Late January, a friend and I drove a few towns over to visit the lovely little village of Elora. The shop of LemonTree Interiors & Co was first on our list to visit. As we were parking, I recognized Sophia from her Instagram account. You need to understand that Sophia is a bit of a design “rock star” to me, so I was a tad nervous to introduce myself. I noticed that she was getting boxes out of her car, so I pulled up my “big girl” pants and asked if she was indeed Sophia of LemonTree Interiors and if she needed some help. Sophia gracefully embraced my fan-girl approach and welcomed us into her quaint little shop.
As we entered, I was swept away by the elegant curation of vintage, sustainable and modern decor. Naturally, I began chatting about a new stamping ink that I was working on and then Sophia got a twinkle in her eye and reached into a drawer. She pulled out gorgeous teak stamps that had been hand carved in India and said that she had been waiting for “just the right moment” to unearth the stamps.
I left the shop that day with a few decor treats for myself, a bag full of teak stamps and a sense of excitement for our serendipitous art collaboration which we would later name INKPRINTS of time.
Let me tell you a bit about my process in creating these pieces. Crafting my stamping ink from lampblack soot is a slow and intensive process, but it never fails to reward me with a rich, velvety black. I add in a few other secret ingredients to ultimately form a vegan, sustainably sourced and archival ink. When I paint the ink onto the antique stamps it creates pure “black” magic.
The paper is created by Canadian based company Papeterie Saint Armand. It is a flax/cotton canal paper fashioned from left over straw that is not composted in farm fields. This rough paper is made by mixing the beaten straw with rags. No bleach, chemicals or cooking is required. I hand-deckled the edges to create an unpolished juxtaposition with the black frame.
Inkprints of Time speaks of trusting the process. This series honors the idea that concepts can simmer until “the moment” arrives. For both Sophia and I, the moment arose with a serendipitous encounter that developed into these ink-prints that embrace time honoured traditions and pay homage to slow artisanal process.
To purchase these 14” x 14” framed pieces as either a set or as individual pieces, head over to LemonTree Interiors & Co where you will be delighted and inspired.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
When the desired colour is reached, turn off the heat (*take care not to “cook” the pits).
Soak off the heat for an hour or as long as desired (I usually leave overnight).
Strain the pits into a bowl with a fine mesh strainer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Secure the lid and refrigerate to help preserve.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
When an artist friend showed me her avocado ink painting a year ago, my artistic life was absolutely transformed! Avocados play a major role in our home. I have avocados in my morning smoothie, my lunchtime sandwich and we have guacamole once a week for Taco Tuesday! I have an abundance of empty shells and stones (pits) so I am constantly creating new ink for my paintings. Creating avocado ink is very simple and I often create a batch as I am preparing meals or cleaning the kitchen.
large cooking pot
avocado stones and empty shells (the more stones and shells, the stronger the colour)
fine mesh strainer
small paper samples
mason jar with lid
Scrub all the green avocado remains off the stones and shells (I find that using my finger nails works the best).
Fill your pot with all of your cleaned stones and shells and then cover with water.
Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. After about 20-40 minutes, the water will begin to change colour from clear to pink to a reddish brown. I like to stir the contents occasionally. The skins will begin to come off the stones.
Use a tiny piece of paper to test the colour and when you are satisfied, strain your ink with a fine mesh strainer. Inevitably bits of shell will make its way into your ink, but I love the texture and authenticity that it provides in my paintings.
I store my ink in mason jars in the fridge and you can also help preserve the ink by adding a clove to the sealed jar.
Each batch that you make will produce a slightly different shade of pink depending on how many stones and shells that you use. Have fun experimenting and be sure to label each batch with a colour sample and date. Try a batch with just one stone and shell, or just stones, or adding less water or simmering for different lengths of time. You can also freeze the stones and shells if you aren’t able to make the ink right away.