Answering your questions about Natural Inks

natural inks Q&A

acorn, wild grape and avocado ink

A few months ago, in the heart of Covid lockdown, I did an Instagram Live with Paige of @distillingnature . We answered your burning questions about creating and painting with natural inks, and I decided to post my answers for those of you who missed it.

My foraging kit

I’d love to know what to forage for in the different seasons.

What a fabulous question! Perhaps this can be an on going book-project for me! I would pick up a field guide for your region from your local library, bookstore, or online, and study up on regional flora. If you are from Ontario, Canada, I post my journey with foraging flowers and berries during the different seasons. For instance, Coltsfoot flowers are emerging now and make a lovely lime/yellow ink. I also consult a plant identification APP called “Picture This” to help identify plants and determine the toxicity of plants that I discover.

Coltsfoot flowers in early spring

What are the rules for foraging?

A common rule for ethical foraging is to collect 1/10 to 1/3 of any particular patch. Also, consider the life cycle of the plant. For example, snipping an elder tree of all those lovely white blossoms in spring will mean no berries come fall. Only harvest what you truly need. Exercising restraint is sometimes difficult, but it is a key trait of an ethical forager. I keep a foraging kit in my car that includes hiking shoes, a pair of garden gloves, shears and a basket or a bag and a pencil and a journal to take notes. If you are concerned about trespassing, it always feels better to ask permission. I have had so many interesting discussions about making ink this way. And people are generally helpful and interested in the idea of making ink from natural materials.

Jewelweed flowers

Where do you get your material?

  • I find all my cooking materials (pots, pans, spoons, strainers) second hand and keep them separate from my everyday kitchen materials.
  • I forage for most of my botanical supplies from my property or local roadsides. I make a lot of ink from avocado shells and pits that my family has eaten and from a local café. I create rooibos ink from organic rooibos tea that I have sent to me.
  • I have purchased the gum arabic and alum from Amazon but I am looking to support local art businesses going forward.
  • I purchase baking soda, cleaning vinegar and distilled water from my local grocery stores.
  • I purchase the bottles from a local business Botanic Planet who ship to the US and Canada and have a pick up option.

How do you store your natural inks before and after they are made?

I store walnuts, pine cones, acorns and sumac in labelled paper bags in my studio. DO NOT LEAVE FORAGED PLANTS IN PLASTIC BAGS because mold sets in pretty quickly. I freeze berries, avocado pits/shells, sunflower seeds and grapes until I need them. I also freeze flowers. After the inks are created, I store them in the fridge.

How do we stop inks from getting moldy?

I preserve my inks with 99.9% Isopropyl Alcohol if I am selling them, but you can also use different purity levels of alcohol (ie. 60%) or preserve with a clove, a few drops of wintergreen oil or thyme oil. It is also important to store your inks in a refrigerator (labelled so that you or your family don’t ingest the inks accidentally).

Are there alternatives to Gum Arabic?

Gum Arabic thickens, helps with controlling ink flow, binds the ink to the paper and helps preserve. Gum arabic is sometimes called acacia gum or acacia powder and it is made from the natural hardened sap of two types of wild Acacia trees in the Sahara region of Africa. Gum arabic comes in a liquid or powder form. The liquid is easier to work with and ensures that the gum arabic is evenly distributed in your ink, but it is consequently more expensive. 

  • A possible alternative to gum Arabic is aquafaba. Aquafaba is the cooking liquid found in tinned beans and other legumes like chickpeas or the liquid left over from cooking your own. It can be used to replace egg whites in many sweet and savoury recipes. Its unique mix of starches, proteins, fibre and sugars, which are left in the water after cooking, gives aquafaba a wide range of emulsifying, foaming, binding and thickening properties.
  • Another possible alternative to gum arabic is the grapevine,Vitis riparia, or frost/riverbank grape and is found throughout North America. The sap from the grapevine’s stem resembles that of gum arabic. The polysaccharide from the grapevine’s stem may be made into a white powder, viscous liquid or clear gel.
Ink making supplies

Are there different alum qualities. How does it matter and how can I know if it’s a good quality?

