Make Natural Ink from Plants

My Garden Life
August 14, 2020
Table of Contents
Artists often try to reproduce the rich colors of nature in their work. Our DIY project using plants and other natural ingredients to make ink takes that process one step further—by showing you how, with a few simple steps, you can capture many beautiful shades from Nature in your artwork.

Supplies:

Supplies for making natural ink from plants.

  • Cooking pot (This process can stain cookware, so you’ll want to use an old, unwanted pot and utensils or pick up a pot at your local thrift store.)
  • Berries, flowers and vegetables from your garden. Colorful spices and foodstuffs from your larder (see hints for some ideas below).
  • Small metal mesh strainer
  • Coffee filters
  • Water
  • White vinegar
  • Salt
  • Thyme or wintergreen essential oil (preservative)
  • Gum Arabic (a thickener, found at art supply stores)
  • Bottles for storing ink

Steps for Making Ink

1. Slice the plant materials into smaller pieces.

Cut up plant material into smaller pieces.

2. Place the collected plant material, water, white vinegar and salt into the pot using the following ratio per cup of water:
  • 1/2 cup plant material
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • Dash salt

Pot of plant material mixed with water, vinegar and salt simmering on the stove.

3. Heat to a simmer, never allowing the mixture to boil, and let cook for at least an hour. Check the color and continue cooking until it reaches the depth and shade you want. Test by dipping a strip of white paper in the pot. Continued boiling will evaporate water and result in a more concentrated color.
Four pots of plant material mixed with water, vinegar and salt simmering on the stove.

4. When the ink reaches the desired color, cool then strain into a wide mouthed jar, measuring cup, or bowl through a coffee filter placed into a funnel or mesh strainer.
Straining off boiled plant material to capture the fluid that will become ink.

5. Pour the ink into bottles, leaving some air space at the top.
Pouring ink made from plant material into bottles.

6. Add one-part gum Arabic and ten drops essential oil for every ten parts ink. Mix well. Seal bottle tightly when storing. Gum Arabic slightly thickens the watery ink to prevent it from bleeding on the paper as well as hold stronger color.
Wintergreen oil used to preserve natural ink.

Ingredients:

Experiment with different materials from the garden or the larder. To get you started, here’s a list of common ingredients you probably already either have or can easily get at your local grocery or farmer’s market.
Examples of ink colors made from 8 different plants.

Avocado pit = pink
Beets = magenta pink
Black walnut shells = deep magenta to black
Black raspberry = purple
Blueberry = blue
Carrot = yellow
Coffee = rich brown
Red cabbage = purple
Red or pink roses = pink
Red onion skin = green
Spinach = yellow green
Turmeric = yellow
Yellow onion skins = orange

Tips:

  • If a natural material stains your hands when you pick it up, it’s likely to make a good source for DIY ink.
  • Combining two different plants can yield surprising and aesthetically pleasing results. Be sure to take notes while experimenting, to remember your favorite blends.
  • When harvesting wild plant materials, be sure to leave plenty of each plant behind to ensure that a healthy population remains for future harvests.
  • Spring and summer are great times to experiment with different colors of flowers.
  • Use natural ink in paintings, pens or anywhere that calls for regular ink!
  • The pH of the water you use can slightly affect the final color of some inks. Work with distilled water to start with a pH as close to neutral as possible.
  • The pH of the paper you use can affect ink color as well. Be sure to test the color before you start a complicated calligraphy or painting project to be sure the final, dry color gives you the results you were expecting. Using acid-free papers (available through art supply stores) will give the best results.
Cards painted using natural inks from plants.

Pressed flowers are a beautiful compliment to greeting cards, gift tags, journal pages or bookmarks penned with natural inks. Learn how to press flowers in our article, Drying, Pressing and Preserving Flowers.
Making gift tags using pressed flowers.

10 Comments

  1. Fran

    Why do you use vinegar and salt in all your inks? Don’t you find it a bit limiting?
    I am getting into making inks and have discovered that NOT using vinegar allows you to obtain a third colour like using red cabbage alone you get one colour, using red cabbage with vinegar you get another or at least a stronger one than without it, but if instead of the acid you add a base, you can sometimes get a different colour, like with red cabbage and baking soda I can get a lovely green, almost a turquoise!
    Instead of using vinegar as a preservative, I use it as a modifier. And I used a whole clove, wintergreen essential oil or thyme essential oil – as a preservative, this also gives smelly things like red cabbage a nicer smell.
    But perhaps you know something I don’t about vinegar? If so could you tell me?
    Thank you
    Fran

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Fran,
      Vinegar helps lower the pH of the dyes and salt helps it absorb into fibers (paper or fabric). A lower pH (acid pH) can improve the ability of the inks to bind. Vinegar and salt are items that most people have on hand, so we were trying to keep things simple and convenient for beginners. It is true that using a base, such as baking soda, can result in different colors in some cases. Just remember, altering the pH can also diminish the binding ability of your ink. Thanks for the additional suggestions for preservatives!

      Reply
  2. Jacky

    Hi I don’t have any straining materials. How bad would the ink be affected kg it wasn’t strained? Would it still be usable with just some residue at the bottom of the jar?

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Jacky,
      It would still be usable but you may pick up some small bits in your brush that would then get laid down on your paper. You’d have to be very careful not to disturb the ink water too much, so as not to stir up the residues.

      Reply
  3. Evans

    Greetings to you! Love the article and I am curious if you know if honey is a good alternative for gum arabic and if so, if there would be any bad effects mixing it with vinegar and salt (as I’ve read you mentioned that it lowers pH and strengthens the binding ability so I’d rather not take it out of the recipe). Thank you!

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Evans,
      An interesting question – we had to do a little research. While historically honey has been used in making inks, gum arabic has become a preferred choice over the centuries. Apparently honey may not dry well if too much is added, leaving your work tacky. The use of honey isn’t out of the question and you could experiment with it, but we’d recommend doing an internet search for “can honey be used as a binder for ink” first to get a better idea on how to use it and the proper amount. You’ll get many results (and differing opinions) on the use of honey in inks. Based on our research, we would choose gum arabic over honey.

      Reply
  4. Watalski

    Hi can I ask what are the chemical properties need of a plant/flower need to became a good natural ink?

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Watalski,
      Every plant contains some potential for making ink although many green plants would likely result in shades of green to brown tones. Plants that are high in tannins such as mint, cilantro, rosemary, coffee, grapes, raspberries, cloves, cranberries, tea, blueberries, pomegranate peel, along with the flowers of yarrow, goldenrod, rose, marigold, coreopsis, and mallow (just to name a few) tend to have more color intensity and longevity than those lower in tannins.

      Reply
  5. Justin Sagun

    Hello I would like to know what is the specific millimeter of water need and the needed grams of flower need because the 1/2 cup plant material is kind of confusing. By any chance I want to know the specific measure of each ingredients. Thank You

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Justin,
      Just as with cooking with fresh ingredients, the amount of leafy greens, flowers, or chunks of vegetable is a bit imprecise due to the nature of their irregular sizes and shapes. You can try to press the ingredient down as much as possible as you measure it, but there is no specific weight measurement we can come up with that would cover all of the possible plant, fruit, or vegetable sources you might experiment with in making inks.

      Regarding the water, the ratio of a half cup (4 oz) of plant material to one cup (8 oz) water is enough to get started but if you choose to boil the mixture for a long period of time you will likely need to replenish some water in the process, as water will be lost due to evaporation. You will want to maintain enough water to cover the plant material during boiling. Too much additional water and you risk diluting the final concentration of the color.

      Reply

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