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Making Your Own Foraged Inks

Engaging & Painting With Natural Materials

Making your own ink is sustainable and low-budget, and the perfect activity to do as a family, for an adventurous date, or alone. It’s something anyone can do, whether you have access to a trail system or a city block. And, unlike foraging mushrooms, you don’t have to be anxious about accidentally ingesting something toxic. Spice up your next hike by keeping an eye out for ink ingredients and you’ll be on your way to a unique piece of art in no time!

Forests, fields, and mountains are all fair game to begin your foraging expedition. You can’t legally forage in public parks, but you can find many sections of public land that aren’t parks. Take your time while walking and look down. Leaves, bark, nuts, roots, berries, and even rusty nails are perfect ink ingredients.

Pigments are found in everything in nature; however, it’s best to pick plants and flowers with the most saturation as these will produce the darkest colors and show up most boldly on white paper. Berries, pinecones, sumac, and grape leaves all have high saturation and are good sources of ink. In general, berries will have the most pigment, then flowers, then leaves. 

You only need a small amount of plant material to make a substantial amount of ink, so a small bag’s worth of ingredients will be enough. When trimming from a plant, make sure not to take more than 10% of the total material

To make the ink, you’ll need three things: pigment (the items you’ve foraged that give the ink its color), a substance suspending the pigment, and a binder—something to keep the pigments suspended in the liquid. The substance suspending the pigment will typically be water or oil. Water is easiest and free, but the right type of oil is probably already in your pantry. Any neutral oil like canola or vegetable will do! Either soda ash or gum arabic works well as a binder and can be found in a craft store or online. 

You’ll also need a foraging bag and garden clippers for clipping and storing foraged items, a cheesecloth which you can find at a local supermarket, wintergreen essential oil for preservation (also found at a craft store or online), and a small jar for storage.

Supply List

  • Soda ash or gum arabic
  • Water or a neutral oil
  • Foraging bag
  • Garden clippers 
  • Cheesecloth
  • Small jar
  • Wintergreen essential oil
  • Paintbrush or ink pen

The first step happens on your stove. Mix your pigment of choice with the binder and the substrate in a pot and set it to simmer for 2-3 hours. The binder will dissolve and the pigments will slowly get extracted. There’s no set ratio or exact science for measuring the ingredients. Keep in mind that a little ink goes a long way and a cup of ink will last a very long time. Your best bet for discovering good ratios is to make a few batches of ink, write down the amounts of ingredients for each one, and then test the inks to see which ones you like best. That way, you can develop your own ink recipe to use in the future. You may need to cook down the liquid quite a bit to make the ink concentrated enough. You’ll know the ink is ready when the liquid is dyed the color you want. 

When your ink is ready, strain it into your jar through the cheesecloth. This is the point you can mix in a small amount of wintergreen essential oil to preserve the ink. If you don’t have the essential oil on hand, you can always refrigerate your ink to keep it from potentially growing mold.

When it comes to making art with these inks, the possibilities are endless. You can paint full pages of color, let those dry, and then cut out shapes from the pages to make collages with different tones. You can load up a pen nib with the ink and practice calligraphy or make some comics. You could even write a letter or paint a portrait. A creative gift is a simple and fun way to make your family or friend’s day.

Foraged inks are about slowing down, experimenting, and discovering the beauty of nature in a new way. Once you start making your own inks, you’ll be able to wonder—and discover—which colors translate onto the page. The results are often unexpected and surprising.

Bethany Clarke is a freelance writer with work in She Explores, Litro Magazine and Amjambo Africa. You can find her art and hiking adventures on Instagram @bethanymclarke.