By Tina Manzer
Oregon-based artist Leah Fanning is known for her colorful expressionistic portrait work and large-format abstract oil paintings. “My abstract art is created with absolutely no plans or formulas or ideas,” she once explained. “After years of painting, I can go right into a place of no thought and presence, and something guides me to make the first mark. I just ask what color would make me feel good and I cover the canvas with that color. Then I make a mark and that mark tells me what the next mark should be and so on.
“People comment that my paintings look like either microscopic images – cells, etc. – or macro: planets, stars or nebulas. The colors and patterns that emerge come straight from nature, what I see in the wild and what feels good in my body.”
Before she moved to the Pacific Northwest, Fanning lived on the East Coast where she was a professional ballet dancer. She also studied painting at a variety of institutions in the U.S. and abroad, most notably in Cortona, Italy. Fanning received her degree in illustration/painting from Maryland Institute College of Art.
She fit right in with the culture of Oregon, characterized by stunning natural vistas, sustainable land use, recycling, renewable energy and an organic lifestyle. “I lived off the grid in an earthen home in the mountains,” she said. “I was ‘organic everything’ for years except for my art materials. I had this deep-rooted belief that conventional paints were the only ones for creating high-quality archival gallery work, even though they contained toxins that were impacting my health. Still, I didn’t want to risk changing them. Besides, there were no other options.”
But in 2010 Fanning became pregnant and decided to create a new option. “I told myself I was not going to put any toxins in this baby,” she said. “I had a gallery show coming up and knew I had to paint every day so I set out to find an alternative.”
She discovered the work of artist Scott Sutton in New Mexico. Sutton harvests pigments in nature to make paint and teaches workshops on the process (visit pigmenthunter.com). “He told me about a book from 1980, now out-of-print, called Colors from the Earth by Ann Wall Thomas,” Fanning said. “I used it to learn how to locate and gather natural earth pigments. Basically, I created paint for a whole show – 30 largescale wall paintings – using that book.”
What she learned became the basis for Natural Earth Paint, a company she started in 2011 with the goal of developing safe, solvent-free art supplies for people of all ages.
“Oil paint is just walnut or linseed oil mixed with pigment. No solvents,” said Fanning, “I harvest pigments and grind them and sieve them and mix them with oil. For me, the process is cathartic and lovely.
“I use pure vegetable oil to clean my brushes and thin my paint like the old masters did,” she added, referencing the Rennaisance-era art supply recipes from Italy she unearthed. “Back then, their varnish was plant-based.”
Painting with her all-natural colors resulted in a variety of positives beyond safety. “I noticed right away that my paintings seemed more luminous,” Fanning said. “It’s hard to describe – you’d have to see them in person. I learned later that it’s because natural pigment particles are irregular in size and shape compared to synthetic particles, which are uniform. With so many different edges for the light to bounce off of, those irregular particles create a beautiful glow, which is very cool.”
Also cool was the wide range of colors she discovered in the Earth’s minerals. “They weren’t just grays and browns.”
A common misconception among artists is that natural paint will fall apart and degrade. That’s not the case, said Fanning. “I discovered that it’s more archival, more UV resistant, and more radiant than synthetic paints. I felt I had to spread the word.”
Her company was her vehicle. Today, Natural Earth Paint is distributed through the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Production takes place in a solar-powered, 2,000 square-foot facility in Ashland manned by “a small team of wonderful people.”
Products are organized into three categories: fine art, children’s art supplies, and all-natural face paint and eco-friendly glitter. Bestsellers include 20 natural pigments, the Complete Eco-Friendly Oil Paint Kit and the children’s paint kit, which produces “a creamy, tempera-like paint when mixed with water,” according to naturalearthpaint.com. An egg-dying kit is also on the list.
Rounding out the fine art line are Eco-Solve, a plant-based, professional paint thinner; plus a plant-based adhesive, a natural impasto medium, refined walnut oil and Natural Varnish – “a proprietary blend of plant-based, archival ingredients using time-tested recipes from the Renaissance.”
“Eco-Solve and Natural Varnish have just started to become popular with woodworkers, including guitar and violin makers,” Fanning noted. “They love our natural varnish because it dries in minutes.”
Fanning has a personal passion for zero-waste, plastic-free, eco-friendly packaging and puts that into practice at Natural Earth Paint. “We use home compostable pouches for all of our powders, recyclable glass and metal for all bottles and post-consumer recycled paper for all boxes,” she stated. “We also offer a zero-waste option for customers who order our pigments and paints in brown paper bags tied with hemp twine.”
An artistic coup
This summer, the company introduced a line of plant-based acrylic paints in tubes: 15 colors plus a medium. The paint is fast-drying, very durable and washes out of brushes using water.
“I started working on development about five years ago with a team of chemists,” Fanning explained. “It had never been done before so we kept trying and failing, again and again. I’ve gone through about eight chemists.”
The most recent bunch cracked the code. “One would say, ‘I’m not sure how to get past this problem,’ and the others would offer suggestions. That was the process when all of a sudden, it became perfect.”
Fanning considers herself an artist and natural-paint evangelist. She never intended to start a company and doesn’t want to manufacture products that already exist elsewhere. Instead, she uses Natural Earth Paint to respond to people who need new ones. Such was the case with Natural Acryliks.
“Early on, we got calls and emails from people almost weekly asking for a natural acrylic paint. Their issues included specific chemical sensitivities to conventional paints and the fumes, or they simply didn’t want to use petroleum-based paint. Really, the most toxic parts of acrylic paint are the additives. Our paint has none of those.”
Fanning has witnessed how creating solvent-free art materials that are safe for humans and the environment has become a movement around the world. “In the past few months, at least two new books have been published about foraging for pigments and making natural paint. It’s everywhere on social media: hundreds and hundreds of people slowly mulling their paint with beautiful music playing in the background. They talk about how meditative it makes them feel; how peaceful and happy. It seems like a wonderful part of the process for some of them.”
It’s that way for Fanning. “I think the process makes me a better artist. Creating my own materials awakened this beautiful connection to the source of my colors. I never had that before. It feels right and nourishes whatever project I am working on.”