Making natural inks & paints from plants

As you might be aware from reading my blogs, crafting is one of my other hobbies and when crafting and history meet, I’m even happier!  This week (May 8th & 9th 2018),  I attended a 2 day workshop on how to make natural inks and paints from plants at the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge.  The course was run by artist Nabil Ali and I think was one of the best workshops I’ve ever done.

We started the first day by looking at some of the historical texts that mention the making of inks.  These included texts from Roman times, through medieval and even a recipe to make oak gall ink by Sir Isaac Newton.

We looked briefly at how to make our own charcoal from willow or peach stones.  Willow can be put in an old biscuit tin with holes in the lid and heated for a couple of hours.  Using peach stones for charcoal was mentioned by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini a 15th century Florentine artist in his book ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’  but Nabil told us to beware as burning the stones gives off poisonous arsenic, so must be done outdoors!!!

Oak Gall Ink
Ink makingWe then moved on to one of the most famous of natural inks, oak gall ink.  The earliest reference to the use of oak gall ink was fom a very old formula written by a Greek called Philo of Byzantium (280-220 BCE) and Nabil told us oak gall ink was used right up to the 1970s in Germany.    It is made from a growth on oak trees caused by the gall wasp.  Nabil showed us 3 different types of gall, the Portugese gall was huge, the Turkish gall was the next biggest and then the British gall, which is quite small.  Newtons recipe for oak gall ink was made with ale and  Nabil had tried recreating his recipe but didn’t find it to be a good one so we used wine to make our ink.  Oak gall ink is very permanent and in a previous workshops where I’d used it on vellum, I was unable to completely scrape the ink off the page.  This is due to the high tannin content in the ink.  For this reason Nabil told us that it was often used in legal documents such as laws, so that the script could not be altered or changed in any way.   Modern British laws are still printed on vellum for archival purposes as vellum (prepared calf skin) can last a 1000 years or more.

Nabil showed us how to make the ink.  We first needed to smash the galls, which we did by stomping on them, then we weighed them.  The galls were then heated in wine.  To make the oak gall ink we used the following formula:

Number of oak galls (say 6 for example)  x  12 = the amount of wine needed in grams (so for 6 galls that would be 72grams of wine ).
We also needed to add gum arabic to the mix.  GA is a tree resin from the Acacia tree. It acts as a binder in the ink.  The binder helps the ink stick to the paper and disperses the pigment through the ink.

The weight of gum Arabic that we needed was the same weight as the oak galls.

Once all this was added to the pan we heated it up on an electric portable cooker ring to reduce it down for about 20-30 minutes.  The GA made the ink froth up so it is important to only half fill the pan.   We then added iron sulphate to the pan.  Iron sulphate is a mordant used in the natural textile dyeing industry.   In the textile industry a mordant would be used to help fix the colour in when washed but although this is not so important for inks, the mordant did help to bring out the colour of the ink.  Nabil preferred to call them additives.  Grapefruit seed extract can be added to the ink in a 1% ratio to help prevent mould.  This was done in a well ventilated room so the fumes from the alcohol or the additives weren’t overwhelming.

The left over galls can be dried and crushed and will give a dark brown pigment.

imageViola Lutea ink
This beautiful mountain pansy gives the most wonderful yellow colour and was next on our agenda.  To make it we used 50 ml wine, 50 flowers and a teaspoon of aluminium sulphate (alum) as a mordant.  Again it was allowed to reduce for about 20 minutes or so.  To change the colour from an ink to a paint, 3g of chalk dust was added.  This acted as a filler. Yellows are the least stable colours, Weld makes the most stable colour.

Fillers for paint making
– cat litter (mineral clay)
– cuttle fish bone
– chalk
– gesso white
– marble dust
– egg shell white
– lead white
– talc
– flour

Additives (mordants)
– Iron sulphate
– Aluminium sulphate (alum)
– Carbonate of soda
– Tin
– Chrome
– Copper sulphate
– Potash

Be careful, these additives can be toxic and should not be allowed near children.  So ink making should be done outside or in a well ventilated room.  Don’t stand over the pot too much.

– Grapefruit seed extract
– Cloves
– Preventol
– Rosemary extract
– Vinegar

– Gum arabic
– Gum tragacanth
– Rabbit skin glue
– Isinglass
– egg white/yolk

imagePurple Iris
We used purple iris flowers next to make an ink, Nabil asked us what colour we thought it would yield and were surprised to find that if alum was used as the mordant and chalk as the filler, it gave a lovely green paint.

Onion skins
I’d used onion skins on a dyeing course before so was familiar with the sort of colour that they gave.  It makes a lovely orange paint.  The recipe was as follows:
– 3 g onion skins
– 10g alum
– 100g white wine
– 3g powdered chalk

It was made in a similar way to the oak gall and viola ink by reducing the liquid down by about half once the onion skins were added to the wine.  Then adding the alum and then chalk if you want paint rather than ink.

Nabil told us about making madder paint.  Madder is a root from the plant ‘Rubia Tinctorum’, which is part of the coffee family.  It is used in dyeing and can also be used to make an ink/paint.  Nabil said it was important not to let the mixture boil but to keep it to 60-70 degrees, or it releases a brown from inside the root.

Ornamental currant
This lovely bush is covered in pink flowers in the spring, which the bees absolutely love and we’re lucky enough to have one in our garden.  It’s official name is Ribes sanguinem.  The currants are the part that’s used and can yield a blue paint.  When mixed with soda it gives a blue, with potash it gives a purple.  Potash and chalk gives a purple/grey.  Mixing with tin gives a lovely magenta.  Tin & egg shells gives a lovely pale lilacy colour.

