December notes

Time to catch up on sharing my doings in the studio since last May! At year’s end, I usually try to take note of how the year has gone, what has gone on as well as off in the studio. Not gonna lie – there was no Magnum Opus: instead, much lurching from project to project, sustained in wobbly up-and-down fashion by pious resolve to carry out faithfully The Duty Of The Moment concerning the making of botanical inks…

I did a lot of Zooms and Face Times, didn’t you? Study zooms, socializing zooms, family meet up zooms…I did three presentations on Zoom on the subject of how I make botanical inks, basically summarizing my journey to that point…but the majority of the time on zoom I was an attendee not a presenter …and I cannot make it through any meeting without doodling. So I spread my studio drop cloth on the dining room table, installed the computer, the inks, the pens etc and made marks…

Dribbles and splashes of botanical inks with markmaking in black pen
Indigo inks with swatch of inks collection: avocado, buckthorn, grape, osage, walnut, iron gall
Egg dish from the Dollar Store makes a great ink palette

The natural ink collection is made from a relatively small number of plants that I either grow in my garden or forage locally. I do have some natural dye powders that “come from away” but so far, with the exception of indigo indigofera ( see photo above), I do not use these for making ink. ( I have tried growing indigo in pots with varied success)

These inks are dye based and thus are pH reactive; this means that they can change colour or shade depending on the substrate they are applied to, or on the modifier used to alter their colour intentionally ( as in classic natural dye practice). Swatching natural inks is an adventure!

Ink palette swatched on “Canal” paper by Saint Armand; various papers to try.
Ink swatches pinned to my doodle-drop clothh

In between making inks and Zoom presentations on the whats and the how-to’s, I contributed a chapter on basic eco printing for a book on natural dyes published in September 2021 by Long Thread Media in the U.S. It was honour for me to be among these most-respected contributors to the field.

Later in the year, my annual art studio tour took place over two weekends. It was a real joy to meet up with visitors to the studio, even if we were masked and socially-distanced. It was great to put on display, along with my inks and ink paintings, some of my printed and embroidered textiles and my Artist Books.

Paste paper cover, coptic bound journal
I carved stamps to print signature wrappers for the journal
Natural inks on watercolour paper by Speedball
Natural inks on paper by Speedball
Painted and printed with acrylics; hand and machine embroidered. ” BYE BYE BEANS” series
Eco printed and embroidered silk cover on slipcase for an Artist Book “Botanica”

After the studio tour, I began to forage for fall ink botanicals, especially wild grapes ( for purples, pinks and blues), ripe buckthorn berries ( for greens) and street-planter, frost-bitten marigolds for yellows and maybe oranges, TBD.

I will end this post with some pics of the marigold project and as precursor to my next post in December 2021 to wrap up the year’s doings. I am making lakes with the marigolds: i.e., turning the water soluble marigold dye into solid cakes for use as watercolours, the full report on that will be next time. Meantime, a few advance pics to show something of the laking process:

And the last photo for this post is of the finger-painted swatch I did this week of some of the inks made in 2021, testing them for colour at year’s end.

A la prochaine! A blessed Advent meanwhile



Looking Forward

More than a year of living “covidly”. It helps me to look forward with hope if I look back to show myself how I have actually made it to Spring 2021 at last. I took a lot of photos. I will just let the pictures remind us both, Reader and Author, that love of handwork and creativity have not been cancelled, and in fact, these two may have been a main means of spiritual and psychological wellbeing during this pestilence, especially when we have been able to share them with like-minded creatives.

In sum: I made a lot of inks from the plants I grew or foraged, ending 2020/21 with a basic Palette of the Year; swatched the inks obsessively on paper and cloth: learned how to make lakes from dye baths (to make watercolour paints); made artist book structures as record keepers for my ink-and-paint adventures; wrote a few articles for publication; gave a few Zoom presentations on making inks from natural sources; joined my fellow local artists in a successful fall studio tour; offered inks and art for sale and most gratefully shipped stuff out of the studio; worked with other art groups to donate Art Kits to our neighbours who obtain support from local Food Banks; participated in a local book arts project; and connected with friends and family, near and far by Zoom.

