To clean up her artistic act, Leah Fanning Mebane had to get a little dirty.

To clean up her artistic act, Leah Fanning Mebane had to get a little dirty.

Soil has supplied the Jacksonville artist's paint for the past year. Excised from nearby landscapes, dried, crushed, sifted and mixed with walnut oil, the earth has grounded Mebane's art in her environmental ethic while emphasizing her source of inspiration.

"Most of my abstracts are definitely inspired by nature: patterns in nature, color combinations in nature," Mebane says.

Titled "Painting From the Earth," an exhibit of Mebane's abstract canvases opens this week at Medford's Rogue Gallery & Art Center and runs through April 10. It's Rogue Gallery's first solo show comprising work rendered in all-natural pigments, says Jules Masterjohn, the gallery's executive director.

"What she's doing is ... really a lost art," Masterjohn says.

Mebane, 33, spent about a year researching the origins of natural pigments and how to make them. Digging up just a single book on the topic — "Colors From the Earth," published in 1980 by Anne Wall Thomas — Mebane experimented with numerous soil samples from a variety of locations to produce a serviceable stain. Clay, particularly from exposed slopes, makes the best paint, she says.

"Even quarries or roadbed cuts or creek cuts," Mebane says. "Just driving up and down the road is where I got most of this."

Also known as ocher, clay yields brown, red and yellow tones used in the earliest works of art. Belying their humble origins, many paintings on cave walls and other stone surfaces remain vibrant despite millennia of exposure to the elements.

"It's the most permanent type of paint," Mebane says, adding that natural pigments don't fade under ultraviolet rays.

Light passes more easily through the larger, coarser particles composing earth-based paint, compared with commercial paint, Mebane says. And the textures of a natural-pigment piece come from the actual paint, which suspends granules of sand and marble dust, rather than relying on the buildup of paint layers, she adds.

"They're more luminous; there's more light quality."

Mebane's earlier work, particularly portraiture, borrowed brilliance from an unearthly palette of conventional oil paints, many containing chemical-based dyes, others heavy metals, such as lead, cobalt and mercury. Although derived from pine resin, the turpentine often used in oil painting emits noxious fumes, polluting the air and watershed, Mebane says. Nearing the end of her first pregnancy, Mebane says concern for her unborn child accelerated her conversion to nontoxic art supplies, which came with a fringe benefit.

"They're way cheaper," Mebane says of natural, handmade pigments.

Free for the taking, dirt shows its true colors when mingled with walnut oil from local grocery stores. Flaxseed oil, also called linseed oil, has been used in oil paints — even modern, commercial ones — for centuries, Mebane says, but it tends to yellow over time.

"The old masters in the Renaissance, they all used walnut oil."

Requiring only the barest equipment, Mebane's recipe for making paint also is an age-old process. After drying soil samples for several days, she pulverizes them in a mortar and pestle and runs them through a hand-cranked flour sifter, a kitchen tool that's gone the way of antique shops. A flat-headed glass implement, called a muller, emulsifies the soil and oil into paint, which lasts about two days exposed to air.

"I usually just make it as I need it," says Mebane.

What she can't make, Mebane purchases from the Arizona-based Earth Pigments Co., which marries minerals and natural ochers to produce hues on the other end of the spectrum. Green pigments can be obtained from ocean deposits, which she's never located, Mebane says.

While commonplace chalk and charcoal yield white and black, cool colors are notoriously hard to glean from nature, she says, adding that plant-based pigments degrade when adulterated with oil.

"All throughout history, people have searched for different ways to get blues and greens and purples."

Those hues are markedly subdued in Mebane's most recent canvases, of which about 25 will make up the Rogue Gallery show. A full-time artist for five years, Mebane has displayed similar abstract paintings over the past year in Rogue Gallery's rental and sales space and was selected from 20 artists who applied for solo exhibits, Masterjohn says. Mebane is the only local artist who has come to the gallery's attention for working exclusively in natural pigments, Masterjohn adds.

"Not only do the materials, themselves, come from the Earth ... but the subject matter feels very nature-oriented," Masterjohn says.

Living close to nature outside Jacksonville, Mebane grows vegetables, keeps chickens and inhabits a straw-bale and cob house with her husband, Drew.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail