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.
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.