And about those Zooms that at first we might have cursed and struggled to navigate: my art record keeping now extends beyond little Artist Books to marks on a dropcloth that covered my worktable during those many, many zooms with real people that actually did much to save my sanity in the lockdowns. That’s when the doodles and pen-and-brush-wipings look more interesting than the art you make…

Wendy taking picture of Wendy taking picture, May 2020.

Above, starting top L: Basic colours, inks palette 2020/21; large swatches with ink bottles and dye bath filter papers; avocado pinks dye bath filter papers; buckthorn yellow dye drying on filter paper; wild grape laked pigment pre-mulling; frozen and dried 2020 calendula (R); coreopsis (L) j

My studio “show room” (aka former back porch) for the fall 2020 West End Studio Tour

Little swatch book, folded structure.

The watercolours in the pans above are historic paints common to the Renaissance palette. I made these in a workshop some years ago with Genevieve Samson, curator of medieval mss. at Archives Canada. On Gen’s invitation, I made Sap Green ( from blue iris) for this workshop, to complete the palette. The other colours are made from ground up rocks mostly; the Sap (iris) Green was the only plant-based colour and not available fresh, of course, via Kremer Pigmente in NY. NB: the green inks shown above are from buckthorn ( Rhamnus cathartica), also a source of historic Sap Green (See elsewhere on this blog for how to make historic iris green.) Other mineral watercolours and pigments shown are gifts from friends.

Lots of books during the covid – most of them only partly read, started in the middle, read from the back, etc etc…

A Zoom-time Doodle – inspired by the doodling monks who illustrated the Book of Kells

Thank you, Dear Reader, for having made it this far in my ” annual report” ! Welcome to all my new readers and thank you to all who have been following along …and maybe wondering…

You can also find more inky etc info on my Instagram @wendy_feldberg; you can also scroll far down this page to see my Insta feed. I have checked out of Twitter; my FB is link acting up and I DO NOT CARE. For the mo, Instagram, Zoom and Face Time are more than enough for me.


I have a little shop @stromnesslass on Instagram.
There I post updates on my work and inks for sale. I have been slow to post new work and inks etc there because I have been worried about the mail. But it seems to be more reliable these days so I will be adding more work there soon.

Meanwhile: Good health to us all!

And every blessing on the work of your hands as well as the desires of your heart.

  • From Wendy


Artist Antony Gormley recently wrote about “affordances”- the things and situations that your current reality permits. He included in his idea of “affordances” the ideas as well as materials that you can bring to bear on your art: local materials, local energy (one’s own!) and of course, the environs themselves. And naturally the affordances offered to us all in every respect, not only our art, by The Lockdown. Antony found that he was very ok with the new limits placed by the COVID on his hectic life travelling the globe for his art. I liked very much Antony’s concept of “affordances” and its positive orientation.

Time for an photo, right, dear Reader? And a welcome and thanks to all my new readers. I would like to begin my post with an image or two of my favourite affordance, the garden which supplies much of my art materials. Not to mention my sanity, my inspiration…on and on. What are your favoured affordances?

The front yard in early June with blue irises just starting. The white blossoms on the pagoda dogwood are now giving blue berries good for dye or ink.
(It was a long wait in spring 2020 for this view)
So far this year, I have not made too many new inks or dyes from the garden’s “affordances”. Instead, I have taken stock of the inks made since Fall 2018, 2019 and earlier in 2020, as well as making new paintings with my stash of inks and papers. One project I really enjoyed was constructing little portfolios to hold the many, many ink swatches I have collected since I began making inks. So I have lots of photos of these below.

Maybe you are like me and have lost your face-to-face opportunities to show and sell your art. I had six or seven events planned for 2020: two are now postponed, two cancelled, two made “virtual” and one – who knows? My inks are still stored in my fridge, though a few have left me by mail for new homes. Accordingly, my inkmaking plan for the next while is to use up as many inks as I can on my own work before making new batches – an affordance that has met its time. So in this post I share some of my newer ink paintings.

I start with the swatches of my basic colour palette. My aim in making ink colours has been to develop a limited palette based on what my garden and my local environs afford me in the way of native plants but without scorning international food items or nuisance invasives like buckthorn. So with seven or eight plants (for now), I have been able to assemble a dependable couple of palettes and then modify their basic offerings by mixing inks or using pH uppers and downers and/or iron to change colour, shade or value.

