Crystalynn Tarr; Painting with Earth

Crystalynn Tarr is a natural painter who creates her own watercolours from the soil she collects from her travels throughout western Canada. Originally from Prince George, BC, she currently resides with her family in Nordegg, AB. She began her career painting landscapes in acrylics but was becoming uneasy about her desire to tread lightly on the land contrasted with the plastic, industry based medium she was using to convey the landscapes. In 2015 her desire to make her medium, ethics and subject matter congruent with one another came together as she began experimenting by collecting small samples of soils during her travels, extracting the pigments and creating her own paints.

Her works have been on tour throughout northern BC with the Two Rivers Art Gallery during the summer of 2015 as well as in solo and group shows at various pubic and commercial galleries in central BC and Alberta. They can also be found in private collections throughout Canada, the United States and Germany.

Currently, Crystalynn is working on an environmental project concerning 85km of the Peace River Valley from Hudson’s Hope to Fort St. John’s, BC that is slated to be flooded to make way for the highly controversial BC Hydro’s Site C Dam. Using the soil she collected from the proposed flood zone during a multi day paddle she is creating an exhibit depicting the landscape as it currently stands, in its natural state. She is also experimenting and expanding her hand made mediums to include handmade ink, charcoal sticks and paint brushes.

Her works can be viewed at and her process can be followed on Instagram @renderedearth


All work copyright of Crystalynn Tarr


The greater portion of my childhood was centered on the mountains of central British Columbia and the Boreal Forest around my home in Prince George. Hiking the Columbia and McGregor mountain ranges in central British Columbia with my family and foraging the yard for berries and mushrooms with my Grandma were childhood highlights that have fueled a lifelong quest of learning and exploration. The adventurous spirits of my parents and my Grandma’s love for botany shaped my desire for the exploration of landscape and its uses. I came across the method of extracting pigments from the soil and processing them into watercolour paints several years ago while developing a history and online art curriculum for high school students.

The method of pigment extraction and processing is centuries old. First, the stones or soils are hand ground in a mortar and pestle until they are broken down as much as possible. Then using a levitation method the pigment, the fine sediments and clays, are separated from the larger particles and left to dry to a muddy consistency. Gum Arabic and glycerin are then added to the pigment and dehydrated into watercolour cakes. The recipe used is similar to that which the ancient Egyptians used for their paintings in the pyramids only I have substituted glycerin for honey to allow the cakes to become more malleable and reduce cracking.

The discovery that I could paint with pigments extracted from the soil was exhilarating and within two months earth had completely replaced acrylics as my medium of choice. Peace had replaced my anxiety as my subject, medium and ethics became congruent. Pen and ink was originally included in the process to resolve the issue of having only light and mid tones, however, I loved the illustrative quality that it brought to the work and I continue to use it even after the addition of darker tones to my palette.

Currently my palette has expanded to over 130 different pigments including various shades of purple, red, orange, green, grey, blacks and browns. Blue has been an evasive colour to find as it does not occur naturally in clays and soils but must be collected as a mineral. My search for vivianite, a blue mineral that occurs when spruce cones have been immersed in anaerobic conditions containing bacteria and iron rich clays, has sent me on several wet trips into boggy areas lately. My work sends me on a constant search of colour, geology and wonder.

Despite the lack of a full and consistently vibrant palette, I have noticed that the work is stronger. Perhaps it is that less is more or that the colours of the earth have a draw all of their own despite the image painted with them. I have had to learn to make due, to push my knowledge of colour theory to the edge and employ techniques used by old masters. The pigments do not act or mix in the same way as commercial pigments do; red and yellow do not necessarily make orange. Some pigments stain and some lift easily. My studio is a laboratory that facilitates the joy of lifelong learning and exploration.