From Rocks to Riches

Our icon guild meeting in August featured Part Two of geologist, Wayne Homens discussion of the toxicity of pigments.  Samples were brought in for identification and then grinding the matter into usable pigments.  Safe to say this presentation was a smash hit--no pun intended!

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Wayne and Wayne — Two men and a hammer


A bucket of poisonous beauty

Wayne focused on the toxicity of rocks, gems and minerals used in iconography and before you read on and think afterward to throw away your pigments, boards and brushes, let’s keep things in perspective —  for instance, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes and peppers are members of the nightshade family; you would have to eat a bushel of the delicious vegetables to become ill so continue to enjoy without fear of being poisoned.  Apricot, cherry, peach pits contain cyanide along with apple seeds and almonds; but who chews the pits or seeds of these fruits and nuts?  Toothpaste carries a warning to contact a poison control center if more than a pea-sized drop is swallowed by children under the age of six as children since fluoride can be fatal if too much is consumed.  The list of toxic foods and products are increasing as a number of new chemicals are introduced into our water and food sources as well as old chemicals still leaching into our food production.

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Ready to crush!

The operative words — “if too much is consumed.”  Since we are (hopefully) not eating or drinking while painting, licking our brushes or putting our nose directly into the fine ground of pigments; as long as you are aware of the toxicity of certain pigments and pay attention to what you are doing you will have no great worries.  Be aware and not phobic about using these beautiful colors.  Though that big chunk of realgar sitting in my bag scares me a little … There are three ways pigments can be absorbed into our bodies:  inhalation, direct contact by mouth, and absorption through the skin.


Pigmentsts are listed as: safe, moderately risky and hazardous or highly toxic, toxic or slightly toxic.  When grinding pigments at home by yourself, always wear a mask and gloves, wash your hands frequently and use a wet paper towel to mop up powdered pigments as a vacuum cleaner will distribute particulate debris around your work space.  To lessen the contribution of heavy metals into our water supply, use a wet paper towel to clean your palette as opposed to washing used pigments down the drain.  Fortunately during icon workshops our instructors mix the pigments for us but many of us have been just fine mixing our own when working at home.  Awareness is the key to painting safely.

Invited to bring our own specimens for identification during Part One of this series, Monica and Lydia brought their rock they found in Greece over 20 years ago.  Not only was it identified but Wayne chiseled a chunk and polished it into a nice piece to make into a necklace!  We crushed up Purple Jade, Realgar, Black Granite, Ochre, Lapis, Azurite, Malachite and Jasper all afternoon without fear of being poisoned after we listened to the presentation by Wayne.  Just handle with care and wash your hands afterward!


Rock identified! Bringing smiles to Lydia and Monica


Monica and Lydia’s Greek lava rock-original and smaller piece polished

While we were busy chiseling, hammering and grinding, Wayne took a walk around the grounds of the Shrine looking for more interesting samples and found several garnets in a chunk of rock–when you know what to look for, you can find gems in anything, including yourself:)

The rest of the day was spent making pigments and discussing various aspects of their uses.  We learned which pigments will gray out when mixed with others, what pigments will hold up for an eternity if kept our of sunlight and overall, Wayne gave us a little glimmer of our surroundings so when you see people walking around with their heads down and they haven’t a cell phone texting, they may be looking for specimens to grind up for use!  Coffee, berries and other plants were described in a minor detail but it may be a plan for the next discussion on vegetable and plant matter that can be used to paint?

If you want to learn more about rocks, gems and minerals along with their uses, Wayne cordially invites you to attend his Third Thursday Rock Night.  Held the yes, you got it, Third Thursday of each month beginning at 7:00 pm — you are welcome to bring any specimen you have and meet other “rock hounds” who are happy to discuss any and all aspects of rock hunting.  There are several mines in Maryland you can excavate some wonderful specimens and we plan future field trips to these areas as we are hooked on rocks!  Wayne Homen can be reached on (410) 419-2963 or you can find more information on


Granite as pigment


Black granite found in the 911 Memorial at the Shrine


Muscle + Patience = Pigment


Azurite and malachite together


Painting with azurite and malachite


Two Wayne’s grinding in harmony


“Opening of the Book of Life” Look close!


“Flight into Egypt” look closer and you can see the Life of Christ in stone


Even rocks glorify their Creator–can you see the Last Supper in the rock?


Beautiful specimens waiting to be crushed


Ladies in waiting for their date with a hammer


Siham and Wayne in rapt attention with Wayne Homens


Grinding Lapis into usable pigment


New student Yolanda with her husband Jorge


Stella and daughter Stacie came to experience the joys of pigments!

Our raffle was held after the demonstrations and discussions and the winner is … Cathy!! Cathy won a beautiful set of pigments and three guest passes to Hillwood Museum.  Cathy is an amazing oil painter and has decided to learn egg tempera.  A member with our guild since December, she actively participates in our guild and loves the all day icon painting sessions.  Most stayed after the wonderful discussion to continue working on our icons until 6pm and then we headed off to our favorite restaurant–Great Sage!


Cathy wins!


Another beautiful icon from Tatiana


Deko working while listening

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