ESCANABA – For many, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is considered a hidden paradise – a refuge from the hectic nature of city life. With forests full of beautiful creatures, thousands of miles of coastline, and a wide variety of foliage, UP’s overall appeal appeals to those seeking a nature-based lifestyle. Other times, however, travelers stumble across the Mackinac Bridge with the goal of exploring as many remote areas as possible in their lifetime.
For Carlynne Welch, both scenarios are true.
“It has always been difficult to keep me at home” said Welch. “If I have free time, I want to go drive somewhere.”
Like many, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic left Welch in an uncomfortable spot. After moving from his hometown of Houston, Texas to Cincinatti, Ohio, the bombardment of security protocols and lockdowns was enough to drive anyone crazy. However, Welch, who had spent years researching the cultural and natural areas within the 100-mile radius of her hometown, could not be contained by the quarantine. While citizens were told not to leave their homes unless it was essential, Welch did what any lone wanderer would do – pack up all their belongings and isolate themselves in the wild.
“With the quarantines, it was like ‘Stay home’ and I was like ‘Oh no, I can’t do this. I will stay away from people in a nice place,” said Welch.
Accompanying Welch’s outer isolation was a new passion for creating handmade pigments and watercolors using natural ingredients. In a quest to find vibrant rocks and soils to turn into paint, Welch ventured to the Lower Peninsula while living in Cincinatti. During her first visit to Sleepy Bear Dunes, Welch began collecting what she thought were colored rocks. After conversing with locals, however, Welch was advised to wander further north to find what she was looking for.“Everyone I talked to about what I was doing told me I had to go to UP. They told me the rocks I was picking up would look like pastels in comparison,” said Welch. “So I started visiting and couldn’t help but come here. I’ve probably been here five times in a few months, car camped and just fell in love with the place.
After spending days on the shore of Lake Superior, picking agates, Yooperlites and magnetite in the Grand Marais area, Welch had convinced herself that the Upper Peninsula was the place to be. Trading his house in Cincinnati for a “Yoper Hunting Camp,” her dream of making and selling pigments, watercolors and other forest projects came true.
“I’m always looking for new things that could be painted. In UP it was mostly rock pigments, clays and different types of soils,” said Welch. “I was very impressed with specular hematite, just because it’s so shiny. I’d say my favorite to work with would be sandstone because it’s so easy.
Welch begins her creative process by running the pebbles and rocks she has gathered through a rock crusher, which breaks them into a fine powder. With harder rocks, like granite, the amount of grinding effort required to create the fine powder is much greater compared to softer rocks, like sandstone.
“The granite rocks from UP are so hard they absolutely destroy the chains inside my rock crusher and snap them right off their post”, said Welch.
The process of making the paint, according to Welch, is quite simple. Tools needed include a tempered glass surface, palette knife, watercolor binder, paint grinder, and watercolor pan. Tempered glass provides a non-reactive and sturdy surface to combine necessary ingredients, while being extremely easy to clean. The palette knife is used to break up the existing clumps in the pigment and initially combine the pigment and the watercolor binder, which will be spread on the surface of the tempered glass in equal parts.
Once well combined, a paint grinder – or any flat-bottomed tchotchke – is used to completely encapsulate each pigment particle with the binder. By moving the future paint suit in a circular motion, with the grinder providing all the weight needed to do the job, the paint will be ready as soon as any remaining clumps are gone.
To test the readiness, the paint is sampled on watercolor paper. If the pigment does not hold or seems light, the mixing process continues. Once thoroughly mixed, the freshly prepared paint is transferred to a watercolor tray. This process can take 20 minutes to an hour. Before use, the paints are wetted with a brush and left to stand for three to five minutes.
“These are watercolor paints so I would recommend using on watercolor paper,” said Welch. “I’m not a very good painter. My passion is actually not painting at all. I really like to paint, so I design the watercolor pages so I don’t have to worry about me not being able to draw.
This paint-making process allowed Welch to research, explore, and experiment with different types of rocks, testing their quality, and discovering unique properties when using them as watercolor paints. Magnetite sand, for example, has color-changing properties and can be manipulated by a magnet to change its appearance once on paper.
In addition to transforming into “natural glitter” specular hematite also has color changing properties.
“Depending on how you use the paint, if you use a lot of water or a little water, it will change color,” said Welch. “If you leave it wet for a long time, it will rust and turn bright red. If you let it dry fast enough, it’s almost a purple or brown color.
While Welch primarily uses natural pigments, she has recently dipped her toes in fugitive pigments or lab pigments. Fugitive pigments are made using scientific processes, combining two substances together to create a reaction, which ultimately results in a new color. While natural pigments retain their exact color for eternity, fugitive pigments degrade with exposure to sun, humidity and time.
“I spent a lot of time researching how to create different colors that I normally can’t find in a historical process,” said Welch. “I made a pigment by combining copper-sulfur pentahydrate and sodium carbonate. These reactions can produce different colors and it’s like a chemical malachite.
When hunting rocks and pigments, Welch follows all local ordinances that outline the do’s and don’ts of a natural area. Additionally, Welch will buy from small businesses in the area, trying to give back as much as she took.
In an attempt to document her creative endeavors, Welch began uploading short video blogs of herself making paint to TikTok, a popular social media platform. While the original intent of the videos was strictly personal, other app users started noticing his work. The first video that caught people on his account was the transformation of Leland Blue, an industrial by-product of the steel industry, into pigment and then paint.
However, many followers came to Welch’s page after her mother gave her a makeup palette. As someone who doesn’t wear makeup, Welch decided to turn the palette into watercolor paints.
“My very posh mom gave me this makeup gift, so I decided I was definitely going to use it, but not how she wanted to,” said Welch. “I started turning into paintings, and these videos came up.”
As Welch’s small following on TikTok grew, people started sending her their expired makeup products. As she recorded the transformation of these expired products, Welch discussed relevant topics with her followers. Commenting on controversial makeup artists, like James Charles and Jeffree Star, more and more people began to follow and support Welch’s work. Cumulatively, Welch’s videos have garnered millions of views, with one receiving 15 million views alone.
“I had a couple makeup companies contact me and start sending me stuff, which I found hilarious,” said Welch. “People are really watching and a lot of them are interested. There’s a tremendous amount of support from people who follow my page.
Throughout all of his creative work, Welch has prioritized methods that focus on sustainability and environmental impact. Although being environmentally conscious takes a concerted effort, Welch thinks the payoff is worth it. Learning how to properly dispose of toxic chemicals, limiting consumption of mass-produced products, and adjusting dietary habits are just a few of the ways Welch is working to protect the planet.
“You get an Earth, and that Earth provides everything you could possibly need if you treat it right,” said Welch. “You can allow nature to heal itself over time to some extent, but once things get too dirty, it’s just a major issue.”
Welch runs her business through Etsy, an online platform that supports small artists. To find his shop, search “Etsy Bergette Pigments” on any search engine. All of her handmade pigments, watercolors, coloring pages and watercolor binders can be found there. Welch’s TikTok is @bergettepigments.
“I love painting and I love watercolor because it’s like instant gratification,” said Welch. “If I find a new rock and really get into it, at the end of the day that rock will be on a piece of paper. I can paint it right away.