Making natural inks

Indigo natural ink mixing on paper with madder, chestnut and cherry blossom inks
Indigo, chestnut, madder and cherry blossom inks

Hello everyone, I hope you are enjoying the spring wherever you are. Here in Ireland, we are still waiting for it! Let’s talk about natural inks this month. Finding ways of working and connecting with nature is important to me. That is why using plants for dyeing and printing is a process that allows me to feel in touch with nature. It is not only more sustainable but safer for us and for the environment. It’s exciting to see a wonderful palette of colours developing in front of my eyes.
If you follow me on Instagram, you probably saw that a few months ago I made ink with acorns foraged by my sister. The resulting ink worked well but interestingly the ink did not preserved well, even in the fridge. However the drawings made with that ink, on paper, have lasted.

Recently all the cherry blossom flowers, from a nearby tree, were falling on my driveway, which was a wonderful sight. I took some of them, dried them for a few days, then used them to make some ink, just as an experiment. I soaked them in water and soda ash for a few hours, but the colour was very light. I decided to simmer them about 20 minutes to obtain a stronger colour, which strangely ended up being a light beige.

One of my goals was to take natural inks, mix them and see what new colours I could create. I definitively wanted to use indigo plant extracts for a strong blue. I also used chestnut and madder plant extracts to create some warm tones. I did quite a bit of research on making inks as it is slightly different than making a print paste for screen printing (in another post soon). The best, simple, recipe I found was in Jason Logan’s book. It is to add gum arabic to the paste to bind, smooth and thicken the ink. All this, after mixing the plant extracts with a little water to form a paste.

I tested on watercolour paper, brushing and dropping the different inks and letting them mix together. The one above is a mix of indigo, madder, chestnut and cherry blossom flowers.

I wanted to extend my experiment to other natural, mineral based, pigments I had on hand and used some ochres pigments. I got those years ago in the beautiful village of Roussillon, in the south of France, where the clay defines the landscape (see previous post on this). I used a series of these ochres to make inks the same way i.e. diluting with water and adding gum arabic.

I let the ochres inks mix with indigo on the paper and the results were quite interesting. The ochres pigments are denser than the plant based inks, so they do not mix as easily together at first. It creates some interesting and beautiful patterns.

For my last attempt I used some raspberries to obtain a pink shade. It was thick at first and needed to be diluted. As it dried, it revealed a nice shade of pink/mauve. The thick drops were more intense. This last ink test was a mix of indigo, chestnut, madder, cherry blossom and raspberries. The inks made with plant extracts and fruits mix easily, revealing beautiful abstracts shapes and new colours.

I listed all sampled colours and make sure to put the leftover inks in glass jars. To help preserve I added a clove.

In my last drawing I used grass to monoprint on a ragged cotton paper using the plant based inks.

Overall these types of experiments are captivating. Seeing the plants interact with each other, and also with the mineral based pigments, testing the colours. Cherry blossom ink combined with madder gives an intense reddish brown, and then combined with indigo creates a grey tone. The palette is limitless. The colours are natural, earthy and unique. During this process I did not add any mordants to get different tones. Maybe for another session.

Let me know if you made some natural inks, and what did you find?


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