We stopped to dig up some of the gorgeous white earth from a road cut that was alongside a small highway leading from Castrillo de los Polvazares where we were staying, to the nearby village of Rabanal. Castrillo is a tiny village of 100 that has cobblestone streets and stone houses all with green or blue arched doors. I was staying at Flores del Camino, a serene retreat centre where my painting workshop was to begin in a couple of days.
The stone in the village is all of a similar orangey-red, the colour of the iron ochre that's found on the land nearby. There are various ochres in this part of Spain, ranging from soft white to yellow to deep red. While I hadn't intended the focus of this workshop to be on earth pigments, it was as though the earth pigments themselves wanted to play a large part in the workshop. And they did! Using them we were not only able to create exciting and powerful paintings but also, in a way, connect with the Paleolithic cave painters. They had also used local red ochre pigment 20,000 or more years ago––a mind-bending thought.
We had a tour of the Tito Bustillo painted cave, about 3 hours north of Castrillo on the Bay of Biscay. When it was over, the guide switched off his flashlight and for a few precious moments we were able to stand silently in the dark of the painted central chamber, listening to the faint sound of dripping water and even fainter sounds of the river below us, imaginations on fire with the thought of being there those 20000 years ago, working by the light of the burning animal fat in stone holders.
I went on to St. Ives in Cornwall after my Spain workshop to teach a painting workshop with an intended focus on earth pigments. Our guide was Cornwall artist, Pete Ward, whose work is gathering and painting with earth pigments. Pete took us on 2 days of visiting the various sites he goes to collect the pigment, some from beaches and some from the residual soil produced by the tin mining industry that has been important in Cornwall since the Bronze Age. It felt like a huge contrast, the energy between the naturally occurring pigment and the residual pigment but both seemed to make beautiful paint.
The artists in the class worked energetically and enthusiastically with the earth pigments, mixing up their own paints from the dry pigments Pete provided. We painted in the spacious studio in the gorgeous St. Ives Harbour Hotel that was situated high on a hill overlooking Porthminster Beach. I felt a disconnection from the earth in that stunningly perched hotel until I had the idea to do meditations with the actual earth pigments. We sat in a circle, each with a container of our chosen pigment in our laps, connecting with it, feeling our interconnected energy, conversing in an internal way with the pigment.
When asked later to share that intuitive conversation, each person seemed very touched by their deep connection with the earth they held in their laps. One of the women in our group, Moe Snyder, is a bookbinder and offered to create a handmade book for each of us incorporating the stories and poems each of us shared.
Janice Mason Steeves
Janice Mason Steeves
The earth pigment provided profound connections to the land for each of us in each of these workshops, physically making a deep personal association and also taking that relationship way back into Paleolithic times. Deep and powerful connections.

NEW Workshops in Wild Places destination just announced!
Painting On the Edge of The World: Orkney Island Retreat
May 15 – 26, 2023  |  Click to view the brochure