Petaluma artist Ane Carla Rovetta makes color from nature

From her studio in west Petaluma, Ane Carla Rovetta bridges the divide between art and science. See how she creates paints from pigments collected from nature and turns them into works of fine and decorative art.|

From a cozy chicken coop in west Petaluma, Ane Carla Rovetta bridges the divide between art and science.

Here, in a studio filled with vials, jars and containers neatly stacked and organized in cubbies, she makes magic like a chemist from ancient times, mixing up paints from pigments collected from nature and turning them into works of fine and decorative art - everything from paintings to frescoes.

Her paints are made in the same way Renaissance masters created theirs, from soil, stone and other substances. Rovetta also makes inks from the same oak galls used by Leonardo da Vinci and wet lime plaster like Michelangelo.

Keeping the old ways alive, she researches the old recipes and like a good chef, devises her own. Carbon soot, iron, green tea, redwood cones, oak galls, walnuts, pomegranates, sumac, bay and brazil wood become the ingredients for ink. For paints, she collects soils and stone from all over the United States, and grinds them into pastel chalks or paints. She mixes in milk, buttermilk, egg yolk, egg whites, soap, soap-root plant, tree saps or soy as binders to hold her paint to the page. Rovetta even makes her own paper.

With these earthen pigments, the 64-year-old artist, who gives new meaning to the term “old school,” captures the California landscape and wildlife in deep and rich hues, fiery sunsets, milky clouds.

Nothing delights her more than ?to engage in experiments to create ?new pigments by hand for her ever-?expanding wheel of colors, all without artificial chemicals.

She says people frequently ask why she would go to all that bother, especially when the advances in acrylic paints within the last century freed artists from the labor of mixing their own.

But Rovetta finds something deeply satisfying about starting a piece of artwork before her color hits a canvas.

“Literally, you’re starting your painting when you’re mixing your paints,” she said.

“To me, that is a part of the artistic process, especially when I’m making papyrus and out collecting plants. Then my painting is starting out in the marsh because I’m collecting tule for the papyrus.”

She teaches the process of creating natural pigments through classes and workshops for children and adults at places such as the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation and Point Reyes Field Seminars.

“Children love the grinding, especially the hyperactive boys,” said the artist, who annually accompanies seventh-graders to Joshua Tree National Park, where they go out into the desert and make paint on site, including their own brushes out of Joshua Tree needles that they use - and respectfully leave behind.

Rovetta grew up with a deep appreciation for nature’s artistic gifts through her grandfather, Carlo Antonio Rovetta, a master marble cutter who did a?lot of work for the 19th-century industrialist Leland Stanford.

He discovered a marble quarry outside the town of Jackson that produced a beautiful pink marble prized by Stanford and incorporated into several buildings at Stanford University.

Unfortunately, an earthquake drove the marble deep into the ground and out of reach.

Rovetta said her father, perhaps remembering the financial calamity of his father’s mine, told his daughter not to become an artist. Despite her love for art, she instead became a biologist.

After college she found herself working for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, now called Point Blue, doing research in the Farrallon Islands.

There, she found a way to combine science with art by making realistically detailed biological illustrations out of pen and ink, contributing to field guides and books. In those days, there was no way to quickly develop film so scientists still relied on illustrators to document species.

She did that for 12 winters during the elephant seal season. And it was at that time that she became intrigued with the possibility of making her own inks.

“Some were done by collecting soot. And there were all these oils you can collect soot from. So you can either collect carbon soot that goes into India ink or you can soak plant parts or you can create chemical inks,” she said.

Adding iron to cooked oak galls for instance, will create the same kind of ink used by the Founding Fathers to write the Constitution. Including iron can be as simple as throwing a horseshoe into the mix.

Instead of fading, this natural ink gets darker with time. So she loves to relate to students that the words of the Constitution are only getting stronger.

She went on from there to develop paints from nature, experimenting with different stones and soils.

Rovetta also creates decorative frescoes and tiles using lime, which she keeps aged in tubs in her studio, and old-fashioned milk paint, which is undergoing a revival by people who like to refurbish and decorate old furniture with paint.

The advantage is that it is completely nontoxic, she said.

The milk, Rovetta explained, acts as a binder for the pigments, the way polymers do in latex paints and oils do in oil-based paints.

“That is how they did all the barns in Pennsylvania,” Rovetta said.

“One of the reasons the barns were red is because they would make this milk paint and then stir in red clay and paint the barn from this clay milk mixture, which became waterproof.”

The color proved so appealing that red became a standard color for barns, imitated all over the country.

Rovetta’s paintings of the Northern California landscape and its wildlife, such as eagles, owls and the endangered Salt Harvest Mouse, don’t have the same precise detail like her early biological drawings.

But the pigments from nature lend them a much different kind of realism.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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