The specific compound In alum is hydrated potassium aluminium sulfate. Alum can sometimes be found in your local supermarket, as it is often used in canning and preserving. As for different alum qualities, I don’t have an answer, but I would like to find a more “natural” substitution for alum.

Alum is also regarded as the safest of the common mordants, but you should still take precautions.

Always remember:

  • Never use the same pots and utensils for dyeing that you use for cooking.
  • Wear rubber gloves and use a face mask when measuring mordants and dyes.
  • Work in a well-ventilated area.
  • Dispose of used mordants and dye baths safely.

Is soda ash safe?

I use a small amount of soda ash in my avocado shell and pit inks. It acts as an alkali mordant to help bring out a more vibrant colour. You can make your own by heating heat baking soda in a 200°F oven for an hour. Soda ash is the term used to describe sodium carbonate. This sodium salt, a derivative of carbonic acid, is a common ingredient used to manufacture paper, powdered soaps and glass. Its purpose is to raise the alkaline level. Soda ash is also used to elevate total alkaline levels and soften the water found in swimming pools and spas by slightly raising the pH levels in the water. When using soda ash to make inks, it is important that you wear gloves, turn on your kitchen vent fan (or open a window), and cover the cooking ink to avoid breathing in the fumes. Here are a few safety tips:

  • Wear protective gloves when working with or disposing of soda ash to prevent skin irritation.
  • Be careful not to let soda ash splash into your eyes to avoid eye irritation.
  • Refrain from breathing in soda ash dust, vapors or mist to avoid irritation of the respiratory tract. Consider wearing a protective breathing mask.
art tools

I keep getting a watercolour type liquid no matter how much material or how much I reduce it.

If you are looking to thicken an ink, you can add more gum arabic. It can be a bit time consuming to whisk in gum arabic powder but I have a few tips.  I like to heat the ink up before slowly sifting in the gum arabic. I also have used a mini food blender to quickly mix in the gum arabic and then I filter the ink to separate out the bubbles formed. You can also try using a gum arabic syrup:

Directions to make Gum Arabic Syrup:

TIME: 2-3 hours

-heat ¼ cup of distilled water in a small pot to a near-boil (about 3 minutes)

-measure out 4 Tbsp of gum arabic powder in a small glass jar and slowly stir in the water. Continue to stir until all of the powder is integrated (you may have some small white clumps).

-let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 hours.

-when the mixture appears more like a gel, stir again to smooth out the mixture. (It is ok if there is a small layer of white foam.)

-skim off small clumps or foam. When not in use, store in the refrigerator for up to 5 months.

How do I get the ink to bleed like normal ink?

I would say that you can experiment with many elements to try and get the ink to the right consistency for your needs. The amount of gum arabic can be a factor with how the paper absorbs the ink, as well as the type of paper used. You can also add water to the paper and observe how the ink moves or absorbs the water.

choke cherry ink

How colourfast are natural inks? What do they look like after years?

First of all, the only ink that I can guarantee to remain permanent is black ink created from lampblack. Second, I always recommend that paintings created with natural inks be kept out of direct sunlight. And finally, I like to transform the question into a reframing of our goals of “permanence”. I like to refer to artwork painted with natural inks as “living works of art.” The potential for colours to change over time can be reframed as following a pattern of the natural world which holds a sort of excitement in and of itself. But I also understand the concern for both artists and customers to feel secure that the artwork that they sell or purchase maintain its colour integrity. I also have a hunch that inks made with modifiers (ie baking soda and vinegar) are more likely to change colour overtime. I am fairly confident in the colour-fastness of inks made from items with strong tannins. Tannins are found commonly in the bark of trees, wood, leaves, buds, stems, fruits, seeds, roots, and plant galls. In all of these plant structures, tannins help to protect the individual plant species. (As an aside, unripened fruits are high in tannin content. The high tannin content discourages fruit eating animals from consuming the fruit until the seeds are mature and ready for dispersal. As the fruit ripens the tannin content lessens.) Inks made from avocado, walnut, sumac and oak galls are all rather lightfast because they contain large amount of tannins. I have found that the yellow vibrancy remains from ink made from goldenrod and alum and ink made from riverbank grapes remains vibrant as well.

