Escanaba – For many, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is seen as a hidden paradise – a refuge from the fast-paced nature of city life. With forests filled with beautiful creatures, thousands of miles of coastline, and a variety of foliage, UP’s overall appeal attracts those looking for a nature-based lifestyle. However, at other times, travelers stumble across the Mackinac Bridge in an effort to explore as many outbacks as possible in their lives.
“It’s always been hard to keep me at home,” Welch said. “If I have any open time, I want to go by car somewhere.”
Like many, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has left Welch in an uncomfortable position. After moving from her hometown of Houston, Texas to Cincinnati, Ohio, the bombardment of safety protocols and lockdowns was enough to drive insane. However, Welch, who has spent years researching cultural and natural areas within a 100-mile radius of her hometown, cannot be contained in quarantine. While citizens were told not to leave their homes unless necessary, Welch did what any lone wanderer would – pack all their things and seclude them in the wilderness.
“With quarantine, they were like ‘stay home,’ and I was like ‘Oh no, I can’t do that. I’ll stay away from people somewhere nice” Welch said.
Welch’s outdoor solitude was a new passion for creating handcrafted pigments and watercolors using natural ingredients. In his quest to find vibrant rocks and soil to turn into paint, Welch ventured into the Lower Peninsula while living in Cincinnati. When first visiting Sleepy Bear Dunes, Welch began collecting what she thought were colored rocks. After speaking with locals in the area, Welch was advised to wander north to find what she was looking for.
“Everyone I talked to about what I’m doing told me I needed to go to UP, and they told me the rocks I was picking would look like pastels by comparison,” Welch said. “So I started visiting and couldn’t stop coming here. I probably came here five times in a few months, camped in a car, and fell in love with the place.”
After spending days on the shore of Lake Superior picking garnets, Yooperlites, and magnetites in the Grand Marais, Welch convinced herself that the Upper Peninsula was the right place. Trading her home in Cincinnati for a “Yooper Hunting Camp,” Her dream of making and selling dyes, watercolors, and other forestry projects has become a reality.
“I’m always looking for new things that could be paints. At UP, it was pigments for rocks, clay, and different types of soil in the first place,” Welch said. “I was very impressed with mirror hematite, just because it is so shiny. I would say my favorite sandstone is sandstone because it is so plain.”
Welch begins her creative process by running the pebbles and rocks she has collected through a rock crusher, which she breaks into a fine powder. With hard rocks, such as granite, the amount of grinding effort needed to create the fine powder is much greater than with softer rocks, such as sandstone.
“The granite stones from UP are so hard that they completely destroy the shackles inside my rock crusher and break them right off their site,” Welch said.
The process of making paint, according to Welch, is very simple. Tools required include a tempered glass surface, palette knife, watercolor label, paint moulder, and watercolor basin. Tempered glass provides a non-reactive and robust surface for incorporating required components, along with extremely easy cleaning. A palette knife is used to break up the clumps in the pigment and initially combine the pigment and water color, which will be sprayed onto the surface of the tempered glass in equal parts.
Once well combined, a paint muller – or any flat-bottomed chutchki – is used to completely coat each bit of the dye with the adhesive. Move the soon-to-be paint batch in a circular motion, the Muller provides all the weight needed to get the job done, and the paint will be ready as soon as any remaining lumps are gone.
To test for readiness, paint swatches are carried out on water-based paper. If the dye does not set or appears to be light, the thought process will continue. Once mixed well, the paint is freshly transferred to a watercolor container. This process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Before use, the paints are moistened with a brush and left to rest for three to five minutes.
“These are watercolors, so I recommend using them on watercolor paper,” Welch said. “I’m not a very good painter. My passion is not drawing at all. I just love making paint, so I design watercolor pages so I don’t have to worry about the fact that I can’t draw.”
This paint-making process allowed Welch to research, explore and experiment with different types of rocks, testing their quality and discovering unique properties when used as watercolor paint. Magnetite sand, for example, has color changing properties and can be manipulated with magnets to change its appearance once on the paper.
In addition to switching to files “natural luster” Mirror hematite has color changing properties as well.
“Depending on how you use the paint, if you use too much water or too little water, it will change its colors,” Welch said. “If you leave it wet for too long, it will rust and turn bright red. If you let it dry too soon, it will turn purple or almost brown.”
While Welch mostly uses natural dyes, she has recently been dipping her toes in runaway dyes or lab dyes. Leaky pigments are made using scientific processes that combine two substances together to create a reaction that eventually results in a new color. While natural pigments keep their exact color forever, see-through pigments degrade with exposure to sunlight, moisture, and time.
“I’ve spent a lot of time researching how to make different colors that I don’t usually find in a historical process,” Welch said. “I made a dye by combining copper sulfate and sodium carbonate together. These reactions can make different colors and they are similar to the chemical malachite.”
When looking for rocks and pigments, Welch follows all of the local ordinances outlining what to do and what not to do in a natural area. In addition, Welch will buy from small businesses in the area, trying to get your money back.
In an effort to document her creative endeavors, Welch has started uploading short vlogs of herself making paint on TikTok, a popular social media platform. While the original intent of the videos was completely personal, other users on the app are starting to notice their work. The first video that drew people to her account was the transformation of Leland Blue, an industrial by-product of the steel industry, into dye and then paint.
Many followers came to Welch’s page, after her mother gifted her a palette of makeup. As someone who doesn’t wear makeup, Welch decided to turn the painting into watercolor.
“My adorable mom gave me this gift of makeup, so I decided I’d definitely use it, but not the way she wanted it,” Welch said. “I started turning into paintings, and these videos took off.”
As Little Welch’s follower count on TikTok grew, people started sending expired makeup products their way. When you register the transformation of these expired products, Welch will discuss relevant topics with her followers. When commenting on controversial makeup artists, such as James Charles and Jeffree Star, more and more people began to follow and support Welch’s work. Cumulatively, Welch’s videos have garnered millions of views, one of which garnered 15 million views on its own.
“Two cosmetics companies called me and started sending me stuff, which I thought was funny,” Welch said. “People are really watching and a lot of them are interested in it. There is a huge amount of support from the people who follow my page.”
Through all of her creative work, Welch has prioritized approaches that focus on sustainability and environmental impact. While environmental awareness requires a concerted effort, Welch believes the reward is worth it. Learning how to properly dispose of toxic chemicals, limiting intake of produce, and modifying eating habits are just a few of the ways Welch is working to protect the planet.
“You get one land, and that the land provides all you may need from it if you treat it properly,” Welch said. “You can allow nature to heal itself over time somewhat, but once things get really dirty, it’s just a big, big problem.”
Welch operates her business through Etsy, an online platform that supports young artists. To find her store, search “Etsy BergettePigments” on any search engine. All of her handcrafted pigments, watercolors, coloring pages, and watercolor wrappers can be found there. Welch Tik Tok is bergettepigments.
“I love drawing and I love watercolor because it’s like instant gratification” Welch said. “If I find a new rock and really get to it, it will be that rock by the end of the day on a piece of paper. I can turn it into paint right away.”