Introduction: Make Paint/Dye From Natural Materials Like Cochineal Bugs!

About: We're the spectrUM Discovery Area, a hands-on science museum in Missoula, MT. We have a physical museum located within the Missoula Public Library, but also create science kits, lead teacher professional devel…

This is part of a series of Instructables intended for teachers about educating students in the classroom around making and tinkering. For a full list of other Instructables see our collection or the .pdf Making and Tinkering Cookbook at the end of this Instructable. For more on the project itself and how our museum shares these activities with students and teachers, see this video on YouTube.

Making your own paint (and even paintbrushes!) is a rewarding way to create all the aspects of your own art. It's amazing how many different colors you can get out of a single pigment material by experimenting with a bit of chemistry. We'll be showing the process to create paint out of cochineal bugs, but there are many other common materials you can use with this process to create a variety of colors - we'll share other examples and ideas throughout this 'ible.

Cochineal bugs have actually been used for a very, very long time as a reddish dye for paints, to dye clothing, for lipstick and cosmetics, and even in a variety of foods (though that is less common because of allergies and the preponderance of dyes like Red Dye 40 derived from petrochemicals). In looking for foods that still contain carmine at the grocery store I only came up with two hits - Good 'n Plenty candies and some Dannon strawberry yogurt. I suggest reading the linked Wikipedia article about their history and use, and doing further research - it is quite interesting to think about how various cultures throughout history have created paints, pigments and dyes from things in the natural world. When smashed up and mixed with various chemicals, the carminic acid in the bugs (which deters predators from eating them, incidentally) makes a deep red, purple, or even orange depending on the pH of the chemicals used. We'll be exploiting this property to create different colors for painting so let's get started!

This Instructable is entered into the Paint Contest, so please vote and comment if you find it useful or helpful in any way!


  • Cochineal bugs - I buy them on Amazon, they can sometimes be found at hobby/craft stores. A little goes a LONG way, a 1 oz bottle is enough for 50-60 students if you are using this in the classroom and more than enough if you're doing this at home for yourself!
  • A mortar and pestle - if you don't have one, you *may* have luck with a coffee grinder, but use care and common sense and don't ruin your coffee grinder
  • Watercolor paper or thicker paper like card stock - if you use regular copy paper it may warp and curl
  • A variety of paintbrushes - I'll share some ideas about how to make your own if you don't have one
  • Small containers like condiment containers or dixie cups
  • A variety of MILD acids and bases that can include the following. SAFETY DISCLAIMER: Use common sense, and don't mix chemicals together like bleach/ammonia. Many of the below are non-toxic and not caustic so pretty safe to handle but wear gloves and goggles!
    • Lemon juice (makes a nice orange-ish color)
    • Household vinegar (makes a black/dark purple color)
    • Hydroden Peroxide (makes a dark purple color)
    • Alum/Aluminum phosphate (makes a real nice maroon)
    • Soda ash (similar to Alum but a little darker purple)
    • If you're making your own paint brushes the following are helpful:
    • Random small sticks from your yard
    • Bamboo chopsticks
    • String
    • Cotton balls
    • A sponge
    • Hot glue
    • Pet hair (horse hair is the best)
    • Pine needles
    • Q-tips

Step 1: Grind Up Your Dye

Once you've gathered your supplies, it's time to do the fun part - using the mortar and pestle! To make a small amount of paint, use 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of the bugs and put them in the mortar and pestle. Grind them up - I find it best to use a stirring motion with a bit of constant pressure. Don't slam the pestle (the stick part) into the mortar (the bowl part), or they can crack. I also find it helpful to have the mortar on the table and hold the bottom with one hand while stirring the pestle with the other. We want to make your bugs into a fine powder. If you have a magnifying glass or microscope, I recommend looking at the dried out bugs before crushing - they look pretty cool! You'll want to grind them for a little bit until you have a fine powder. Finer is better, as any big chunks will be visible in your paint once you spread it on the paper.

