Giving Crafts a Fresh Coat of Milk Paint

Mooove over acrylics, milk paint is back. In recent years, this medium has been popular for historical furniture reproduction, and even as a natural alternative to latex for interior walls, but have you considered using it for your latest DIY creation?

Found in everything from cave paintings to King Tut’s tomb, this handmade substance was a predominate component in decorative art for at least a few millenia, until the industrial revolution came along. Casein, the protein found in milk, makes an extremely durable binder for pigments to adhere to most porous surfaces. The rustic finish is not usually desirable for fine art, and it fell out of favor all together with the advent of convenient, but far more volatile, canned paint.

High demand in the home improvement market for water-based low or no VOC coatings has brought eco-friendly technology to mainstream retail stores, but I have yet to see it available in the small sizes that artists and crafters lean towards.

Making your own milk paint can be an inexpensive, natural alternative to collecting a zillion little plastic bottles of mass produced polymers. If acrylics are not disposed of correctly, synthetic resins can seep into ground water. Although most craft paints are non-toxic and water-based, their manufacturing and shipping contribute to pollution as well.

There are as many different ways to make milk paint as there are applications. It can be created quickly from dry powdered milk as needed by mixing 1 part powdered milk to 1 part water, and adding a color concentrate to achieve the desired shade. You could experiment with food coloring, Kool-Aid or cake dyes to start, but to go au natural, you’ll need pigments. I’ve listed some good tutorials and recipes below, as well as natural pigment suppliers. If I’m not mistaken, many of these pigments serve a dual purpose to dye fiber. I’ll be covering this subject in an upcoming post.

So, consider the possibilities… create your own textile designs on organic cotton, brighten up some old furniture, turn plywood trash into an art piece, or give your pet rock a bit more personality. Whatever the application, this is an eco-friendly alternative for one of the most problematic commercial supplies in existence:

Do you cry over spoiled milk? These companies offer milk paint in a dry form that is pre-mixed with pigments. The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company even has a product called “Safe Paint” that can be used on non-porous surfaces:

Image credit: meantux on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Written by Autumn Wiggins

This 2008 interview pretty much sums it up:

1. How would you describe yourself?
An oddly situated performer of thought experiments

2. Do you have any anecdotes about your work (how you got started, frustrating moments, or funny stories)?
At this year's Maker Faire in San Mateo, I gave a presentation on how the trend of green crafting can ultimately address the problem of consumption and waste. Dale Dougherty,the publisher of Make and Craft, later had a gift delivered to me, a staple bound book of poetry: Music Like Dirt by Frank Bidart. This is the last thing one would expect to take home from an event so focused on renegade technology. To my surprise, it was an existential reflection on the human need to make things that I now find myself going back to whenever I need some inspiration to look beyond the materials and processes of crafting.

3. What kinds of things do you do for fun?
In my spare time I enjoy amateur astronomy, outdoor adventures, collecting domain names, and hanging out at coffee shops.

4. What interesting projects are you working on right now?
I'm working to organize community involvement in upcycling, and have a few top-secret website projects up my sleeves!

5. Where do you live? Kids, pets, spouse, occupation?
O'Fallon, IL, a suburb (and I mean a totally typical suburb) of St. Louis, MO. Rather than moving to the more culture friendly urban environment, I am staying put and annoying the heck out of Wal-Mart by throwing a massive indie craft show(Strange Folk) in their backyard. I have a husband, Doug, and two sons: a 7 year old mad scientist named Jack, and 6 year old Max, who we think is an aspiring tattoo artist since he's so fond of drawing all over himself with markers. To pay the bills, I do freelance writing, mural painting, and website design, sell my handmade crafts, teach art classes for kids, and work part -time at a local coffee shop.

6. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
The concept known as "Cradle-to-Cradle" is a blueprint for sustainability that states everything we manufacture should be either biodegrable, infinitely recyclable, or intended to be upcycled. This is the basis for many of my ideas of how the crafting community can be more widely involved in solving the environmental crisis.

7. What is your favorite food/color/tool?
granola/green/sewing machine!


Leave a Reply
  1. this is so cool, even after 7 years of art in college I never made my own paint- and felt because most of it was so toxic I rather not delve into DIY paint making. But the way you describe milk paint is pretty easy, except that even though pigments are natural, breathing in their dust in concentrated forms is still unhealthy since many minerals are metals. (That’s why Van Go cut off his ear 😉 ).

  2. Thanks for a wonderful article Autumn and keep up the call out to improving our mother earth.We can never do enough.If i could i would paint a golden stroke of milk paint around the world to pass on the message.

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