When Ashlander Leah Fanning was a painter for 15 years, the one thing she missed was paints that were natural, nontoxic, good for the planet and right out of the soil, like they were for the famous artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
She started trekking the Applegate, Greensprings and the Coast, finding soils whose bright colors come from minerals. Iron oxide (rust) brought red, orange, yellow and black. Titanium dioxide is white. Mica gave her gold.
Working out of her garage, Fanning in 2013 named her tiny company Natural Earth Paint and started packaging and selling the pure powdered pigments, which could be made into paint by mixing them with organic walnut oil.
Her products have rocketed in the market and are now stocked in 500 retail outlets in the U.S., with healthy sales in Canada, Europe and Australia. Annual sales have passed $300,000.
“As an artist, I waited and waited for someone to come out with pure pigments from nature, that were free of the usual toxic preservatives, heavy metals, fillers, additives. No one did,” she said.
“So I started doing it. I saw the demand. It was wonderful to see the colors were more radiant, luminous and vibrant than commercial paints and also archival, that is, they will last thousands of years, like the medieval painters’ work. Their art is still beautiful.”
The best soil minerals she’s found come from ancient mines in France and Italy, which served as the mother lode for the great European painters of history, even for cave art going back 20,000 years.
Based in a 2,000-square-foot shop on Hersey Street, Fanning and her four employees manufacture 19 different products or kits appealing to fine artists — and to children. She sells gesso, soap (made of fallen pines, to clean paint off your hands) and EcoSolve, a paint thinner made from soy oil.
Her children’s paints, safe face paint and Easter egg paint kit are big sellers, she says. The egg dyes are made from vegetables — beets, carrots, spinach, purple cabbage.
Fanning decries the pollutants found in commercial paint, mineral spirits, turpentine, noting, “They go into our air and water supply. They are horrible for the air we breath and dangerous for our health.”
A native of New Orleans, Fanning, 40, was a professional ballet dancer and abstract painter. She moved in 2006 with her then-husband to Ashland for its “eco-conscious” values, lived off-grid and built a cob house, which opened her eyes to how earth tones could be used to plaster and color the dwelling.
Her website is naturalearthpaint.com. Her personal art is at fanningart.com.
In Ashland, her paints are sold at Northwest Nature Shop, Small Change, Treehouse Books and Ashland Art Center. They are also sold over-the-counter at her plant, 330 Hersey St. In Medford, they can be found at Central Art Supply. The Whole Foods chain also carries them.
Fanning is looking for an investor-partner to sell three natural, nontoxic products that don’t exist yet anywhere in the world: a varnish that can be applied to paintings to protect them and make them glossy, a permanent fabric paint and make-your-own Valentines.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.