Each of the accordion portfolios above contains swatches of colour mostly from one plant and on various types of paper. The composition of the paper strongly influences the ink colour.
From the bottom: walnut and wild grape; avocado red; hibiscus pinks and blues; iron gall blacks and greys; buckthorn greens and other with pH modifications

Two more kinds of swatching. On the left, a portfolio of several pages gate-folded around each other without any sewing. Dabs, stripes, strokes, dots, lines, triangles of colour. On the right: a classic “wash” swatching with modifier action ( lemon for low pH or baking soda for high pH). The indigo ink is made by Wallace Seymour of the UK. Indigo ink making on my “To Try Later” list – using persicaria tinctoria that I grew in pots.
Each ink colour also has its own portfolio. This one is for coreopsis verticillata which gives a lovely orange red, and, if you do not know what you are doing at first ( moi) you will end up with a lake colour, as here. ( Making lakes is all the rage now on IG)
This little booky wraps around three walnut swatches ( Later I will post pics of the swatches inside the wrapper here and below). I like the simplicity of making a wrapper with an interesting paper or cloth and adding a printed/dyed paper closure. This closure is printed with hibiscus, walnut and buckthorn.
Here is another simple wrapper with and inked and sewn paper band as closure. Inside is an indigo inked accordion (pics in a subsequent post)

This portfolio is a paper slipcase made using Hedi Kyle’s instructions. I have made several of these to hold acccordion book structures. Make two and one is a cover. This accordion is swatched with wild grape. (Could not capture the purple colour well in this photo…will try again – the grape is lovely)
This is a darling mini slipcase made with vintage linen, rust-dyed. It holds the buckthorn green and coreopsis orange accordion swatch. Tiny!

And now to some newer ink art work other than swatching and portfolio making.

Below is what my studio wall is looking like while waiting for the fall studio tour that might never happen…Gotta put that excess art inventory somewhere else besides under the bed. ( Where do you keep yours, dear Reader? ) Many of these works on the wall have been shown in previous posts so this photo saves you looking back. Following this photo are several newer pieces in my CONTAINED/UNCONTAINED collection. The ink colours show the range of the basic palette.

And that is it for today, dear Reader! Thanks for following along on my journey. I wish you all your own rich affordances in this period of limitation. Venceremos!

And if you do Instagram, scroll down here on the right for lots more photos of art and stuff. If there is anything you like enough to consider buying, email me for details or DM me on Instagram! I would be delighted!



Now where was I?

Time to catch up after almost a full year away, dear readers. So instead of lots of words, I have lots of photos- all about making dye-based inks from plants that I grow in my garden or forage here in Ottawa (Zone 4 -ish, USDA). BTW, I have lots more ink pics on my Instagram so do check that out.

During the last year, I have worked to put together a limited palette of colours that represent some of the most easily accessible local and native plants; then to try the inks out on various papers and with just one project on fabric ( silk dupion and vintage linen).

I tossed around ideas for packaging the little bottles attractively but usefully – some ideas worked, some didn’t. So after a year of review and experimentation, and with the help of my notes, this year I hope I can say something a bit more definite about how I can expect my inks to work, how the colours last, how they mix, which substrates are best for them…all of that! The basic palette I have developed consists of hibiscus pink/blue, grape purple/blue/grey, buckthorn green/yellow, osage orange-yellow, walnut sepia-brown, indigo blue, avocado reds and blends of these to make greys, blacks and other neutrals. And of course, this year, I plan to make some new colours using other plants and new blends of the basic palette.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the new growing season, I have been invited to give a few presentations and demos etc. That experience, I hope, will give me insight into what artists would like to know about natural inks. In general, I advise artists that the current wisdom on the preparation and use of natural dyes and the selection of appropriate dye plants applies also to these dye-based inks.

Indigo on paper

Indigo indigofera on paper

Avocado reds, buckthorn greens, indigo,osage yellows, grape purples, hibiscus blues/pinks

Grandson drawing in one of my arty journals at the Christmas craft fair. Little packs of inks with swatched labels.

