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Pure Pigments

Paint. It's something that is inside most homes, and most of us usually don't give it a second thought.

When it comes time to paint a house, there is an alternative to glossy, flat or eggshell finish: How about natural paint? It doesn't come from a "depot." It isn't laden with chemicals, and--best of all--it can be handmade. The popularity of solar-powered, strawbale and rammed-earth buildings in Tucson is nicely complemented by these paints' earthy nature.

Why use natural paints and finishes? Joelee Joyce, instructor of Natural Paints and Finishes, a noncredit course with Pima Community College, says that natural paints are essentially nontoxic, inexpensive and easy to make. "Our base is a flour paste and casein, so it's almost edible," Joyce says.

Other ingredients include raw linseed oil to which pigment can be added for exterior sealing, lime as a substitute for cement, and straw or mica for a uniquely natural texture.

"Mica is a product that is found in the earth," Joyce says. "People make beautiful pottery with it, and we add it to the paint or plaster as a filler or a texture."

But what about color? Never fear--flour-based paint doesn't mean flour-colored walls. The addition of clay can infuse paint with lustrous colors, rivaling traditional paint. Joyce says that, when making paint, she tries to find natural clays with the desired colors already in them, such as blue and green clays found in the Painted Desert region of Arizona. If that isn't possible, colored clay is also available commercially. An aspect of natural clay that appeals to many people is, as she puts it, "an appreciation for color variation that is already there."

In addition to colored clay, natural paints can get their vibrant hues from plants.

"Some of the plant products that make dyes are native," Joyce says. "Native indigo makes a beautiful, iridescent blue--better than cobalt."

Natural finishes can be polished to resemble the flat or glossy finishes found in traditional interior paint. Experienced artists can make beautiful filigree lace or exotic finishes with the materials. There are even techniques for painting frescoes--paintings on wet plaster--with natural paints. At one point, Joyce remembers, a Benedictine monk attended one of her workshops specifically to learn techniques for the ancient art form.

The paints can be applied to almost any type of surface, such as latex, gypsum, cement, sheetrock or wood. Once on the wall, natural paints have an expected lifespan comparable to that of a commercial product, but Joyce points out that care is different for these paints. Residents need to pay attention to the surfaces, and some protective measures may need to be taken, such as rain protection or gentle cleaning. The addition of raw linseed oil can boost durability.

Health is another reason to consider natural paints and finishes. Many paints--exterior and interior--contain volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which can contribute to indoor air pollution. Joyce says that these chemicals are often added to paint to speed drying and aren't necessary for most purposes. The EPA's Web site states, "Volatile organic chemicals are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects."

Many commonly used paints, paint thinners and solvents, as well as hundreds of other commonly used household chemicals, emit VOCs. While the EPA states that some of these chemicals have no apparent effects on health, it suggests that others are suspected to be carcinogens. In sensitive individuals, symptoms such as respiratory irritation can occur. There are no standards for acceptable levels in nonindustrial settings, so individuals with chemical sensitivity or who are concerned about chemical use in the home may find natural paint--which is free of VOCs--to be a suitable replacement for traditional paint.

"I think that not only are natural paints safer and more pleasing, but they also have properties that the typical store-bought paints don't have," Joyce says. "They fit into the permaculture concept, looking at the whole picture without destroying resources."

Joyce certainly knows her permaculture. She is the owner and instructor of DAWN Southwest, an organization that seeks to teach "a way to live on the Earth that takes care of the Earth, and people and can produce a surplus to share, with a conscious effort made to introduce ways of thinking about the design of an entire site, while building and gardening and conserving water and other resources."

DAWN Southwest offers regular classes on a variety of sustainable building topics, such as rainwater harvesting, permaculture, building with natural materials and more. Special workshops can be organized in advance for groups or upon request (minimum group sizes may apply). The organization accepts work exchange and internships for classes, and also sells natural paints, recycled building materials and other resources for building what Joyce calls "beautiful, creative, natural, low-cost extensions of the Earth."

"It's a really nice way to learn about history and ancient techniques with materials that exist almost anywhere," Joyce says. "Some technology is actually being lost over generations. It's nice to be able to bring these ideas back to life. All the different building techniques that we're re-learning--there's so much we can do with them."

The Natural Paints and Finishes workshop is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15. The workshop takes place at DAWN Southwest's site in southwest Tucson; call for directions. The cost is $98. Space is limited, so don't delay; call 206-6468 or send an e-mail to communityed@pima.edu with course reference No. 60580. For more information, e-mail dawnaz@earthlink.net.

Pictures of DAWN Southwest's permaculture projects and more information about the organization's workshops are available at caneloproject.com/dawn.

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