Natural Plant Inks

Its been quite long since I wrote my last post but I am back again! I had started my blog  Lost in Colours with an intention to raise awareness of the ecological issues involved in art materials, and to provide  non-toxic, low-impact solutions. Hopefully,  I can be more regular in sharing not only my insights on this topic  but also my struggles and joy of creating sustainable art!

To date, I had only been using pigments from Earth in my artwork. My journey into foraging for natural pigments from plants began last year after being inspired by a local artist whom I met while camping along the coast of Algarve in Portugal.  Her eco-printed fabric had me thinking and I started exploring plants other than pigments of the earth as a source of colours for my sketches. I couldn’t really explore and experiment much after returning home to Austria as nature had begun to go into sleep mode.

Butea monosperma : Flame of the forest tree in Auroville, India

I embarked on making botanical inks early this year when we traveled to India. During our month-long trip we stayed for about a week in the southern Indian town of Auroville. There stood in the courtyard of our guest house a beautiful Palash or  Flame of the Forest tree in full bloom. Looking at that tree I remembered stories from my parents how they used to collect flowers of this tree for making natural colour to play Holi.  The Indian festival of colours that heralds the arrival of spring.

Alas! the natural colours have now been substituted by non-sustainable chemical colours and this beautiful tree is now long forgotten!   I collected fallen flowers from the ground along with my son and made my very first natural ink in the communal kitchen of our guest house. Palash flower gives a vivid orange-yellow dye that mixes well with other colours too. I even did a quick illustration with it and loved capturing the memories of it in my travel sketchbook.

After returning from India I had to patiently wait for  nature to wake up from its winter sleep to begin experimenting with the natural resources  in Austria. To date, I have experimented with making inks from tea, coffee, onion skins, spring flowers in various colours, avocado pit, redcurrant, chards etc. I don’t follow any particular recipe but do so by using the trial and error method. There were a lot of failures, but I believe that’s the only way to learn and get better. I’m sure there are many books out there on botanical inks and articles written about it online, but being old school as I am,  I wanted to learn everything myself, looking for a recipe has never been my way of working. It definitely took me much longer than it would have if I did some research.  The satisfaction I felt by allowing myself to be creative while making use of sustainable materials is indescribable.

Natural Plant based inks

Nature isn’t just a source of artistic inspiration; it is also an incredible source of art supplies. Observing the colours of nature and being in nature is exhilarating!  I strongly emphasize upon using materials that are of the earth, are safe to work with and that can safely be returned back into the earth.  Understanding the natural colour palette of your region, and creating art with materials that you have made with your own hands and from plants that grow around you, can be incredibly enriching,  and connective experience. There is something sublime about walking out onto the land and gathering fallen leaves, harvesting flowers, berries, and digging up muddy roots to extract their colour. Bringing more beauty into the world doesn’t have to be deleterious to our environment or to our own personal growth.

Making ink is just one more way to enjoy the beauty and excitement of our natural world. Personally, I’ve barely scratched the world of natural dyes and inks, and am still in the process of learning, exploring, and experimenting.

Following are recipes of some of the inks that I have made and use in my work.  Please remember that you can always tweak them to make them work for you:

Rooibos tea ink

I took 1tsp of loose Rooibos tea and allowed it to steep in approx. 15 ml of boiling water for 20 minutes or so. I filtered the tea and added a pinch of baking soda (sodium-bi-carbonate) and boiled the tea for a few minutes. To thicken it you can add a bit of powdered gum arabic. If you don’t have gum arabic you can use it as it is too.  To keep this ink for long add 1/2 a tsp of vinegar and a pinch of salt as a preservative  (optional).

Flame of Forest Ink

I collected fallen flowers (about 200gm) and boiled them in water with a pinch of sodium bicarbonate. I don’t have an exact measurement for the amount of water used, it was just enough to cover flowers in the pot to have a  concentrated ink. After cooling I added a bit of alcohol as a preservative. You can also add vinegar and salt as an alternative preservative.

Tea ink

Loose florals painted with fresh black tea ink

I followed the same procedure as described for Rooibos tea but without the addition of sodium-bi-carbonate. It is best to be used fresh as it takes no time to make this ink.

Onion skins. Strongly coloured skins are best, from red or bright orange onions. They boil down to a rich gold colour that creates a subtle gold wash that can be built up through layering. It’s a distinctive gentle red gold that often dries a darker color than when you paint it on. It is great for staining papers and giving them a vintage look.

Pink ink from Red  Chards

I discovered this ink serendipitously when I was cutting the ends of chards for cooking.  However, instead of throwing the organic waste I crushed them using a  pestle and mortar and added boiling water to extract the dye.  Voila! I had a beautiful ink at my disposal.

Currently, I’m experimenting with berries, walnut leaves, marigold flowers, nettle leaves, purple basil, thyme, etc. I hope that my article will inspire and encourage you to try some of the tried and tested processes so that we can work in a way that is more responsible for people and our planet.

How ‘Green’ is your Green watercolour ?!

Green, the colour of nature, new life and sustainability can never be green ! It is ironically toxic to all forms of life and environment!

“Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions” –John Muir

Trail walk to Laudachsee, Upper Austria

Green is the color of nature, which symbolizes renewal and growth. It also means balance, calm and harmony. It is no surprise that we feel so invigorated when we are out in the open surrounded by the beauty of nature. Such is the power of green, which manages to resonate with our inner energy, rebalancing us.

Today Green is no longer just a color. It is the symbol of Ecology!

But in an artist’s world, green has always been a troublesome color. Because mixing greens can be one of the major issues that can start to throw your landscape painting off-course. Green can be an Achilles heel for any artist, and the urge to grab premix green watercolor paint out of a tube can be hard to resist. Why is it so, I am not sure? Perhaps it has something to do with how we all actually perceive green.

As Pablo Picasso once said: “They will sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like, but that particular green, never.”

Which Colors Make Green?

I don’t think there is one shade of green available in watercolor that depicts the beauty of nature in any season. That’s why I have always mixed my greens and that too using natural pigments because I strongly believe and enjoy painting in organic sensibility!

One of the basic rules of elementary school art class is that blue mixed with yellow produces green. True, those two colors alone can produce many wonderful greens, assuming that the yellow and blue paints you are using are pure yellow and pure blue. If they  have been altered from their pure forms, it will consequently alter your green as well.

Mixing greens with genuine Indigo blue (NB1), Curcuma (NY3), Ercolano Red (PR102) and Gold Ochre (PY43). Lost in colours handmade watercolours.

The chart on left shows the most delightful greens that I have achieved with my mixing. Notice all those green (rows 1-3) were made using only two of my own handmade natural paints Indigo genuine (NB1) and Curcuma (NY3). In the last two rows, I varied the colours by adding a bit of Ercolano Red (PR102) and yellow gold ochre ( PY43).   I sometimes also use Ultramarine blue (PB29) in my work to create several mixes of green with Py43. In fact, NY3 when mixed with PB29 also gives beautiful greens. Try doing several charts on your own to make some luscious greens!

Toxic convenience Green watercolor paints !

While the color green evokes nature and renewal, the cruel truth is that most forms of the colour green, the powerful symbol of sustainability can be quite damaging not only to human health but also to the environment. In fact, green color has a very toxic history. Whereas all shades of green look beautiful in nature!

Today there are many green hues available in artists’ colours, I’m not going to make you the whole list as it is beyond the scope of this article.  Almost all greens contain chromium, cobalt, or copper, all of which are poisonous and cause or are suspected to cause birth defects and abnormalities.

Toxic popular green watercolor paints

Phthalo Green (PG7 and PG36),  probably the most popular green in use by artists today as it is capable of producing a vast range of useful colour mixtures! Several studies have demonstrated that PG7  an organic pigment containing copper and chlorine can cause cancer and serious birth defects  (read the articles & 2 if you are really inclined) and they are quite toxic to the aquatic environment (links 1 & 2).  Another popular shade, PG36, includes potentially hazardous bromide atoms as well as chlorine. Something to really consider is that phthalocyanine pigment manufacture is done primarily in third world countries where safety regulations are not as strict and the risk it poses to the workers involved and environment is phenomenal. Remember these are innocent people whose lives are put to risk for meeting the demands of industries requiring that particular green color!

Cobalt turquoise or Cobalt Teal (PG 50) is a noxious cocktail of cobalt, titanium, nickel and zinc oxide.  Additionally, mineral pigments containing copper clearly come with a hazard warning such as Malachite (links 1 & 2) and Atacamite (link here ).

Chromium, a carcinogen that causes birth defects, is found in Viridian (PG 18) and Chromium Oxide Green (PG 17).

Cobalt Green (PG 19) contains cobalt.

Green Gold (PG10) contains Nickel.

The only acceptable greens are Green Earth (PG23) and Ultramarine green.   Green Earths are more numerous, but one must take care that they have not been adulterated with one of the poisonous greens to produce a stronger color.

It is true that the watercolor paint contains insufficient quantities in a pan or a tube to be acutely toxic or injurious to humans but pigments in dry state are far more dangerous if precaution is not taken. Caution the blues and yellows are no different either!

The heart of the problem is that green is such an elusive color to manufacture that toxic substance are often used to stabilize it. Ironic isn’t it?  So, next time you’re tempted to buy something in any shade of green, be prudent and just remember how poisonous that color was in the past, and can be today.

Most importantly,  know what you’re working with, what are the risks to your health,  to those who manufacture the pigments and your environment!

Alternatives to toxic green watercolors certainly do exist but the question is are you willing to make that choice to your art practice? Something to ponder over!

Nature is not a place to visit, it is home and we don’t destroy the home where we live in!

Hike to Avalanche peak, Arthurs Pass, New Zealand

 

 

Bibliography, Sources, and Recommended Reading:

The Secret Lives of Colour -Kassia St Clair

Artists’ Pigments- A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics

Volume 3 Elisabeth West Fitzhugh, Editor

Rossol, Monona. Artists Complete Health & Safety Guide 3rd Edition, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York 2001.

 

 

DISCLAIMER: This article concerns itself with the common-sense safety aspects of art materials and art safety in general. The intent of this article is merely to raise individual awareness of some of the issues involved and to encourage the reader to take steps in learning more about the factors involved with the hazards associated with art materials. The author may change the contents of this document at any time, either in whole or in part.