If you do not have cochineal bugs or are grossed out by them (understandable), here are some alternatives that you can try to make paint out of or use to supplement your cochineal paint:

  • The spice turmeric is phenomenal to make yellows and oranges
  • Butterfly pea flower makes a nice, rich blue and also is a tea!
  • Coffee grounds for brown
  • Dead flowers (try rose petals)
  • The spice paprika can also make some nice oranges
  • Onion peels are good for yellow
  • Grass or spinach for green
  • Chalk or baby powder for white
  • Wood ash if you have a fireplace can make grey, charcoal for black

Step 2: Mix With a Mild Acid or Base

Now, you have two options - if you are going to create a few different colors, I would dump your powder into a small bowl or container and mash up a few different batches. If you're just doing one paint or only one paint at a time, leave it in the mortar and mix directly, washing the mortar and pestle between colors.

If you are doing this with student in a classroom, I recommend getting small dixie cups or condiment cups for them to empty the bugs into, and then coming around with the chemicals and giving them a choice of 2 or 3 colors to make. I painted an example of what each color is produced with various chemicals (see above photo). This is helpful in getting students to decide. Also, I would not have them pour their own chemicals - not so much for safety as to prevent them from pouring too much!

The ratio of the bugs (or other dye) to the chemical is like 1:10 - I wouldn't water it down too much, but a bit of dye goes a very long way! You get quite a lot of paint out of 1/4 tsp of crushed cochineal bug, the same goes for turmeric and butterfly pea flower - YMMV with other dyes, experiment to see what works!

Step 3: Make a Painting!

Once you've created a color or two, grab your paintbrush and get to painting! It's great to mix various colors together on the paper, and use different painting techniques. Also notice above: the orange color is from vinegar. When you start painting it is that orange tint until it oxidizes a bit, then it turns a dark purple or black. Some of the chemicals do this, which can create some interesting shading, though it's an unpredictable process.

It's quite fascinating and interesting that the same dye substance creates a different paint based on the pH of the chemical (and some other factors). If you want to add a bit of chemistry to this activity, measure the pH of each chemical with litmus paper (or your favorite pH indicator) and see what hues are created by varying degrees of pH.

Step 4: OPTIONAL: Make a Paintbrush

It's just fine to use a regular paintbrush, but for the students I've done this with it was quite rewarding and fun to have them make their own paintbrushes. I don't have photos of the process but it is super simple - get a stick and glue or tie something that is absorbent or interesting to it. That's really it! I liked cutting out sponges and having the kids use scissors to create their own stamps, then hot glue them to the end of a chopstick. Q-tips are a good paintbrush as are cotton balls attached to a stick with string. Things like horse hair and pine needles make interesting patterns. Or, try using leaves of another plant - the sky is the limit here, so get creative.

The student paintings above (shared with permission) were created using stamps and handmade paintbrushes only, it's quite amazing what you can do with them. Also it's quite amazing the artwork that students will create and the clever things they come up with, as always!

Step 5: Explain, Expand and Evaluate

See the Making and Tinkering Cookbook in this step for more ideas for activities to try with your students, or our collection linked to in the first step.

If you are using this activity with a classroom of students, here are some questions to ask and explore:

Explain and Expand:

Design an art gallery in your space to showcase the creativity made using natural materials.

  • What can you do to make a lighter paint color?
  • What happened when you mixed the cochineal with liquid?
  • How can we make different colored paint mixtures?
  • What was the most absorbent material you used in your paintbrushes? Why was it so absorbent?
  • What happens to some of the paints as you spread them on the paper? Why do you think this happens?
  • What would happen if you left this painting out in the sun, or with half of it covered by something and half in the sun?
  • Observe what happens when two colors are blended on the paper and record your results. Why do you think it changed to the color that it did?
  • Would you eat a food that was colored with carmine from these bugs? (I enjoyed trolling the students by eating handfuls of Good 'n Plenty that contains this colorant while teaching this lesson...)


Here are some questions to ask during reflection:

  • Are there any other insects that are used to make dyes or pigments?
  • How is hue related to paint colors?
  • What would happen if we added cochineal extract to white fabric?
  • What did you learn about insect bodies today?
  • What are other things in nature that can be used in everyday life?
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