A few posts back, I shared with readers my stack of current books. One of them is by Jason Logan and is about making ink from plants he forages in the city, notably Toronto, NYC and Brooklyn. I find his book a truly charming intro to the world of foraging plants for pigments, well researched, beautifully written, and most of all, recipe-rich with luscious photographs of very arty ink marks. You know I love it! And he has great entries on his Instagram, too. ( Jason Logan’s book : Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking)
In the past, I have posted here about making paint and/or ink with blue iris and walnut; more recently, coreopsis was the subject. This time, I am reporting on buckthorn berries, a traditional source of green dye and paint. Artists of the Renaissance and later used buckthorn berries as a source of “sap green” as well as for various yellows or yellow-greens. The colours obtained depended on berry ripeness, plant variety and methods used for the colour extraction – all fascinating topics widely written up. (If these interest you, check out some of the references this blog, works by Dominique Cardon and Jenny Dean being great resources. You might also check a most informative blog on making artist paints: http://www.sunsikell.wordpress.com. Each of these provides trustworthy info on the pigment properties of and colour extraction methods for various varieties of buckthorn)
The buckthorn familiar to me in the Ottawa area is Rhamnus cathartica, and it is not an MVP in the plant world hereabouts! In fact, an Ottawa buckthorn SWAT team of vigilantes meets regularly to search and destroy this invasive non-native. But in spite of my preference for working with native plants, I am pretty excited and not too politically correct to find some pleasant use for the berries of the otherwise-despised buckthorn.
In fact, I found a whole hedge of the buckthorn bushes laden with juicy blue-black berries in late September ( the birds eat the berries only when nothing better is available, I have learned. ) So I helped myself to about two cupfuls with the intention of making ink and/or paint, having been inspired and instructed by Jason’s book.
First task was to extract the colour from the berries. Now I have to admit that at this point, I did not follow the instructions in Jason’s book. His practice is to just squash the fresh berries and use the juice uncooked. I decided to go with traditional dye extraction practice for this first attempt; this involved crushing the berries, covering them with water, cooking them at a simmer in the slow cooker until the water took on a dark purple-blue colour and then straining them in a jellymaking bag:
Notice how the jelly bag begins to turn green, even when purple juice has not done draining into the pot! ( Probably because of the soap residue in the jelly bag)
Now the fun begins. Indeed, to obtain green is the first colour goal, so a portion of the purple liquid is poured into a glass jar ( about a cupful) and a scant teaspoon of alum acetate is added. A good stir and a shake – et voila! Green! But not as a result of adding lye crystals, as Jason uses: first, because I had no lye on hand and anyway, older recipes often recommended alum ( though potassium aluminum sulphate). Thus, first pic shows the basic purple juice extraction, then the green with the alum added:
Then some trials on paper with these two colours ( FYI: the first pic shows how the purple stains changed colour in the empty cooking pot when I rinsed it with plain tap water – triggering a pH change and thus a colour move from blue to green) . The papers were painted with the purple and the green pigments.
With the addition of other modifiers besides alum, other colours besides greens developed. Ammonia gave brownish-yellow, soda ash gave yellows, lemon juice and white vinegar gave pink, without alum. Here are some of the samples:
To help preserve the natural paints/inks from developing molds, a number of agents can be tried. I used whole cloves ( Jason’s recommendation) in some containers and tea tree oil ( a well known anti-fungal) in others. But any mold that might develop can simply be removed and discarded. Depends how you feel about the mold.
Next time, I plan to report on the performance of additives like gum arabic that Jason recommends for ease of ink/paint flow for markmaking.
Meantime, I have buckthorn berries fermenting ( see Cardon for info on this) and plan to use those berries fresh, not cooked, to see how the colours develop in comparison to the colours obtained from the cooked ones. BTW, after cooking, you can put the mashed berry residue back into the pot, cover with water and cook again for a second extraction. And you can freeze the berries, too.
PS on ART FOR AID
For folks who have been following my art kit project to benefit Art For Aid: the good news is that a shipment of mylar blankets has left for the north, eagerly awaited by First Nations families as winter sets in. My art kits have started to arrive – one donor in NSW, Australia has even received hers BEFORE the kit mailed on the same day last week to Victoria, British Columbia! Generous folks have even donated over and above what I was able to supply in kits to match donation, though I was able to send them a just one wee kit. These little ones were in small stash I had set aside in case of SNAFUs….And no-one at all has asked for a refund, even if they were they unable to get a kit in a size that matched their donation when the supply ran out
I am extremely gratified and touched to find myself in the company of people like all these donors. Some compassionate and generous people even offered to make an extra donation as compensation for those who might have asked for a refund. I have experienced in this project the hope created by people who light candles instead of cursing the darkness.
A la prochaine, dear reader