For watercolor artist—and watercolor creator—Jennifer Pfeiffer, art has always been about color: rich reds, dazzling blues, and sun-kissed yellows. She loves not only using color, but also creating color. Now she gets her color fix by making and selling handmade watercolors.
Pfeiffer’s color infatuation began when she was a glass blower, watching dry pigments bloom into unique hues. But glass blowing became physically taxing, and she didn’t like inhaling flying powder.
She turned to watercolor, carrying small tins of watercolor everywhere and painting in spare moments. But frustration set in when the colors cracked, or fell from the tin. About three years ago, Pfeiffer bought a pigment kit from an online vendor, then mixed, mulled, and poured her own lemon yellow paint. She was hooked, and began experimenting with other pigments. She loved the physicality and creativity of mixing and creating her own custom colors.
“It was fun seeing how each color was different, figuring out the different (mixing) ratios, creating my own palette, and being a bit of a chemist,” she says.
When Pfeiffer posted her work—both her art and the paints she mixed—on Instagram, people wanted to buy her paints. In June 2016 she opened Pfeiffer Art Supply, with a palette of 24 non-toxic colors, using various pigments to create her hues.
Artists who use handmade watercolors, such as Dina Brodsky who paints miniature naturescapes, like the handmade paints for the rich pigmentation and intense colors.
“I’ve tried most of the big commercial (watercolor) brands, but Jen’s paints are amazing,” Brodsky says. “The colors are more saturated than commercially made watercolors, with a higher percentage of pigment to binder, so it’s easy to get every gradation, from opaque to transparent. Also, they smell wonderful—of honey and grass.”
Pfeiffer finds a Zen-like calm in the hours of mixing, grinding, pouring, and drying that it takes to create her watercolors. Working on a glass-topped table in her Oceanside, California, home, she measures and mixes powdered pigments with locally produced organic honey and vegetable-based glycerin, which bind the pigments.
“It’s almost like mixing cookie dough,” she says. “Every color recipe has its own consistency.”
Pfeiffer uses a glass muller (sort of a flat-bottomed pestle) to mull, or grind, the mixture by hand even finer, a process that can take an hour or more, depending on the pigments used. “You just grind and grind and grind until the mixture feels smooth, she says, and any granules are gone. “It’s quite a workout.”
After the mulling, the now creamy paint goes into an electronic grinder, a three-roller contraption that looks a bit like a pasta machine, for final refinement. She pours the paint into a bottle, and then dribbles the paint into full or half pans, filling the pans about halfway on the first pour. Because the paint settles and shrinks as it dries, it takes four to five pours, with a day’s drying time between each pour, to completely fill a pan. The entire process takes about a week, she says.
Once the paints are dry, she cleans the sides of each pan, labels each color, and glues magnets to the pan bottoms so they stick to metal tins. Pfeiffer then adds a slick, white sticker to the pan lid (for testing and mixing colors), and wraps and packs the paints for shipping. She keeps the batches small, mixing enough for only 20 half and 10 whole pans, one color at a time, and pouring three or four colors in one day.
Most of her pigments are non-toxic, made from natural earth elements, such as rocks or minerals. Because of her affinity for nature and her love of birds, Pfeiffer gives her non-toxic colors avian names, such as Rosefinch Rose, Parrot Green, Toucan Orange, and Magpie Blue. This distinguishes them from a few limited edition colors, such as a mica-infused Shimmer Blue, or Cadmium Red, which are still safe but may contain traces of tin or lead.
Pans are sold individually, or in sets of six, 12, or 24 colors. She also offers sampler cards, which have dots of her 24 standard colors.
Sketch artist T.K. Justin Ng, an architecture student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, likes that Pfeiffer’s handmade paints are non-toxic. He often uses watercolors to tint his ink-drawn sketches.
“There’s no saying whether commercial or handmade paints are better, but drawing is about story telling, and using handmade paints really adds to the complexity of the painting,” Ng says. “Jen’s watercolors are made with care, (which) is evident through the quality of the paints and the packaging.”
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. Her work has appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and a variety of craft titles. Roberta has designed for several craft companies. Though she has no formal art background, she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. Visit her website at creativeunblock.com.