Above. Three ink paintings from my series ” Contained/Uncontained”. Directly below: Lemon juice and baking soda swiped over inks to shift colours.

Inks and paintings on panel and on Artist Book covers. And cute dropper bottles

Above: Tiny ink paintings on panel from my “Contained/Uncontained” series.Below: Swatching various ink colours onto papers and fabrics.
Ink colour varies depending on the papers used. The pH of the paper itself can shift the ink colours. FUN!
So swatching tells you a lot.

Couldn’t resist the pic of grandson’s kitty, supervising. And note the little bottle of English woad ink and a pan of handmade watercolours, gifts from an artist friend  in Tennessee who made these. Plus the ceramic palette (egg dish) I got from the Dollar Store.

The last series of photos shows inks printed onto silk and vintage linen using ink filter and swatch papers as dye carriers.

I have found that the bottles with droppers are more practical to use than the screw-topped ones which look cute and pack up nicely but are a tad tippy;  you also have to pour the ink out of the bottle to get at it which can be wasteful.

Ink filter papers and ink swatch papers used as dye carriers to print on silk and vintage linen.

More ink

So here as promised is my update on inkmaking from my dye stash this winter – and what a winter: over 100cm of snow so far. Nothing for it but to huddle over the dye pot and carry on making ink.

First, a little info on one of the modifiers ( or colour shifters) I used for varying the ink colours made so far with buckthorn, grape, walnut and roselle. One of the chief charms of these inks for me is the fact that they can vary in colour depending on the substrate’s pH and/or on the natural dye modifiers ( colour shifters) that the artist chooses to apply. Examples of common modifiers are vinegar ( or lemon juice), soda ash and iron.

The greens, yellows and the blue in the image above are painted on with the green buckthorn: pinks develop when acid is applied, in this instance, a lemon. Yellows appear with ammonia. The other ink colours mentioned above look like this (below) when acid is touched to them:

Above is the inked paper before the lemon was printed on it.The blues are grape, the browns are walnut and iron gall ink.

Next, I thought it was time for yellows and oranges to extend the ink palette so back I went to The Stash to check out the options among my native plant colours. It happened that some years ago I had picked up some Osage orange wood sawdust/shavings at a local shop. This plant is native to the southern states of the US but was introduced elsewhere as hedge material – it is thick and has wicked thorns, too. (Osage is often termed invasive now). The deep orangey-yellow heartwood can be used for dye. So though not a local native, it works as one for me, and also because its name makes a connection to the Osage First Nation and to my interest in First Nations dye traditions

After soaking the wood shavings in water for a few weeks (I forgot to write what kind of water I put in the jar – I think it was tap water with pH about 6.5), I cooked them with distilled water added in the slow cooker for several hours on and off; then I strained out the shavings, filtered the liquid and cooked it down to 25% of the original dye bath volume. At the last, I added a teaspoon or so of soda ash to bump up the yellows to orangey. The result is as shown below:

Osage orange ink, ink swatch, Osage shavings, filter paper

Upon this sunny elixir, I bestowed the name ” Osage Orange Tomcat” – you can guess why? But really, because I was inspired by the Paul Klee exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Klee did a wee painting of his orange tomcat that I love (Klee is my big fave and I love orange kitties, too)

Here are some more pics of the ink collection so far: the light yellow is what the Osage looks like when swatched before cooking.
Squint to see the labels! These are the inks as a collection
Various pinks from rosehips, sumac and roselle

Inks swatched out on various papers. The pH of the papers can alter the colours of the inks in a delightful way! Pink roselle turns blue on certain papers as does purple grape.
Inks on kozo paper which tends to keep the original colour and to mute it somewhat. (And the snow stays white no matter what) Colours L to R: Osage orange, Osage yellow, buckthorn green, rosehip red-brown, dead tulip pink, roselle pink, grape purple, walnut and grape grey, walnut brown, burnt dahlia and osage (what? ) and iron gall with sumac and walnut.
The filter papers from sumac berry

And to finish, a little book and some cards made with the inks:

Mulitflora ink on paper, handcarved stamps
Indigo ink and eco print on handembossed paper covers, coptic binding

That is probably enough for this post! I am finding this project very, shall we say, absorbing…Paradoxically, though my stash of dyes and dye plants is getting smaller, a different one is now taking its place…

Carry on carrying on

I saw the above advice on Instagram the other day and admired its pragmatism. It also made me chuckle.

