Arts

How to make your own ink from foraged spring plants

Even if you're confined to your own backyard, hundreds of colours are waiting to be bottled.

Even if you're confined to your own backyard, hundreds of colours are waiting to be bottled

The colours of spring? Try making your own natural pigments. (@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

The first flowers, the first "green things." They're obvious signs of spring, and seasonal treasure to an urban forager like Jason S. Logan

"The spring is thrilling because things are starting to grow again," says Logan, founder of the Toronto Ink Company. Since 2014, it's been a purveyor of "street harvested pigments." Think inks distilled from black walnut, sumac, even drywall — though Logan's focus is more on community outreach than the small-batch bottling business. 

Pre-pandemic, he was running workshops, leading foraging tours for folks aged three to 95. "They're often people who are not particularly crafty or interested in art," he says, and he's shared much of his methodology in the book Make Ink: A Forager's Guide to Natural Inkmaking. According to him, anyone can be an ink-maker. And any thing can be an ink! Spring is just an especially nice time to begin, even under emergency measures.

There's something totally enjoyable about getting yourself a little sack and just going for a wander.- Jason S. Logan

"It's just kind of the first moment where nature is waking up, so as the forager, you can be out there without hat and gloves — and there's stuff to collect!" 

"There's something totally enjoyable about getting yourself a little sack and just going for a wander," he says. "And wandering with the purpose and the idea that maybe I could make ink through a couple of the things that I find today."

Whither shall you wander?

Jason S. Logan of the Toronto Ink Company, photographed by Lauren Kolyn. (That's goldenrod, willow and buckthorn poking out of his backpack.) (@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

"You can't really legally forage in parks," he explains, "so I need green spaces that are not playgrounds or parks." Wild urban patches like the West Toronto Railpath and Leslie Spit are two of Logan's best-loved spots. But so long as you're not breaking any rules, absolutely anywhere is suitable, from a back alley to a tiny backyard. 

"I always tell people to look down," says Logan. "I think people are always saying to look up because they're always looking down at their cell phones, but I'm kind of into looking down."

You're going to have ink that becomes a distillation of your day, and of the things you've discovered.- Jason S. Logan, Toronto Ink Company

In workshops, Logan gets his ink-hunters to drop a hula hoop wherever they're standing. (If you're confined to your yard, this is probably an especially useful tip.) Activate your imagination, and scan the circle for objects of interest. "There's probably leaves — check out an app to find out what plant they come from. There's maybe a bit of a root, a rusty nail, a cigarette butt."

"If it's your first time out, I would probably stick to plants," Logan advises, though he's definitely pulled pigment from trash. "I think the first question to ask is just, 'Is this a plant that might make some nice intense colour?'"

Forage responsibly!

Loot from a summertime forage on the West Toronto Railpath. (@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

"In the end, you're making a tiny little one or two ounce bottle of ink," says Logan, "so I find that people usually collect way more than they need."

When you're foraging, bring along a sack the size of a freezer baggie. It might seem small, but it will easily hold enough material, he says.

Don't ever take more than 10 per cent of a plant you see.- Jason S. Logan, Toronto Ink Company

This time of year, Logan's usually combing Toronto ravines for nettles and wild iris roots. Their pigments are at their richest right now. "Green's a really tricky colour to get at any time of year," he says, "but there are certain things that are just going to give you a better green in the spring."

And while hunting, be mindful of your surroundings."There's a kind of forager's code," says Logan. If you see a beautiful and exciting and extremely inkable plant, don't snatch it right away. "Wait until you see it a couple more times, and then just try to pick a few petals from it," he says — or a nut or a leaf or a scrap of bark. "Don't ever take more than 10 per cent of a plant you see. Even if it seems like a simple weed, it might be something that's important to the ecosystem." 

You've stuffed a Ziploc with weeds and berries. Now what?

Get yourself to the kitchen, and start experimenting! There's no hard-and-fast recipe for ink. "It's not like cake-making, says Logan. Instead, he suggests riffing on this basic procedure. Follow it as a rough guide, and you'll squeeze two cups of ink from whatever you've lugged home. 

"You absolutely can make ink out of anything. A lot of things end up as a kind of watery, tea colour," he chuckles. "So sometimes it's about having a more subtle sense of what colour is and can be." 

"You're going to have ink that becomes a distillation of your day, and of the things you've discovered. So that's going to be kind of beautiful and delicious, no matter what colour it ends up."

(@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)
(@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)
(@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

Raid your cupboards for supplies

Grab a big, old pot — one you can sacrifice to the cause. ("You don't want to be boiling up pasta right after.") Find some small glass bottles or jars for the finished product, too. (For best results, sterilize those puppies in advance.) 

Other useful supplies: coffee filters, a wide-mouth jar, a funnel, strips of white paper, rubber gloves. 

As for the ink ingredients, you'll need water, salt, white vinegar and gum arabic. (Try art supply stores for the latter item. "It's kind of a miracle substance," Logan says. "It sort of thickens up your ink, makes it attach itself to the paper." But if you absolutely can't find gum arabic, substitute with honey. "It's fussier to work with, but it has a very similar effect.")

Put the stove on

Toss your foraged finds in the pot and add water. If you're working with things like nuts, leaves and roots, Logan recommends adding 1 cup of plant parts to 2 cups water. Throw in 1 dash of salt and 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. Turn on the heat, and keep things just below a boil for 1-2 hours, watching for any intriguing colour changes as you occasionally stir the mix. 

Test! Boil! Repeat!

A swatch of Logan's ink, made from wild grapes. (@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

Keep a few strips of paper on hand. After the pot's been on the stove for at least an hour, check the ink's progress by giving one a dip. "If you don't like the look of it, keep boiling it up," says Logan. "Try adding a little salt; try adding a little water to make it a bit thinner." Beautiful ink is in the eye of the beholder. It's up to you when to stop.

Ready to bottle?

Goals. Bottled inks by the Toronto Ink Company. (@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

If you're delighted with your test strip, it's time to bottle that one-of-a-kind colour. If your pot looks like a yard-waste bin, use a colander to strain it. Then, line a funnel with a coffee filter and pour your ink — slowly and carefully — into a wide-mouth jar.

To bind your ink, add gum arabic. As a general rule, use 1 part to 10 parts ink. The amount, though, is up to you. Use more if you want a thicker liquid. 

They're living inks. They have a life of their own and that's part of what makes them thrilling and exciting.- Jason S. Logan, Toronto Ink Company

And when you're prepping your small bottles, consider adding a preservative. Because of the natural ingredients, they're "living inks" that might wind up growing unwelcome living molds. Plop a whole clove to each bottle and/or a drop of wintergreen oil before sealing the lid. Also, consider storing them in the fridge. Labels are strongly recommended — "so people know it's not something to drink!"

Do it all over again!

Your first batch is done and ready for your next arts-and-crafts project. But the experiment isn't over. Foraged inks will change colour, says Logan. "They'll change in the sunlight, they'll fade a bit, they might get darker."

"The first-time ink-maker has to accept that they're living inks," he says. "They have a life of their own and that's part of what makes them thrilling and exciting."

"You can keep fiddling and changing it and working with it and re-boiling it up and then playing around some more and adding it to some other things."

"I would say you can make hundreds of colours out of things that you can forage in your own neighbourhood."

What the ink test says. (@torontoinkcompany/Instagram)

Follow Jason S. Logan and the Toronto Ink Company on Instagram.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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