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Binders and pigments


  • To learn about artists' use of binders for pigments through the ages.
  • To carry out trials using a range of binders with powder paints.

Curriculum links

English National Curriculum:
Art: 2a, 2b, 3a, 4b,c, 5b, 5c, 5d
Design & Technology: 2c, 3a, 4a, 5a

Gateway story

This gateway introduces the idea of making pigment/paint 'stick' to a surface. A 'binder' added to the pigment so that it will stick to a surface.

Gateway elements

This gateway consists of:

  • Spray-painting a car
  • Paintbrushes spreading paint
  • Chameleon as an artist
  • Rolling list of possible binders.

Rolling list of possible binders: This list consists of 7 substances (glue, milk, paste, oil, tea, orange juice, egg). Some of these have, over the years, been used as binders, as the children discover during the activity.

Approximate time required: 90 minutes

Resources needed

School powder paints in 3 or more colours
1 egg
200 ml of each -
      linseed oil (available from art shops)
      PVA glue
      Cellulose paste (prepared in advance)
1 mixing palette or bowl for each group
1 teaspoon per group
White cartridge or art paper
1 paintbrushes per child
Examples of paintings by well known artists (see Background Information)

Suggested organisation

Whole class introduction then 5 groups of children.

Carrying out the activity

Using water to mix paint is very familiar to children and is known as painting in watercolours. However, there are other possibilities for making paint with powdered pigment.

During discussion, the class are introduced to the variety of binders used over the centuries by various selected artists by looking at their work and discussing developments. The teacher shares 'background information' at an appropriate level with the children. Additional information can also be found on the Tate and National Gallery websites. Details on how to access these sites are given in the Background Information.

The teacher should check the medium used in any pictures shown to the children, as artists often use a variety of media. Books, websites, etc. showing artists' pictures usually indicate the media used for each work of art.

Following the discussion, each group of children tests one binder from:

- egg yolk
- egg white
- linseed oil
- PVA glue
- cellulose paste.

The binder is mixed with a range of powder paint colours, e.g. red, blue and yellow. The resulting 'paint mix' is used to paint samples/patterns of the children's choice for comparison.

Although accurate measurement is not essential, it is suggested that there is some class discussion about how much powder to add (in teaspoons) and whether to add it all at once or a little at a time to avoid some very thick opaque colours and some thin weak ones.
Observations are made about the mixtures, the mixing methods, the application and drying properties of each sample and the finished effects, ready for whole class discussion. These observations can be tabulated or comments can be written on each test sheet beside the painted samples.


When all the samples have been mixed and tested, the results of the different groups can be examined by the whole class and compared. Each group can report on the mixing process, the application, the drying time and the finish.

The following questions can be asked during the plenary:

How did you mix your paints? Did you have any problems?

Did you change the ratio of the mixture to make a good paint?

How did you apply the paint to the paper? Was the effect as you expected?

How quickly did the paint dry?

What is the finished effect of the paint like? Is it shiny, matt (not shiny), smooth, streaky, thick or thin?

At the end of the activity the groups can work on a painting using their colours. An abstract design in areas of colour (as in paintings by Piet Mondrian) would be a good project for a group to work on. To see his pictures, go to the Tate Gallery website and follow all the instructions to select the artist by name. You can select 'Composition with Red and Blue' for a simple example or 'Composition with Grey, Red, Yellow and Blue' for a
more complex example.

Background information

Egg tempera was the commonest technique used for easel pictures until the late 15th century and was reinvented in the 19th century by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Ready-made colours were not available at that time.

Before the 15th century painters had to prepare their own pigments from plants and minerals (soils and stones). The pigments had to be ground up and mixed with some liquid to bind the powder into a paste. Colours bound with egg yolk had a slight sparkle and dried very quickly so it was difficult to make any changes to the picture.

Powdered pigment was mixed with fresh egg yolk and a little water and painted onto a panel prepared with gesso, a surface like brilliant white chalky distemper. The result is tough and permanent and it dries almost instantaneously.

Note: Fresco painting employs a combination of damp plaster and paint mixed with water or limewater, producing a chemical reaction and a very permanent finish. This is not the same as tempera.

Oil paint - Jan van Eyck was not content with this method so he used oil instead of egg, which allowed him to work more slowly and accurately because he could make changes before the paint dried. Oil bound colours were glossy even when dry.

More recent painters have been able to use more modern materials, for example, acrylic, as a binder and so produce their own special effects.

Artists like to experiment with the paints they are using so that they can carry out new ideas and so modern painters like to try out recent inventions, such as acrylic, cellulose and PVA as binders.

Artists and their artworks are listed below, according to the binders they used. Works by artists in bold print can be found on the National Gallery website and those in italics on the Tate website, Instructions for accessing these websites and images are given below the list of artists.

Many great artists have had an experimental approach to the variety of media available at the time, e.g. Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519), Jackson Pollock (1912- 1956) and David Hockney (20th C).

Tempera painters:

Up to 15th century:

Roger van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464)
Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469)
Botticelli (1446- 1510)
Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)
Piero della Francesca (1420-1492)
Mantegna (1431-1506)
Giovanni Bellini (1459-1516)

19th century:

Burne-Jones (Pre-Raphaelites)
William Morris (English Arts & Crafts Movement)
John Duncan (Scottish Arts & Crafts Movement)

20th century:

Giacomo Balla
Edward Wadsworth

Oil painters:

15th and 16th centuries:

Jan van Eyck (active 1422-1441) He was the inventor of the 'new' technique of oil painting
Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)
Pieter Bruegel (1525/30-1569)
El Greco (1541-1614)
Rubens (1577-1640)

17th and 18th centuries:

Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Vermeer (1632-1675)
Canaletto (1697-1768)
Gainsborough (1727-1788)
Goya (1746-1828)
Turner (1775-1851)
Constable (1776-1837)

19th century:

Monet (1840-1926)
van Gogh (1853-1890)
Cezanne (1839-1906)
Gauguin (1848-1903)

20th century:

Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Patrick Heron (1920-1999)
LS Lowry (1887-1986)
Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Graham Sutherland (1903-1980).

Acrylic painters:

20th century:

Maggi Hambling
David Hockney

Below are instructions for accessing images on the internet.
When searching the following websites, read the descriptions carefully as many artists have used more than one medium.

You may wish to monitor pictures that you feel are unsuitable for children.

For the National Gallery:

Launch the Internet
Type address:
Click on row of images to enter site
'Collection' in top left corner
Full collection index
Select letter of the alphabet to start the artist's name
Choose the artist
Choose small image
Click on picture for larger image
Click on the larger picture to get the largest possible version
Print, if wanted

For the Tate Gallery:

Enter Tate website
Collections - search
Search collections
Enter artist's name
Chooses picture (+ details)
Click on to enlarge
Print, if wanted



The children could try a mixed medium painting, using paints of one colour only, all with different binders. They could try changing the texture of the paints by adding sand, chalk or sawdust, etc. and make samples for everyone to use as a reference for future projects.

The study of different periods of art history will reveal how artists have responded to new materials and techniques. A visit to a local museum or art exhibition should provide first hand experience of the effects and textures possible through a variety of media.