It's 2011. We probably seemed crazy at first glance. Living in a small yurt perched at the foot of the mountains, a claw-foot bathtub on the deck, and a hand-built chicken coop a little farther away next to a blackberry thicket. When we weren't climbing in the mountains we were running the forest trails with our dogs, berry picking along the side of the road, or seeing what culinary delights were possible to cook up using only a hot plate and a toaster oven (turns out you can make croissants!) We were scratching out an existence surrounded by stretched canvases, climbing gear, and tree-covered ridge-lines.
But. That's just a first glance at us. And a LOT has changed since back then.
My name is Jess and my husband is Matt and we are the founders and co-owners of Greenleaf & Blueberry. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History (which, roughly translated, means that in addition to my Art History studies I got to spend a gob of time in the studio instead of plodding through the typical Liberal Arts curriculum entailed in the more typical BA Art History degree.) While climbing and chasing chickens, I was also gainfully employed as a Gallery Director, a professional in the art supply industry, and a practicing artist specializing in watercolors.
Meanwhile, Matt's educational background is in the sciences, having pursued studies in chemistry, biology, and genetics. Professionally, he was the manager and quality control expert at a local factory.
That's all before we combined our talents and passions in the lost art of traditional paintmaking.
As a person, I am stubborn, but a big dreamer. As a painter, I am super persnickety and a total geek. I wanted to paint exclusively with colors that I had made myself by hand, and I wanted to use only natural pigments. I also wanted to further blend my painting practice with my love of nature. I felt (and still feel) that there is a satisfying harmony in depicting natural subjects with natural materials.
Many of the colors that I wanted to paint with were either not offered by any manufacturer (such as Celadonite, Shungite, Eggshell etc.), or they were offered only as weak iterations that I knew were limited by the need for competitive price points which resulted in low pigment quality and content (such as Malachite, Azurite, and Lapis Lazuli). I wanted to see Nature's colors in paint-form, at full volume, and maximum intensity.
Further, based on my years in the art supply industry, I knew exactly which qualities I did and did not want in my paints. I wanted pure, natural colors of the highest quality, the heaviest pigment load possible, and a minimal binder that would let the unique characteristics of each pigment shine. I quickly decided to invite Matt to lend his experience in chemistry and quality control to the effort and perfect our color formulations. The blend of our areas of experience and expertise turned out to be a magic combination. We were reviving an obscure science and creating the only paints I wanted to use.
Our paintmaking odyssey left us with more paint on our hands than I or my fellow artists could possibly use. So, I conducted a lot of in-depth market research and was shocked to find that no one was offering watercolor paints made traditionally by hand for sale - it was generally seen (when I could find any reference to it at all) as too labor-intensive to be financially viable. I knew it was entirely possible that no one would care about these subtle natural colors but myself, but I realized that in making them available to others we would be offering something unique.
Over the years, I've had a long and complicated relationship with my role as a maker. The world is so full of an abundance of "stuff" that I have felt uncomfortable adding to that mass unless there is real purpose or need. When we opened our shop, we decided to offer colors that were not being made anywhere else, or to offer a superior version of colors that were already available but at an unsatisfactory level of quality. Because our business allowed us to operate as independent craftspeople creating paint by hand in microbatches, we were free of many of the constraints (such as low price points and use of stabilizers to extend expiration dates) that mass production requires.
As it turned out, there were plenty of people just as enthusiastic about obscure colors as we were, and just as interested in painting with colors from the earth.
A lot changed in our lives. I left my position at the gallery to paint and test our colors full time, and Matt left his position to be a full-time modern colourman (try finding that job description in a drop-down menu!). We moved from the coastal mountains of Washington to the Grand Valley of Western Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains meet the Red Desert. Where we live is still tiny, but it's a house - not a yurt. We have an indoor bathroom and everything! (A detail that failed, unsurprisingly, to impress our folks.) Our paints are made in professional studios that more closely resemble a laboratory than a bohemian artist's lair.
However, shortly after relocating to our "sweet Rocky Mountain Paradise", I suffered a stroke as a result of a disastrous visit to a chiropractor. Our production slowed to a crawl in the scary aftermath. But as I slowly (and gratefully) recovered over the next couple years, we were able to begin to produce our colors in greater volumes once again.
In the meantime, we inadvertently sparked what has now become a handmade watercolor movement, with a growing number of crafters trying their hand at the delicate chemistry of paintmaking. Our aesthetics, product design, and methods have set the indie industry standard, a reality which both honors and frustrates us.
As demand for our colors has grown over these years to proportions that our supply cannot meet, we have slowly taken on a couple of apprentices to assist with our production. However, we have been consistently adamant that neither a growing demand nor a growing staff will push us into any kind of compromise of our high standards. We have always held quality above quantity and we always will.
A well-meaning customer once said to us, "You know, if you made more paint you could make more money!" We could only respond with a smile and a shake of the head. Our work is about so much more than money. True, we need to put food on the table just like anyone else (and our pup very much appreciates us keeping her food bowl full!), but time and time again we have chosen an alternative path: to live as simply and humbly as possible, with deliberate intention given to everything we do, and the twin pillars of curiosity and creativity as a guiding light. These principles are as much a part of our story as anything else.
This is the shortest version of our tale that I could weave and have it make any kind of sense. There is plenty left untold - from the magic days in the yurt to midnight skies sleeping amongst mountain peaks, from cross-country road trips to pilgrimages to study with artists and experts. But those we'll leave for whiskey and campfires...
We feel so deeply grateful to do this work, and appreciate the years of patronage and support from each and every person who has favored us with their business.