine it with watercolor binder, the yellow-tinted liquid in the glass bottle, using a palette knife. Eventually, Welch will use the paint muller, either of the glass objects on the right side of this picture, to fully encapsulate each particle of pigment with the binder.

“The granite stones from the U.P. are so hard that they absolutely destroy the shackles inside of my rock crusher and break them directly off their post,” Welch said.

The paint making process, according to Welch, is pretty straightforward. Needed tools include a tempered glass surface, a palette knife, water color binder, a paint muller, and a watercolor pan. The tempered glass provides a non-reactive and sturdy surface to combine the needed ingredients, along with being extremely easy to clean. The palette knife is used to break up existing clumps in the pigment and initially combine the pigment and water color binder, which will be splayed out on the tempered glass surface in equal parts.

Once well-combined, a paint muller — or any tchotchke with a flat bottom — is used to fully encapsulate each particle of pigment with the binder. Moving the soon-to-be paint combination in a circular motion, the muller providing all of the needed weight to get the job done, the paint will be ready as soon as any remaining clumps disappear.

To test for readiness, the paint is swatched on watercolor paper. If the pigment does not hold or appears to be light, the mulling process continues. Once well mixed, the freshly made paint is transferred to a watercolor pan. This process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Before use, the paints are wetted with a brush and allowed to rest for three to five minutes.

“These are watercolor paints, so I would recommend for use on watercolor paper,” Welch said. “I am not a very good painter. My passion is actually not painting at all. I just really like making the paint, so I design the watercolor pages so I don’t have to worry about the fact that I can’t draw.”

This paint making process has allowed Welch to research, explore, and experiment with different types of rocks, testing out their quality and discovering unique properties when utilizing them as watercolor paints. Magnetite sand, for example, has color changing properties and can be manipulated by a magnet to change its appearance once on paper.

In addition to turning into “natural glitter,” specular hematite has color changing properties as well.

“Depending on how you use the paint, if you use a lot of water or a little bit of water, it will change its colors,” Welch said. “If you let it stay wet for a long time, it will rust and turn bright red. If you let it dry pretty soon, it is almost a purple or brown color.”

While Welch predominantly uses natural pigments, she has recently dipped her toes into fugitive pigments, or lab-based pigments. Fugitive pigments are made using scientific processes, combining two substances together to create a reaction, which ultimately results in a new color. While natural pigments hold their exact color for eternity, fugitive pigments will degrade with exposure to sunlight, humidity, and time.

“I have spent a lot of time looking into how to make different colors that I can’t normally find in a historic process,” Welch said. “I made a pigment by combining copper sulfur pentahydrate and sodium carbonate together. These reactions can make different colors and it is like a chemical malachite.”

When hunting for rocks and pigments, Welch follows all of the local ordinances that outline the dos and don’ts of a natural area. Additionally, Welch will buy from small businesses in the area, trying to give back as much as she took.

In an attempt to document her creative endeavors, Welch began to upload short video blogs of herself manufacturing paint to TikTok, a popular social media platform. While the original intent of the videos was strictly personal, other users on the app began to notice her work. The first video that drew people to her account was the transformation of Leland Blue, an industrial byproduct of the steel industry, into pigment and subsequently paint.

Many followers came to Welch’s page, however, after she was gifted a palette of make-up by her mother. As someone who does not wear make-up, Welch decided to transform the palette into watercolor paints.

“My very fancy mother gave me this gift of make-up, so I decided I was definitely going to use it, but not in the way she wanted,” Welch said. “I started to turn in into paints, and those videos popped off.”

As Welch’s small following on TikTok grew, people began to send their expired make-up products her way. As she recorded the transformation of these expired products, Welch would discuss relevant topics with her followers. When commentating on controversial make-up artists, like James Charles and Jeffree Star, more and more people began to follow and support Welch’s work. Cumulatively, Welch’s videos have garnered millions of views, one of which received 15 million views on its own.

“I have had a couple of makeup companies actually reach out to me and start sending me things, which I thought was hilarious,” Welch said. “People really do watch and a lot of them are interested. There is a tremendous amount of support from the people who follow my page.”

Through all of her creative work, Welch has prioritized methods that focus on sustainability and environmental impact. While being environmentally conscious takes a concerted effort, Welch believes the payoff to be well worth it. Learning to properly dispose of toxic chemicals, limiting mass-produced product intake, and adjusting eating habits are just a few of the ways Welch has been working to protect the planet.

“You get one Earth, and that Earth provides everything that you could need from it if you treat it right,” Welch said. “You can allow nature to heal itself with time to an extent, but once things get too dirty it is just a major, major trouble.”

Welch runs her business through Etsy, an online platform that supports small artists. To find her shop, search “Etsy BergettePigments” on any search engine. All of her handmade pigments, watercolors, coloring pages, and water color binders can be found there. Welch’s TikTok is @bergettepigments.

“I love to make paint and I love to watercolor because it is like instant gratification,” Welch said. “If I find a new rock and really get to it, by the end of the day that rock will be on a piece of paper. I can make it into paint right away.”

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