REVIEW: Boulder Colors Food Waste Watercolors

Flowers, and Fruits, and Tree Bark, oh my! Amanda and Peng Fan of Boulder Colors create their paints from all sorts of natural items – Red cabbage, Peach pits, Moss, and more. If it’s organic, locally sourced in Boulder, Colorado, and can give up some color, it’s likely been used.

What started as a homeschool project turned into a business. Not satisfied with just watercolors, Boulder Colors also makes edible food coloring, pigment salts, coloring pages and postcards, nail polish, and instructional material. Today, I’ll be talking about the paints made using a Lake Pigment process.

The Boulder Colors Mission

Amanda Fan of Boulder Colors. Photo taken with permission from the Boulder Colors Instagram website.

Normally, I’d put this at the end of my review, but in this case I think it’s an important part of Boulder Colors business, and why you might be tempted above and beyond the joy of using the colors.  This is a statement from their website:

“Boulder Colors exists, first and foremost, to honor the hard work of small scale farmers. Ten percent of every sale goes to support our local famers (recipients and projects change seasonally, follow us on Instagram to see who we’re currently working with).”

Food waste is collected from local restaurants and Farmer’s Markets to create these colors.  

In a recent article, Amanda Fan said:

“My goal eventually is to put myself out of business by teaching everyone else how to make their own local paints.” 

I asked Amanda whether she felt she was directly reducing food waste or just extending its use.  Her response was:

“The edible paints are a way for me to directly reduce food waste. I use the edible but not necessarily pretty parts to make the paint in the same way that producers turn “ugly” carrots into cute, more commercially palatable baby carrots. In terms of lake pigments (90% of our paints), some restaurants were previously not composting their organic waste, but every one I work with now has compost set up so in that sense I did help reduce food waste, but generally no: extracting the dye is just adding an extra step before compost to get a little bit more life out of the plants.”

Boulder Colors Watercolor Closeup of paints

The Colors 

These paints are created using a Lake Pigment process. 

What are Lake Pigments?

There’s a question that can send you down a technical rabbit hole! My very simplified understanding is that you extract dye from the source, bind it to a metallic salt, it goes volcanic, and then becomes a solid,  which is mixed with a binder (any mistakes in this description are all mine). Boulder Colors uses a watercolor binder made of plum and cherry tree syrup, vegetable glycerin, and water rather than gum arabic.

Fortunately, Boulder Colors has lots of videos showing the steps, and you can purchase instructional materials that explain it all step-by-step, and in detail, if you are curious.

The  colors are all vegan, locally sourced, and organic.

All of the colors I was given are earthy.  A lot of greens and browns of every shade. A surprising number of blues. Yellow-greens, rusty-red browns, honey-yellows, and tans. I was curious as to whether the colors were always earthy, so I asked Amanda. She said:

“No way! Mother Earth gives us the full rainbow, you just have to know a bit about the plant’s pigment nutrients and how they react to pH and heat changes. Madder and certain tannins can give reds, fennel makes an almost neon yellow, and certain flowers can be fermented to brighten their colors.”

A lot of the colors are similar, but they do differ in color, intensity, granulation, and opacity.

Each batch of a certain color might be a little different because the source material was grown in different soil, or the weather was different that growing season. Colors are made in small batches, so like most handmade paints, colors are available when they’re available. Some colors might be made repeatedly, and others might only be made once.

The colors are named after the source not the actual color, so look closely.  Looking at a range of colors on the website, peach pits create blue color, purple plums make green, and black cherries make orange. Different parts of the same sources might create a totally different color.

These are the colors that I have.

Boulder Colors Watercolor Stone Fruits Palette
Boulder Colors Watercolor Roots Palette
Boulder Colors Watercolor Tree Bark Palette

The Characteristics

I wouldn’t expect these paints to act like typical watercolors, and they don’t. They behave a bit differently, and have a distinct finished look that is different.

 In fact, I think of them as another kind of water media, like gouache and casein. I’ll discuss this in more detail with the examples.

Given the wide range of source materials, I was surprised how consistent the characteristics of the colors were in the sets that I have.

  • Most of them granulate beautifully.
  • Most of them are transparent to semi-transparent. There are exceptions – Madder is way opaque!   
  • They have a slow dispersion – even with lots of water, they don’t spread out too fast or too far. This makes them easy to control, but limits the juicy effects.
  • They don’t activate too easily. It takes quite a bit of water and working with the brush to get the color working.
  • It could be the weather, but the paints themselves dry quickly in the pan. I keep adding water to keep them wet.
  • None of them are very staining.  It’s easy to lift color, but I didn’t have too much trouble with them lifting by accident.
  • There is a definite color shift, with colors becoming much lighter once dry.  
    • It’s really easy to get soft, misty effects.  
    • It’s easier to get dark values by layering wet over dry rather than trying to get dark, intense values the first time around.
  • Paper always makes a difference, but I definitely found that to be the case with these paints. On cellulose, they can be streaky (though not terribly so).  On cotton paper, they settle right in.  
  • The finish is more flat and softer than you see with watercolor pigments or gouache. 

Some of the colors crack in the pan, but it doesn’t make any difference to their performance.

Please keep in mind that other colors from other food and plant sources may act differently. I asked Amanda about lightfastness, and she replied:

“Our lake pigments range from 4-6 on the lightfastness scale: they are way more stable than natural inks, similarly lightfast to other synthetic pigments, but not permanent like most mineral pigments. Fermentation can be used to increase lightfastness and certain pigment nutrients like tannins are more lightfast so it really depends on the ingredient.” 

She recommends contacting her if you have questions about lightfastness. 