Can any of my Dear Readers relate to the “exhortation” below that I shared with an artist friend recently?

I very much need to be moved by my own exhortation today. I am on my way to a gallery with some of my stuff to show them and I am donning my armour before I go when I hear:

” No, that sucks, we don’t want shit like that in here”, no matter what shmoozy words they use.

Here is my little self-talk intended to douse any flames of self-pity, shame and discouragement that might threaten to burst out:

” It is especially hard not to sell at all after all the joy you have taken in the work and the dedication to the studio time.

I think there is only one way forward out of the misery of not selling and that is to keep on doing what you love. To decide to do that. To simply choose that. To say NO to the voices that tell you your art life is over or should be since the Bottom Line (or whatever ) does not justify it.

Realize with gratitude that inventory of artwork stacked in your studio is not there to accuse you of having failed to sell. What you look at each day is marvellous proof that you have invested in your gift.

The “harvest” in terms of sales volume is not ours to decide ultimately and is never going to be- even if we have a responsibility to market the art we make. We can only plough, sow the seed, water – then gather, we hope, in due time. Is there any other way to look at an art life that lets you keep creating? 

The other thing that lights up these dark passages is to look at all you have done to make your art and to support your art sales, then to celebrate every step very deliberately with a conscious expression of gratitude that you were able to carry out each and every step. Everything is grace. Gratitude builds us up.

It is terribly tempting to look at the same efforts and say to yourself: What a waste of my time, my resources, my hopes, my inspirations.

Say “No” to that response. It is possible to choose another response, that is, one that affirms each and every step you have taken to make the art and to put the art out there. You can look at these as if stacked in the studio alongside each other as proofs of your investment in your gift. Or as a stairway to knowing your own heart.

These are works of grace given and used for good, maybe not just your benefit. Possibly others can “take heart and do the art ” from what you simply Show and Tell, not only the Show and Sell

You can choose to look at your own efforts in gratitude, in appreciation, instead of in condemnation which is almost knee-jerk at times.

Accepting to respond in this self-affirming way brings power to build us up, to bring us life in times when we are down and might feel left for dead in the side of the art road.

We choose life by making our art, by choosing to carry on carrying on

Photos next time, Dear Readers! Will be carrying on with my inks.

Chameleon inks

Happy new year to all my readers and welcome to new readers since last post.

Do you have plans for artmaking this year?

My art plans for 2019 are substantially the same as in 2018: Get some art work done, Wendy. Sigh. And throw out some of that stuff in the studio. Or at least use it up.

I did manage to reduce my Hallowed Dye Hoard in 2018 but there is plenty left. ( ” Dye Hoard”? That sounds familiar…)

As I realized recently, there is depressingly enough dye material in my stash to colour several of Christo’s next giant wrapping installations. So I am actually quite excited to keep on filling wee bottles of ink with extracts made from the plants, powders and potions still residing in cupboard and freezer.

Wow, there are some great inkmakers at play, I have discovered. I have so much enjoyed, for example, following and learning from Jason Logan of the Toronto Ink Company and Tim McLaughlin at that dye-heaven, Maiwa in Vancouver where I buy my dye stuff.

Meawhile, I am truly trying hard to resist collecting any new art studio materials except for items like cute bottles to put ink in. Readers, the cute factor must be maintained even at the expense of stash reduction.

So up to now, various eccentric and alchemical inks concocted from dye plants such as walnut ( sepia brown), buckthorn (green), wild grape (purple/blue) and coreopsis (orange-red laked powdered pigment) have been bottled up in my studio. Plant inks, by their nature, are chameleon-like, meaning they can change colour depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the surfaces they land on. Natural dyers are familiar with the colour-changing actions of dye modifiers such as ammonia, iron, vinegar, copper acetate and others. Plant based inks behave similarly in the company of these modifiers. I took note that encounters with such modifiers can take place by design (the artist’s) or by chance ( the paper’s or cloth’s). So dear reader, I accept that when I make art with plant ink, I need to be resolved to let the plant ink have its way a lot of the time.