Rue leaves
Ruta Graveolens (Rue) is a lesser known herb, getting the juice on the skin can cause terrible skin irritation, so gloves need to be worn to handle it.  It is mentioned in the Montpellier ‘Liber Diversarum Arcium’, a medieval handbook of painting from the early 15th century.    When mixed with verdigris, rue will give a lovely turquoise colour. Verdigris is the lovely green that you see on old copper.  Nabil explained that verdigris can be made by suspending copper plates over vinegar in a sealed container.  The copper will verdigris in a few weeks.  Care should be taken though as verdigris is poisonous.

To make the ink put fresh leaves in a mesh bag and whilst wearing protective gloves, squeeze the juice out. Then add a teaspoon of verdigris.    This makes ‘historic green’ and it is a very stable colour.  Personally I’m not sure of using this, some artists lick their paint brushes and I can’t image that could be good!  Artists beware!

We are all familiar with elderberries here in the UK, I’m not sure how widely spread they are around the world.  It’s a wonderful bush/tree.  The flowers yield elderflower cordial and wine.  The berries can be cooked and eaten, made into crumbles and sauces.  They should never be eaten raw as there are toxins in the berries.  I have also now found out that they make great ink and paint too and surprisingly produce a green colour.  However if alum and chalk are added, it will yield a purple.  This colour will fade quickly.

This lovely yellow flowered plant yields a red colour.  Like dyeing different additives will give different colours.

  • If mixed with chalk and GA it gives a terracotta colour.
  • If mixed with aluminium hydroxide it yields a deep orange.
  • With bicarbonate of soda it gives a deep reddish orange.

Paeony Ludlowii
I found this lovely poppy in the grounds of the botanic garden and it’s pictured here.  Nabil was lucky enough that they let him pick a few flowers to make ink.  The recipe that we used was :

– 100g water/wine
– 2 flowers (adding more flowers will make the colour stronger)
– 2 tsps. alum

Reduce to 30g then add 1 tsp of potash.
Using mineral clay (cat litter) as a filler yields a grey/yellow.  Adding fillers makes the colour much paler.

Ash Fungus
One of the other ladies on the workshop had brought in some ash fungus from home. Looking on the net, it appears to be ‘Daldinia Concentrica’.  Also known by the much more charming and memorable name of ‘King Alfred’s Cakes’.  For anyone that doesn’t know the famous tale of King Alfred, in the 9th century Alfred after losing to the Vikings and seeking refuge was put in charge of watching some cakes or loaves of bread to make sure they didn’t burn, but so distracted by his problems was he that he forgot the cakes, which burnt and he was roundly scolded.  Indeed this is exactly what the fungus looks like.  It has concentric black rings running through it when you cut one open.  It looks much like charcoal and indeed can be used as tinder to light fires.  Our recipe was as follows:

50 g of fungus
25g gum arabic
200g iron sulphate

It made a coffee brown colour which when china clay was added made a biscuit type colour.  Adding potash to it made a dark grey/green.

Purple Tulips
Purple tulip petals will yield a pale purple ink but various additives made different shades:

– 25g petals
– 100 g water or wine
– 1 tsp alum

Adding chalk as filler gives a pale green.  Adding potash makes a darker green.  Adding tin makes the purple more vibrant but adding chalk will make it turn green again.  Cat litter as a filler gives a browny colour.

Woad seeds
These were something that I had collected myself many moons ago. I had tried to make a medieval herb garden once and woad was one of the plants I had in it.  I found out that it is tremendously good at self seeding and I collected thousands of them.  I eventually, for reasons I don’t understand now eradicated the herb from my garden but I still have  a large wooden tub of seeds.  Nabil let me have a go at making an ink from them.

This ink I got to cook up myself as they were my seeds.  A good handful of seeds was added to the pot and some wine in similar quantities to the oak gall ink.  I was expecting a blue colour as I knew what colour woad gives in dye vats and indeed we did have a grey/blue.  We tried various test samples.  When we added alum to the ink we achieved a purple colour.  When we added potash as the additive we achieved a green.  By adding copper unsurprisingly we had turquoise.  Adding tin made it stay purple.

I used some of this ink recently in my calligraphy class and found it to be quite a pleasant ink to work with.  It was perhaps a little thin but presumably adding less wine/water to the mix would make a thicker ink.  The perfect ink for calligraphy should be like a thin cream.  I normally use gouache, which is easier to adjust if it starts to get too thin but I am trying to cut out plastic and cut down on waste generally so it struck me that this might be a good zero waste alternative to my usual paints.

2014-04-08 12.32.31Calendula
I was pleased to see that this was going to be one of the inks we were looking at as it grows in my garden in abundance.  It freely self seeds everywhere and I never have the heart to pull it up from all the cracks that it likes to seed in.  I’d used it before to make ointments as it’s very soothing for the skin.  

To make this ink we used 7 g of flowers, 100g water, 10g of alum, 3g of tin and 3g of powdered chalk.

It gives orange or red when mixed with dragon’s blood & gesso (Dragon’s blood is a plant resin).

To sum up, it was an amazing course, worth every penny, if I’m honest perhaps under-priced.  There was lots to do, learn and keep us occupied throughout the 2 days.  It opened up my eyes to the paint palette that is just waiting for me in my own garden. It probably sounds naïve but I had no idea before this course that so many colours could be made from plants. I certainly hope to make more paints in the future and I hope that if you’ve read all this you might give it a go too.




About kazhoney

I recently (2018) made a decision to live a more plastic free life. This blog documents my successes and failures and is a way to encourage me on in my move towards a plastic free life.
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