Making your own ink, dyes and art materials from the natural world around you is a deeply satisfying and almost therapeutic process. It not only grows your intimacy with the plants and soils of the place you live in, but also is a far more sustainable art practice, reducing transport, packaging and toxic ingredients.
Creating useable colour from an earth or botanical source is not a new thing; human knowledge of landscapes and their relationship with the natural world is how the first colours emerged to be transformed into paint pigments, fabric dyes or ink. In many places today the use of plants and soil as pigment continues as cultural practice; in other places it was taken over by industrialisation and man-made alternatives, but there’s now a rising interest in a return to natural colour sources. As a gardener you can choose to grow pigment plants that suit your climate, you can forage for plants – particularly weeds – or even use kitchen scraps.
Ink And Dye
Ink and dye are basically just colour suspended in liquid, the colour is called pigment and, in this case, is derived from plant matter; some plants contain more pigment than others. The difference between the two is a dye is a liquid that fabric is immersed in and, through a process – usually by heating the liquid – the colour fixes to the fibres. Whereas ink, which is used to write or draw, is usually much more concentrated with a binder or additive included.
Choosing The Plants
Plants with parts that contain pigment are those that make good dye or ink. Plants may not always make the colour you think they will, if any at all, and others are a total surprise – all part of the magic of plants. The colours you create may also be affected by the pH of the water or even the container you use to make them in.
Some inks may also change colour or fade over time – this is part of the beauty, and this is really true of everything in the world as nothing stays the same forever. The joy of making inks and dyes is to find out which plants are already used to make colour and to learn from others, but also experiment with materials available to you.
Clockwise from top left Extract the pigment from plant material by boiling it; Intense colours in nature don’t always reflect the finished product; Petals and berries are an obvious choice; Test the intensity of your inks before bottling; Homegrown colour can be featured in artworks or used to dye fabrics. Photos by Emma Lupin
Sourcing Colour Plants
Botanical dye materials may be from plants you already buy and eat from elsewhere and you can rescue from the compost heap. These might include onion skins, avocado stones or the skins from an avocado or mangosteen.
GROWING COLOUR PLANTS
This can be very rewarding and plants may also have other functions in your garden, until parts or all are used as dye plants. The obvious parts are flowers, which look beautiful and attract pollinators, but things like shrubs can be shade, habitat and hedging. You need to choose the plants that are suitable for your climate zone.
FORAGING COLOUR PLANTS
Foraging has to be done carefully, being mindful of both the people and the diverse species that rely on plants you may want to take. Never take too much or, in some cases, ensure you seek permission from whoever is managing the land. In many cases, some of the best plants to use to create intense colour are those regarded as weeds.
The process to extract colour from different plants for ink varies with the part of the plant containing the pigment. If it is in a root or hard stem you will need to cut or smash the material and then boil it for a while to extract the ink. However if the colour is in petals, you can simply steep them in water, remove the plant material and reduce the liquid over medium heat, before following the same steps in the below recipe to thicken or preserve. The amount of water required will depend on how much plant material you’re using – follow your instincts and experiment.
What You’ll Need
As well as your plant material, you’ll need an old stainless-steel pot that you no longer use for cooking and a small mesh strainer (paper coffee filters work well, too). You’ll also need a small metal funnel to bottle, a jar for storage and some watercolour paper – or at least thick paper – for testing your colours.
Pigmented roots or base material
Water (rainwater or filtered)
Vinegar or salt
Gum arabic (optional)
A clove bud or clove oil
Prepare the plant material by grating, cutting, shredding or mashing if needed – the smaller the pieces, the more pigment you’ll be able to extract. Place processed material into your pot, cover with water and boil for around 40 minutes. Allow to cool and strain the material from the liquid before adding a preservative of vinegar (up to 25 percent of the solution) or salt (one pinch per bottle). My preference is vinegar as it also brightens the colours.
Test the colour on your paper and, if it’s not intense enough, put back on the heat and reduce further. Once you’re happy, you can add a thickener like gum arabic, while a couple of drops of clove oil or the addition of a clove bud will deter mould.
Bottle your ink and store in a cool spot. If you live in a hot or humid climate, you may need to store it in the fridge.
SOME EXAMPLES OF DIFFERENT PLANTS AND PARTS USED TO CREATE HOMEGROWN INK
|COMMON NAME||PART USED||COLOURS (MAY VARY)||CLIMATE|
|Marigold||Petals||Yellows/ oranges||Temperate Summer/Tropical winter|
|Sunflower||Petals||Yellows||Temperate Summer/Tropical winter|
|Hibiscus||Petals||Purple to greyhues||Tropical/sub tropical|
|Stinky cheese fruit||Roots||Yellow||Tropical|
|Bloodroot||Berries and roots||Purple/ brown||Tropical|
|Onion||Scraps- Skins of bulb||Greens||Temperate|
|Purple cabbage||Leaves||Purple/blues but fades fast||Temperate|
|Avocado||Scraps: seed and skins||Pinky hues||Tropical/ subtropical|
|Coffee||Scraps: ground berries||Brown||Tropical/ subtropical|