Now the wee bottles of ink may want to run amok if left as they come out of the extraction process.

So far, however, none has exploded or grown scary-beastie-like forms in the short weeks since they came to be. That is because they contain a little restrainting substance, in the form of a natural preservative.

To encourage – but not guarantee – longevity of the plant colour extracts, I add preservatives such as whole cloves and/or wintergreen oil as recommended by experienced and ( please note) still living plant-ink makers. Am thinking that tea tree oil and aspirin might work, too, to extend the life of the ink and to help it stay mould-free. ( Though most inkmakers say just keep calm, remove any impertinent mould and carry on) . Alcohol is used by some makers as preservative but inkartists can complain of feathering when the ink is used for calligraphy and when the alcohol is present at a preservation-useful 15%. Vinegar has its uses as a preservative ( it is said) but it also lowers pH, thus can change the ink colour. Which may be what you want more than you care about how long the ink lasts) . I add gum arabic also to help flow and texture.

I think it best to keep plant inks in the fridge where it is cool and dark. But that might be overkill for some. For myself, I approach inkmaking like jam or jellymaking and so sterlize the bottles and equipment.

Best be upfront about this ink adventure: anything made with water and plants together will have a propensity to live its own life, if you get my drift.

And now for the pictures which you may have skipped the text for.. maybe go back and read the text later?

I will divide up my recent ink pics over a few posts. ( you can find lots on my Instagram, too) Today we have red/pink ink made from roselle or hibiscus sabdariffa. In Jamaica, where it is known as “sorrel”, this flower is dried and used in a refreshing drink like lemonade.( FYI: You can buy the dried blossoms in Caribbean and Mid East food shops. ) The red colour can be hard to keep stable but traditional natural dyers have done it on textiles with special plant mordants. ( Check Cardon for info – see my refs page). Since Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, here are my as-yet-unsubstantiated efforts with roselle colours as ink. ( Apologies – no pics of the dried plant – my stash is now ink)

After an hour simmering in distilled water, a little vinegar and some alum, dried roselle calyces are strained and the extract is ready to be boiled down to a concentrate to make the ink
Two eco print paper bundles were simmered in the roselle dye pot, pre extract. One bundle had dried safflower petals inserted between the papers
The second ecoprint bundle of folded paper cooked in the dye pot had chokecherry leaves inserted between the folds. The greens and blues are from the chokecherry. The roselle made the purple-pink around.
This is how the red roselle extract colours papers of various composition. Blue for some and red-pink for others depending on the paper pH.
Here is the roselle ( R) with [R to L) walnut, grape, buckthorn and irongall-sumac on Saint Armand artisanal paper

So that is is for this post on my chameleon inks! Up next- sumac berries. I will also post a pic of my latest and re-opened references for readers wishing to have a go themselves.

Blessings on the work of your hands this year, dear readers.

Bye bye, buckthorn berries

Buckthorn hedge with fall berries

No more buckthorn berries left now in mid November for making the historic paint colour, Sap Green.  I collected about four cups/ one litre of them a month ago and have been posting the results of my colour search here. Today I am wrapping up the basic buckthorn work and providing a review of what I have learned from my experiments.

Juicy blue-black buckthorn berries which the Field Botanists of Ontario tell me on FB that the birds eat only when desperate , so to go ahead – please make paint and ink with them!

The Rhamnus cathartica ( Common buckthorn) is a despised shrub here in Ontario and , as in many North American zones, is classed as invasive. I normally try to work with native plants to obtain dye colours. I find I am guided by pragmatism as much as by principle -native plants take less gardening work, survive extremes of neglect and weather more easily and attract interesting and useful critters. Why buckthorn, then? Because of its long and fascinating history as a dye plant as a species here and in other parts of the world. 

For my research on the use of buckthorn for pigment, I have relied chiefly on the work of Dominique Cardon on natural dyes and of Daniel Thomspon on medieval painting. A delicious new book about making ink by Jason Logan rekindled my interest in buckthorn greens, and pointed me back to some of my previous work in similar areas, reported here: iris green ( also am historic colour) and walnut dyes/paints/inks. Enough background now. (Please check my references page and recent posts for full info). 