A “non toxic” sealing product that I use called SpectraFix can help against fading and they hope to offer a specific varnish with UV blocking properties in the future. It seals soft/oil pastel, chalk, watercolour, charcoal and my black lampblack ink without the nasty smells from an aerosol spray. They recommend two coats and about three minutes in between coats. It curls the watercolour paper but I then flatten the paper by spraying a light spray of water on the back of the painting and then placing it between heavy books.
I recently discovered and ordered a Natural Varnish from Natural Earth Paint and I am excited to try out this product on canvas and wood surfaces.
You may also want to invest in framing your artwork with UV-filtering glass that can be found in framing stores and most importantly, do not hang artwork in direct sunlight.

ink kit

DIY Paint using two simple ingredients without leaving home

how to make ink with tea using 2 ingredients in your kitchen

Hi there! As a natural ink maker and abstract artist, I am excited to share a recipe for those looking to dive into the world of natural inks or looking to be creative with simple ingredients and materials without leaving home.

First of all, without journeying too far into the technical differences between paint and ink, I made use of the word “paint” in the title of this post to help reach more people looking to create from home. But for the remainder of this post, I will refer to the “paint” created from tea as INK.

I adapted this recipe from a blog post entitled “Natural Plant Inks” by Jyotsna Pippal, a scientist, an artist and a maker of sustainable and non toxic watercolours. Jyotsna sells her Artisanal Handcrafted Watercolors in her Etsy shop LostinColours.

A few notes about the ingredients:

You may not have distilled water on hand, but you can still experiment with tap water, and then when you find distilled water, you can compare colour outcomes.

You can experiment with different types of tea and their colour outcomes. I used orange pekoe tea for this particular dark brown colour in the photos, but rooibos tea will create a more orange colour.

Gum Arabic thickens, helps with controlling ink flow, binds the ink to the paper and helps preserve. Gum Arabic is sometimes called acacia gum or acacia powder and it is made from the natural hardened sap of two types of wild Acacia trees. You probably won’t have gum Arabic powder lying around, but if you are a watercolour artist, you may have a bottle of liquid gum Arabic. Either way, you don’t need to have gum Arabic to paint with tea ink and you can just skip that part of the recipe. Also, there is no absolute rule for exactly how much gum Arabic to add to ink. You can test different amounts with test strips to figure out what amount works for you.

If you don’t have 99.9% Isopropyl Alcohol, you can also use different purity levels (ie. 60%) or preserve with a clove, or a few drops of wintergreen oil or thyme oil.

Tea Ink Recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup distilled water (regular tap water is fine too)

1 tbsp loose tea (or two tea bags)

½ tbsp of baking soda

½ tsp gum Arabic (not necessary)

8-10 drops of 99.9% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol (not necessary)

Materials:

stainless steel or glass (these are nonreactive materials) pot, bowl, 2 jars (make sure that one has a lid), stirring spoon and fork

measuring spoons

coffee filter and small funnel OR panty-hose sock (you can wash and reuse) OR a piece of cheesecloth or fabric and an elastic

dropper (not necessary)

Directions:

-steep tea in boiling water for about 20 minutes

-strain the tea into a jar using a coffee filter and a small funnel OR to create less waste, stretch a panty hose sock over the jar and strain OR stretch cheesecloth or fabric over the jar and secure with an elastic (strain again if you wish into the second jar)

-stir in the baking soda and boil the tea in your pot for a few minutes

-pour the tea into a jar again and whisk in gum Arabic, a little at a time, with a fork until dissolved (if it is not dissolving, heat the ink again but don’t bring to a boil) *you can skip this step if you don’t have gum Arabic powder on hand*

