Black Walnut markings

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) dye report.

First up is the info about the best walnuts for dye or ink. They are the green ones as they fall from the trees (here in Ottawa, that means October). This Fall, my three-year old grandson, Dylan, was my foraging companion. We took a nice collecting walk in a nearby walnut grove and gathered both green and black decomposing nuts.

We collected them “eco” style: picking them from under the trees, and not too many, for the critters need their winter supply. It was charmingly “eco” to get down as close to the ground as a three-year old, to examine and discuss every plant, every bug, every lichen-bearing stick; to take over an hour to collect one bag of walnuts, to choose more black squishy ones than hard green ones because the black ones squirted out icky sludgey goo on Nana…

By January, all the walnuts were black and frozen in our unheated storage. No more green ones that give the most colour. Well. We work with what is at hand, thus respecting another principle of an “eco” approach to natural dyeing. Four walnuts fit in my electric dye pot, a small ceramic slow cooker of one litre capacity. To get the most colour out of the black nuts, I thought I should make several dye extractions. In the end, four extractions were possible before the walnuts became sludge …or Nana's Squirting Goo…

For the first extraction, the walnuts were covered with water and simmered at 180 degrees for several hours, at least six, or until the liquid had reduced to about a cup. (One paper bundle and one small silk bundle were dyed in the first extraction)

The walnuts and liquid were then strained in cheesecloth, the dye saved, the four walnuts returned to the crock pot, covered with water, slow simmered for six more hours, then strained as above. The procedure was repeated once more, to make three times, I.O.W., until the walnuts disintegrated. The three litres of water reduced to just over three cups of black-brown dye. These three cups of dye were combined and strained once more. Then they were returned to the dye pot to cook down yet again until reduced to one cup of rich, thickish liquor, like balsamic vinegar:

So three litres of water, four squishy black Black walnuts and four reductions over a total of 24 hours in an electric crockpot..hmmm…I wonder how “eco” that is? At least the squirrels got the sludge.

So what to do with walnut dye?

The cheesecloth used for straining the walnut stew became…a rose by any other name:

Some watercolour paper first stamped with Oshiwa wood blocks and green acrylic paint:

…then washed over with the walnut reduction ( sort of a la Jamie Oliver):


…to this end: a typical antiquing look. The dye settled around thicker paint and created a drop-shadow effect, reversing the original white ground to green.


Some marks with walnut dye made with a paint brush, the dye painted on, dribbled on, splattered on, dripped on watercolour paper. The darkest marks come from a heavier application or a painting over of previous brush strokes:



Series below:

Marks made on wool in a 2011 walnut dye bath. Vintage wool panels were immersion dyed, bundled with Baby Blue eucalyptus, iron bits, acorns, corn cob, florist fern:

The euc printed acid yellow mostly but also patches of lime green and orange. Of course the deep browns are walnut dye.

Iron bits printed and so did the green florist fern:

I adore the walnut stripes:

A tad of orange from the euc and a clear green print from the fern. How well protein fibres print!

More stripeys in shades of walnut:

And a print from the dried Indian corn cob over which I had bundled this wool fragment:

Hope to make myself a garment from these panels of walnut and eucalyptus prints!

Last pic of walnut markings:

The brown dye seeped along the edges of the small accordion book above, and washed in over the Chokecherry leaves prints.

So far, I can use the straight dye liquid quite successfully as an ink, paint or liquid dye application.

But not yet sure about the right recipe for an ink thickened with gum tragacanth or gum arabic.

Wondering what would work for use with writing pens.

And what preservative might I need? Should I add alum?

Next post: Some local colour…






15 thoughts on “Black Walnut markings

  1. beautifull, I could pour over these patterns and colours for hours…once again thankyou for your openess in your work practises and for sharing your creative vision 🙂

    1. Thanks, Terrie

      I have learned so much from the generosity of others who have shared unstintingly. Our processes may be the same or similar but our end results are so wonderfully varied that indeed, the wonders will never cease! I continue to be inspired by the results of other artists, which spur me on to try new things too. That is the cycle of human development that we are participating in some small way.
      Thank you for sharing!

  2. Exquisite. I love your sharing of the historical development of this piece – the accidental drifting of the leaf into the rusting dye pot. The acknowledging of how those same leaves make their contact pigment prints on concrete sidewalks. It takes the thoughtful eye and creative mind of a true artist to apply the inspiration from nature to something so beautiful as this book. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thank you, Jennifer! I know you have noticed the same natural processes at work. Cassandra Tondro (see my blog roll) has revised her original paper eco printing tutorial. She terms her prints “monoprints” , well described I think. Cassandra had been experimenting with leaf dye prints on paper and textile for quite some time when I found her blog. She also referred to her observations of the leaves printing their dyes onto the concrete..and I think you have spoken amusingly about the impossible green grass stains on the knees of our clothes when we were….ohhhhh, many years younger…

      Imagine! We have come far in being able as a community to gather these observations from hither and thither into a body. We continue to learn collectively how to use them as inspiration for artmaking.

      Thank you for your sharing

  3. Wendy, it’s an amazing world when we can share what we know with any process, acknowledging our references and inspiration, and then learning by “mad textile scientist-ing” away in our own labs to further devise new methods and approaches. The end results are always so different and so personal. I think part of the appeal of the “ecoprint” is that it can be so geocentric, even egocentric in a way, and when making art, that is always a great thing!

  4. for a preservative you could try 100 proof vodka 10-15% of total solution, or some stronger ethyl alcohol. Also ferric sulfate will make it darker. just reboiling with some rusty nails will achieve same preservative effect. cloves are a preservative, but not sure how many or how effective. i am testing these things for ink too…

    1. Thanks, Jane.
      I have not tried the alcohol idea. It is worth consideration for sure.
      I would worry that the iron as an ink preservative might create holes in the substrate down the road…even though iron is a useful mordant. If one builds the fragility into the work of art being created, that would justify the use of iron, I believe


      1. I agree re: iron, tho i think the road is long, maybe decades or centuries if medieval manuscripts are any indication. also adding calcium carbonate (crushed eggshells or TUMS) could be one way to make it more base…

  5. Jane.

    Yes, that is a very interesting comment re the chalk as counter to alum and iron. I have begun recommending it to my students with the proviso that Down The Road the chalk might do something to the colours of the eco prints…it is worth experimenting with, though, since deacidification by paper conservators involves the use of calcium carbonate. (I got mine from the local pharmacist but he said Tums would work, too)

    On we go with the trials!


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