Here is what you might do to get buckthorn (“Sap”) green. Believe me, there are a lot of recipes out there so no need to swear by mine- I don’t! 

Here are two cups of ripe crushed berries in a one-litre/four cup slow cooker, heated to below boiling ( around 180) and cooked for an hour and a half or so, until the juice looks deep purple. My research turned up variations on whether to cook the berries or just squeeze the fresh uncooked juice. I tried both and found no difference in how the colour developed. Note also that to get a deep colour of green (a later step in the process), medieval recipes advised  cooking down the liquid by at least half…so clearly, buckthorn is heat tolerant, which was my concern. 

After the cooking step, time to strain the contents of the pot and then filter it. I used a wire colander for straining, then used a jelly bag for filtering the first time ( best to have more than one filtering session). I saved the residue for a second extraction as the old recipes advised. 

After transferring the purple liquid into clean glass jars, time to shift the pH  upwards  in order to trigger the formation of that coveted green. Some of the old recipes suggest using a combo of alum and soda ash. I used alum acetate alone, about one teaspoon/5 ml per cup /250 ml canning jar- or until the colour turns dark green before your eyes! Stir the jar a bit,   dissolve the alum in a tad of water, then add it. No need to be terribly exact. I figured if the alum did not work alone, I  could throw in the soda ash, too. It worked fine! 

I kept some purple liquid to use as is for its purple colour, then put aside a jarful of green liquid for further trickery. Natural dyers who are accustomed to working with modifiers such as ammonia, soda ash, iron, vinegar and copper sulphate will enjoy messing with the dye chemistry at this point.  I did a little of that but my main goal was green and maybe a bit of yellow-green ( with soda ash as modifier) 

Buckthorn green modified soda ash (yellows) and splashed with lemon juice (pink)

 Colour test strips

Green modified with soda ash for yellows;  splashed with lemon juice for pink
Greens splashed with lemon juice for pink
Greens light and dark with a tad of pink

These colour trials are on 140lb watercolour paper – different colours will show on other papers. On fabrics? I have not tried  the Sap Green on fabric yet but the ancient preference was to use silk for the easiest dye take up. 

I have to say that my mopping-up cloth ( a heavy canvas) looks pretty colour receptive, even without a mordant: 

Catching the green and yellow drips

The next step was to ” insissipate” the liquid – i.e., to concentrate its colour by either boiling it down to at least 50% of the original volume or by letting it evaporate to the same level. I boiled the dye down, having combined two batches of green dye liquid. ( Reminder: The berries can stand to be used for two extractions so do not chuck out the berries after the first straining. )

I filtered the boiled down liquid through three layers of cut up nylon pantyhose ( not thick ones) – in fact, I filtered the liquid also before  boiling it down. You can filter as many times as you think the sludgey bits in the liquid need it.

Greens bottled up

The test strips here show the colours before and after filtering the green liquid. The darker green contains thickish cooked plant residue, the ligher colour is after filtering. Because Sap Green is a relatively transparent colour, you need to paint more than one layer for a deeper shade. The green sludge in the liquid might please your inner texture seeker, though. 

As the photo shows, the green dye is now enrolled as an ink. To each one ounce bottle of liquid, I added 15 drops of gum arabic, one whole clove and for anti-mold overkill, one drop of very pungent tea tree oil ( used in soaps for Athlete’s Foot). 

So I think that is it for buckthorn basics for now.

I have in mind to try a dye blanket with buckthorn green over plants in an ecoprint adventure. And there is one more medieval technique to try and that is to make a “clothlet” as reservoir to hold the green colour ( I will not be using a pig’s bladder as artists did way back) …I have made ” clothlets” for iris green ( reported on this blog).  Thompson says Sap Green was also stored in clothlets. You know where I am going with this…

Next time: probably walnut ink! While I get my “clothlets” and dye carrier blankets sorted. 

Purples from basic buckthorn juice; greens from the purples juice modified with alum acetate

Making paint and ink with fall buckthorn berries

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: 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.


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