-when cool, add 8-10 drops of alcohol per 1-ounce bottle of ink , OR add a clove, OR add a few drops of wintergreen oil or thyme oil *if you don’t have these items on hand, just be sure to keep cool in the refrigerator*

-secure the lid on your jar, label the name/date on the jar and refrigerate to help preserve (tea tends to go moldy)

-shake before use

NOTES

Gum Arabic thickens, helps with controlling ink flow, binds the ink to the paper and helps preserve

Alcohol helps to prevent mold

A few final tips:

  • It can be helpful to make ink samples during the slow process of creating inks. I use scrap pieces of watercolour paper, but just use whatever paper that you have available. Be sure to write down the time and other details (I have learned the hard way by thinking that I will remember).
  • This recipe helps you extend the life of the ink with preservation ingredients, but if mold does appear in the tea ink, simply scoop it off.
  • Experiment with the light-fast nature of tea ink by leaving your samples in a sunny windowsill (be sure to label the date).
  • Be sure to label the jar and to keep out of the reach of children or pets.

You may wish to refer to my blog post entitled How to Paint with Natural Inks: Part 1 where I give suggestions as to how to paint with ink. A few tools or supplies that may come in handy are rags, lids or bottle caps, paint brushes, a dropper, a palette knife, a spray bottle of water and even your fingers.

I look forward to viewing your tea ink adventures using my hashtag #natureswildink or send me a photo at melissajenkins@live.ca

DIY avocado ink without leaving home

an easy avocado ink recipe using baking soda and avocado

I thought that I would share my secret avocado ink recipe for all those who are looking to create with their little ones or to explore natural inks while “retreating” at home. I like to say that avocado ink is a “gateway” into the world of natural inks. You can create ink from both the shells and the stone (pip or pit). The beauty of avocado ink is that you can create a variety of colours from peach to blush pink to a deep brownish red. The range of colours can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • the age of the avocado pit
  • if the pits or skins have been frozen and at what stage of freshness the pits and skins were frozen
  • the age of the avocado skins (the older the avocado skins the deeper the red colour)
  • the ph level of your water
  • if you have completely cleaned off all of the flesh (bits of flesh can dull the colour)
  • if you cook the whole stone or chop it up (chopped stones release more colour) and
  • how long that you simmer the pits or skins

A few notes about avocado ink ingredients:

Soda ash otherwise known as sodium carbonate (the active ingredient in washing soda), is an important part of my recipe. It acts as an alkali mordant to help bring out a more vibrant colour. You should have this on hand, because all that you need to do to make your own is to heat baking soda in a 200°F oven for an hour. When using soda ash to make inks, it is important that you wear gloves, turn on your kitchen vent fan (or open a window), and cover the cooking ink to avoid breathing in the fumes.

You may not have distilled water on hand, but you can still experiment with tap water, and then when you are able to find distilled water, you can compare colour outcomes.

Gum Arabic thickens, helps with controlling ink flow, binds the ink to the paper and helps preserve. Gum Arabic is sometimes called acacia gum or acacia powder and it is made from the natural hardened sap of two types of wild Acacia trees. You probably won’t have gum Arabic powder lying around, but if you are a watercolour artist, you may have a bottle of liquid gum Arabic. Either way, you don’t need to have gum Arabic to paint with avocado ink and you can just skip that part of the recipe. Also, there is no absolute rule for exactly how much gum Arabic to add to ink. You can test different amounts with test strips to figure out what amount works for you.

If you don’t have 99.9% Isopropyl Alcohol, you can also use different purity levels (ie. 60%) or preserve with a clove, wintergreen oil or thyme oil.