I’ve mentioned before that I see these as different from big company watercolors in ways that gouache and casein are different. 

I say this because some people might try these, and give up on them immediately, because they aren’t what they expected. That would be sad.

Boulder Colors Watercolor Example Paintings

I’ve been using these colors a lot this month, and you can do some amazing things with them. Like most watercolors, their formulation makes them better for some techniques than others.

You can get some beautifully, complex results, which requires some knowledge and experience. They always do.

Fortunately, using these paints with medium amounts of water, a medium stiff brush, and decent paper — even a beginner can get happy results.

These paints have a distinct look. One of the things I try to do with my reviews is help people know if an art supply is the right one for them. If you want paints with the usual, traditional finish, and intense, brilliant colors then this is not your brand. If you like earthy colors with a unique finish, then it is.

Let me show you what I discovered with my paintings.


Boulder Colors Watercolor Landscape painting example

This example was done using a wet-into-wet for an initial layer of color, and then less juicy mixes of water to layer wet onto dry for detail. I used a 100% cotton cold press paper, which has a medium texture.

Even with the standing puddles of water, the paints moves slowly, and they lightened quickly.  The slow dispersion gives you more control, and the light color invites layering. It doesn’t give you quick, loose effects, or immediate intense color.

Color lifted beautifully. There was no real red or yellow in my set, just reddish brown and yellow-green, but the earth tones created a soft and serene feeling. 

The finished look made me think of something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Because hot press paper is smoother, paint sits on the surface longer, and will often dry brighter. I chose a 100% cotton hot press for my second test, following the same process as the first. 

Color lifted well, dispersion was about the same, and I got the same soft, misty look.

I was surprised on two counts. One, the color shift was about the same, and the dried color was no brighter than it was on the cold press paper. The second was the amount of granulation.  Granulation usually occurs when heaver particles settle in to the wells of the paper. Cold press has wells, but hot press not so much.

This told me that some of the colors at least, wold granulate even without deeper wells. 

That made me happy — I like granulation, and it happened evenly.  I wasn’t getting blotches or areas with no color.

I liked the look I was getting, but I still couldn’t think of what it reminded me of.

I decided to do a third test using 100% percent cotton rough.  This surface has the deepest wells. 

Normally, this would be the paper with the most granulation.  But I decided to test for two things — one I wanted to see if I could get a glow going, and I wanted to try for darker values through layering. 

To up the values of the color, I used less water this time.

I did more color lifting (which erases some of the granulation), and I also added more layers of color to darken the values (which also erases some of the granulation). 

There is definitely more of glow but it’s still more subtle than with many of my watercolor brands.

And it finally clicked — the look of these paints made me think of old vintage postcards and magazine ads from the 50’s and 60’s. 

Boulder Colors Watercolor Sample Painting of Flowers

For this example, I decided to switch to a cellulose paper.  I found that the colors were a bit more streaky. This can be affected by sizing, so the streaking might be less on other cellulose papers. 

Note that the light blue poppy pods, where I used more water and a softer brush, did not streak.  

If you look back up at the Chia Pet Hedgehog in the collage above — I used the streakiness for texture by using a dabbing motion rather than long strokes. Knowing how your paints and paper work together, gives you a wider range of techniques.

For my last example, I took the vintage postcard look another step, and went for more of a Sunday paper cartoon feeling.  It was pretty simple. I drew my picture with a waterproof pen, and then just painted in broad strokes. I didn’t lift any color, and I layered to get my shading.

BoulderColors sells their paints in round, half pans and in square quarter pans. They are usually in sets, but dot cards are available, and there is a monthly membership where you get three pans of color each month.

Boulder Colors – Overall

BoulderColors watercolor paints  are handmade using food, flowers, plants, barks, mosses and many other locally sourced materials. Many of their materials come from local restaurants, farmers markets, and 10% of the sales go to support local farmers.

These colors have a unique finish that reminds me of vintage postcards or Sunday newspaper cartoons. By choosing your paper, the ratio of water to paint, and the stiffness of your brush, you can create a variety of complex paintings and looks.

These are fun paints that have a distinct look. The colors are produced in small batches, so only a small variety of colors is available at any given time.  

Boulder Colors also sells edible watercolors, pigment salts, coloring pages, and postcards, nail polish, and instructional materials so that you can learn to make your own watercolors.

Tools & Links

Hahnemühle Collection Watercolor Cold Pressed 9×12 Inches 300gsm, Rough 9.5×12.6 Inches 300gsm

ZenART Verbena 17-pc Brush Set for Acrylic and Watercolor

Colorado artist turns food waste into whimsical watercolor paints – PBS Article


Having received these sets of Boulder Colors from a friend, and thought other people would be interested in the product. Boulder Colors did not ask for this review. I received no other considerations, though this post may contain affiliate links which help support Doodlewash. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.

Recommended4 recommendationsPublished in Art Supply Reviews

16 thoughts on “REVIEW: Boulder Colors Food Waste Watercolors

  1. Oh yes Sandra, I love Boulder Colors. Amanda is amazing and she is such a good example of how business can be ethical and community based. I have so many of their paints, I just find it hard to know when to use them. I found them a little bit opaque maybe? Maybe I will try more 🙂

    Sparkling Heart
    • sandra-strait
    1. Thank you, Ainhoa! I only have one that I find really opaque, but with so many sources I’m sure there are others. I did find that it was harder to keep the paints moist and they don’t disperse as widely in water as traditional watercolor. That means they go down thicker if you don’t take care. I kept a syringe full of water on hand, and kept adding water to the pans to help keep them moist and so I could keep them more transparent.

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