Using Earth and Mineral Pigments

© 2005 Native American Visions

Natural pigment paints are a traditional source of color among Native Americans for face and body paint on humans and horses as well as painting on rawhide and finished hides. These guidelines describe some techniques for application.

Face and Body

For the face and body, the paint can be mixed with bear grease (petroleum jelly or vegetable shortening will work as modern substitutes) into a thick, rich color. Another great recipe for face and body paint for kids is 1 part cold cream, 2 parts corn starch, 1 part water. Mix with pigment for desired color. Apply with fingertips, Q-tips, sticks or toothpicks depending on the type of design you wish to create. Solid areas of color can also be etched to create a pattern. 


Horses were often decorated with paints to signify ownership and battle honors. Paint can be mixed very thickly with water and painted with the hands and fingers since larger designs are desired. Paint can also be mixed with grease for this purpose, although will be harder to remove from the hair. 


Rawhide articles such as parfleche were painted while still damp in order for the pigment to penetrate and mix with the natural glues in the hide. We have created instructions for painting rawhide dry using Hide Glue to produce a similar result. “Brushes” of varying widths were generally made from porous bone or willow sticks which soaked the paint into them much as a felt tip pen would. The paint could then be worked into the fibers. A modern substitute would be very stiff bristled brushes and a stylus for fine lines. After drying, a protective coating (called sizing) was applied to the surface using a natural varnish to protect it. Indians often used the juice of cactus for this purpose, but a modern substitute can be made from a mixture of half varnish-half turpentine, spray varnish or a weak hide glue mixture.

Follow these guidelines for an authentic look: 

  1. The painted design should have a translucent appearance rather than a thick, acrylic look. The design colors should be worked in to become a part of the rawhide rather than texture sitting on top. 
  2. The finish or sizing over the design should have a sheen but not a glossy look. 

Hides or Cloth

Pigment paints can be used for intricate designs, and for coloring larger areas on hides and cloth. To stain a large area, use the pigments dry and apply by dipping a piece of buckskin or similar material into the powder and rubbing it onto the surface until the desired effect is achieved. When rubbing paint in dry form, shake off any excess outdoors, then use a clean applicator to continue to rub off any excess. This is not a colorfast application and color may still rub off or “transfer”. This transferring can be lessened by spraying lightly with a spray fixative such as that used by artists for charcoal drawings. To make an authentic, colorfast liquid paint for hides, pigments can be mixed with water and hide glue. Purchase Earth and Mineral Pigments from Traditional Tanners.

CAUTION: Pigment paint powders are extremely staining and messy to work with. Care should be taken to cover any work surfaces and be sure the area is free of remnants after work is completed. Although non-toxic, avoid breathing the dust.