It is that time of year where the snow is melting and hints of green life are starting to appear, but plants that provide us with ink are in low supply. This is when the long-suffering Sumac can provide us with a pop of colour.
Sumac grows in abundance; the berries and leaves are high in tannins and they can be used for ink all year round. Tannins are a group of chemicals that are pale-yellow to light-brown that are found in plant cells, especially in leaves, bark and fruit. Tannins discourage fruit-eating animals from eating the fruit until the seeds are mature and ready for dispersal. As the fruit ripens, the tannin content lessens. The tannins in sumac berries and leaves help create durable, long lasting colours. Sumac berries also store well. The berries can be harvested in the summer when they are ripe and then stored indefinitely in paper bags. Always remember to leave the area where you forage as untouched as possible and to leave ample berries behind, as Sumac serves primarily as a winter emergency food for wildlife.
I am deeply grateful that the process of making natural inks compels me to NOTICE my natural surroundings. Last year was the first time that I noticed coltsfoot flowers along the side of the road. From a distance, coltsfoot flowers resemble dandelions and they generally grow in dry gravelly habitats such as roadsides. In Southern Ontario, coltsfoot flowers appear in April, often before the last of the snow melts. Flower heads have even been known to push through snow. Coltsfoot is a perennial weed native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. Coltsfoot was probably introduced from its native range to the United States by early European settlers for its medicinal properties. It was present in the United States as early as 1840 and present in Canada in the 1920s. *FEIS
The experience of picking coltsfoot flowers is so very intoxicating. The earthy smells of the soil, the gleeful songs of the birds and the visceral feel of life in your hands overwhelms the senses. I like to think of coltsfoot ink as capturing the promise of spring.
If you would like to capture the essence of spring in your artwork, the following recipe will create a spring minty-yellow.
A few notes about the ingredients:
You may not have distilled water, but you can still experiment with tap water, and then when you can get your hands-on distilled water, you can compare colour outcomes.
Potassium Aluminum Sulfate (Alum) is a metallic salt that acts as a mordant. In my experience, alum helps to make yellow inks more vibrant. There is controversy over the use of alum in the natural dye world, and when I dye fabric, I use soya milk as a mordant as recommended by Rebecca Desnos. There is no information available on the toxic nature of alum when creating natural inks, so I have justified my use of alum by taking special care when using alum to make coltsfoot and goldenrod ink. I welcome any advice or kind words about the potential toxic use of alum.
If you don’t have any alum on hand, it is easily purchased in a grocery store. Alum is generally considered the least toxic, or even a non-toxic mordant because it has long been used an additive to both foods and drinking water. However, it does form weak sulfuric acid when dissolved in water. When the water is heated (during the mordant process), this can result in acidic fumes which are corrosive, and irritating when inhaled. Always keep a lid on a hot mordant bath. Moisture from bare skin can cause more concentrated sulfuric acid to form on contact and cause chemical burns. Always wear gloves when handling mordants. Not only may some chemicals cause irritation, but skin is also porous and can absorb chemicals if not protected. Have a set of utensils and cooking materials for ink making only. Potassium aluminum sulfate is also corrosive to many metals. *alpenglowyarn
White Vinegar is a natural mordant that helps the color last longer. I use a cleaning vinegar that is 10% Acetic Acid (double that of regular white vinegar).
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 a vegan substance 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 create coltsfoot flower 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 any gum Arabic, you can also use Grass-fed gelatin. In a small pan over medium heat, heat 1 cup water, and 2 tsp. gelatin. Stir over heat until completely dissolved. Add 1 tsp. of the gelatin solution to your ink at a time, until your ink reaches desired consistency and thickness. For a vegan alternative, experiment using agar agar.
Raw unfiltered honey- This can be added straight to the ink until it reaches the consistency that you are looking for. Too much and it can get too sticky! *The Hippy Homemaker
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. If you have none of these ingredients on hand, just be sure to refrigerate the ink and take notes on how early mold appears on the ink.
Coltsfoot Flower Ink Recipe
3 cups of distilled water
3 cups of fresh coltsfoot flowers
3 tsp cleaning vinegar (I use Allen’s Double Strength Cleaning Vinegar)
2 tsp alum
1 1/2 tsp gum Arabic
8-10 drops of 99.9% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol
Materials: *keep these materials ONLY for making inks*
stainless steel or glass pot, bowl, 2 jars (make sure that one has a lid)
stirring spoon and fork
fine mesh strainer
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)
-simmer the coltsfoot flowers, water, vinegar and alum for about 20 to 30 minutes (I leave the flowers to soak overnight).
-strain the flowers 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 and strain OR stretch cheesecloth or fabric over the jar and secure with an elastic (strain again if you wish into the second jar)
*you can wash and reuse the panty hose, cheesecloth or fabric*
-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 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 possible, make sure that there is no air space inside the bottle (to help prevent mold growth)
-secure the lid and refrigerate to help preserve (shake before use)
Alum and Vinegar natural mordants to help the color last longer and stay
Gum Arabic thickens, helps with controlling ink flow, binds the ink to the paper and helps preserve.
Alcohol prevents 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).
Experiment with how light-fast coltsfoot ink is by leaving your samples and paintings in a sunny window.
I look forward to viewing your coltsfoot ink adventures using my hashtag #natureswildink or send me a photo at email@example.com