Before the mid-1800's it was the artist's most important job to actually source the color for their paints. Impractical in today's world, natural inks and paints have been abandoned for accessible, replicable, and standardised synthetic alternatives. I believe that natural inks still play an important role in creating art - not just for a master painter, but really anyone who wants to tap into their creative side.
It doesn't matter what your skills are as a painter, with natural inks the plant colors form surprising textures and shapes. The artist just becomes a bridge between plant and paper. Instead of being worried about the end result, you're invited to delight in the process while getting to know your plants a little better.
Also, sourcing color from plants growing in your own neighbourhood or backyard is an excellent way to increase the meaning behind a painting. Even the most simple compositions carry a connection to a specific place, season, moment in time, and feeling that makes the process more important than the final outcome.
So, how do you make natural inks? Crazy easy.
- Collect leaves, flowers, roots, or stems (whatever you want to extract color from) and put it in a container which can be heated, like an glass jar or aluminum cup.
- Cover your plant material with just enough water to submerge everything.
- Gently heat until you see that the color is taking on color from the plants. Feel free to mush, smash, and stir the plant matter to help tease out color. Heat more aggressively if working with seeds, barks, or cones.
- When your water has taken on enough color - you have ink! You know your ink has enough color when a spoon disappears below the surface. Another way is to test your ink on paper, if you are happy with the color, then it's ready. If you don't have a concentrated enough color, leave the liquid to heat some more to evaporate excess liquid.
- To create a more smooth consistency add a binder like gum arabic, xantham gum, or guar gum. In my experience, a little bit of powdered gum arabic works best, but don't stress out about it. No binder also works great!
- Leave you inhibitions behind and put ink to paper. Play with different concentrations, wetness, and color modifiers to create surprising and magical results. My favourite color modifiers for inks are pH-based like baking soda, vinegar, and lemon. Adjusting the pH can have dramatic color changes, shifting colors from blue to pink or purple. Other modifiers are mineral and include iron (which saddens colors) and copper (which brings out the greens).
You can see an example of color modification below, using iron on carnation flower ink.
Common sources of color that can be used to make watercolours include:
Leaves: Eucaliptus, oak, nespera, nettles, ornamental plum, and wild bidens.
Flowers: Oxalis flowers, wild daisies, carnations, roses, dahlias, and marigolds.
Food waste: Onion skins, avocado pits & skins, carrot tops, and beetroot skins.
Other: Eucalyptus bark, alder cones, acacia seeds, and acorns.
This is by no means an exhaustive list!! Please experiment and try with what you have in abundance - you never know what color a plant will give until you try (just make sure they're not toxic ;) .
This past year has been a whirlwind for me. Between moving, building, dyeing, and producing there are many moments where I’ve felt deeply overwhelmed and sometimes disconnected from my craft. Whenever I feel this way, I turn towards an intuitive natural watercolor session to revive that incredible, insatiable curiosity I feel for plant colors.
As you can see, extracting inks from plants and converting them into watercolors is an extremely easy process that can be done without buying anything. It’s relaxing, awakens creativity, and connects us to our surroundings. With natural ink making there are no 'good' or 'bad' results. Just play - the living plant colors will work their magic.
Share your natural ink experiments with me on Instagram by tagging @tinctoriumstudio!