Avocado Ink Recipe

*if you wish to make Avocado Skins/Shells Ink, simply substitute 1 cup of cleaned avocado skins in place of the stones

Ingredients:

1 cup of distilled water

2 large fresh avocado stones, cleaned and chopped (the more pits that you add, the darker the ink)

1 tsp soda ash

1/2 tsp gum Arabic

8-10 drops of 99.9% Isopropyl Alcohol

Materials: *keep these materials for making inks ONLY *

stainless steel or glass pot (nonreactive materials) with lid, bowl, jar, stirring spoon, fork and sharp knife

fine mesh strainer

coffee filter and small funnel OR panty hose sock OR cheese cloth and elastic band (you can wash and reuse)

dropper and ink bottle (or any glass jar with a lid)

Directions:

  1. Bring the chopped avocado stones, water and soda ash to a low boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. The chopped avocado pits will begin to turn the water pink and then a deep maroon. This should take anywhere between 20-40 minutes to see the colour change.
  2. When the desired colour is reached, turn off the heat (*take care not to “cook” the pits).
  3. Soak off the heat for an hour or as long as desired (I usually leave overnight).
  4. Strain the pits into a bowl with a fine mesh strainer.
  5. Strain the ink again into a jar using a coffee filter and a small funnel or to create less waste, stretch a panty hose sock over the jar or use a piece of cheese cloth and elastic band. This is a slow process and you will be tempted to squeeze the filter. Resist the temptation.
  6. To add in the powdered gum Arabic, heat up the ink again but don’t bring to a boil (you can use a microwave). Whisk the powder into the heated ink a little at a time with a fork until dissolved. I have also used a blender to quickly mix in the powder.
  7. When the ink has cooled, add 8-10 drops of alcohol per a 1-ounce bottle of ink to help preserve the ink.  If you don’t have alcohol on hand, you can also preserve with a clove, wintergreen oil or thyme oil.
  8. Make sure that there is no air space inside the bottle (to help prevent mold growth) but if you don’t have a small bottle on hand the ink will be just fine.
  9. Secure the lid and refrigerate to help preserve.
  10. Shake before use

A few final tips:

  • It can be helpful to make ink samples during the slow process of creating inks. I use scrap pieces of watercolour paper, but just use whatever paper that you have available. Be sure to write down the time and other details (I have learned the hard way by thinking that I will remember).
  • Avocado ink lasts a long time even when it is not refrigerated. In fact, I love how thick it can get when left in a heated room. If mold does appear, simply scoop it off.
  • Avocado ink is also very lightfast. You can experiment with fading by leaving your samples in a sunny window.

I look forward to viewing your avocado ink adventures using my hashtag #natureswildink or send me a photo at melissajenkins@live.ca

How to Paint with Natural Inks : Part 2

Painting onto canvas with natural inks.

In the few years that I have been on this journey of handcrafting and painting with natural inks, I have developed my own pathways and discovered a few new trails along the way. Recently I was inspired, from a practical perspective, to collect recycled bottle caps and lids to use as ink vessels in my natural inks workshops. But filling avocado shells and milkweed pods with natural inks helps me to establish a much more organic atmosphere as I create in my studio.

In my last post, I focused on painting natural inks onto watercolour paper. But I have had quite a few enquires asking if natural inks can be painted onto canvas. I was directed by a fellow artist (Pamela Bates) to experiment with painting watercolour ground onto canvas. Watercolour ground is a primer that can be applied to a multitude of surfaces. The finish and appearance is very much like cold press watercolour paper.

Although painting onto a canvas with watercolour ground certainly doesn’t have the same magical absorption of watercolour paper, I found that there was an upside. Unlike watercolor paper, I was able to wipe off the ink with a damp rag if I wasn’t happy with the placement. Please note though, that even with a ground, canvas doesn’t typically like water and can create buckling (thank you Lisa Mclinden Art for the tip).

A watercolour painting by Lisa McLinden

Since natural inks are water-based, you may need to experiment with how much water that you add to the canvas.

Fellow artist Carrie Ann Hall has created gorgeous paintings with my natural inks on both gessoed board and unprimed canvas and she doesn’t add water.

natural inks on canvas by Carrie Ann Hall
natural inks on canvas board by Carrie Ann Hall
natural inks on canvas board by Carrie Ann Hall

What about you? Have you had success painting natural inks onto canvas?