When we look to the natural color palettes of handmade inks and incorporate them in our projects, we pay very real tribute to the long history of human devotion to the natural world. Color schemes that bring the palette of handmade inks to life in graphic and textile compositions attract the viewer and resonate in a powerful and subliminal way. These natural inks make use of ingredients from our natural environment and celebrate our connection with our natural habitat. Handmade inks provide a focus for artistic and design composition that is multi-faceted and extremely interesting. Today’s designers may find successful inspiration for projects by reflecting the palette of handmade inks in graphic projects, home decorating and other artistic works.

A brief history of ink

The history of handmade ink is long and full of fascinating characters, intrigue and adventure. It is a history of design itself, of holy office and of alchemy—the healing art that later diverged and brought us the fields of chemistry and health sciences. In brief, ink making has always been very serious business. Evidence of the successful longevity of ancient inks is present today in Neolithic cave paintings, which are still being studied today.

Cave painting color palette
via Pinterest

Ancient inks were often based on not only available plants, but also metals and charcoal. Honey featured as a binder and as an effective preservative.

Charcoal drawing, metal in art, Honey used in painting, plants used in art
via Pinterest by Maria Kitano, Daily Mail by E. Brun, Art Medium by Gabby Gaze, Pinterest by Dietrich Varez

Before paper and ink writing, we have evidence of a long history of oral transmission of knowledge and the bardic healing tradition. Bards held a holy office and as they moved from community to community, they used not only the spoken word and song to transmit knowledge; they were also some of the few that held knowledge of written language and inks. In those days, just prior to and throughout the Middle Ages, bards carried medicine in the form of ink. There was a time when not only the ink but even the paper were the literal medicine that the healer brought to the communities. Different colored inks were extracted, either scraped off the paper or boiled with it, to create a healing tincture for remedies and ailments.

image from the Book of Kells
via Book of Kells

Handmade iron gall ink

Handmade inks consist of three or four main ingredients, with other additives serving to adjust the tint of the color. Iron gall ink has been used since antiquity, and the recipe for making it appears in many manuscripts. Gall refers to the round growths that appear on the oak tree. These round protuberances found along the trunk of the oak are rich in tannins, and when combined with iron, create a dark brown ink that has been used for centuries. The iron serves to darken the brown to a near black. To see a handwritten copy of Sir Issac Newton’s Recipe for Iron Gall Ink, please click here.

iron gall inks
via Yale

Inks from berries and flower petals

Handmade inks from flower petals produce a stunning array of gentle and beautiful tones and hues in a veritable rainbow of colors. When creating flower petal inks, always use fresh flower petals, not dried ones, for the best effect; in fact, dried flowers may not emit color at all. Berries and flower petals require a mordant to preserve their color, or they will fade quickly. Some effective mordants include alcohol, wine, vinegar and apple cider.

berries used in paintings
via Druid’s garden

Keep in mind that not all flowers are suitable for ink making, however. The rose, for example, which is so vibrant and beckoning on the vine, tends to disappoint as an ink. Flowers that make especially fine inks include dandelion, hibiscus, poppy and saffron crocus. Handmade inks from berries are best made with ripe fresh berries. Blackberry ink has a unique feature in that it begins as a dark purple ink, but within days, it turns into a softer blue ink. For an excellent recipe for blackberry ink, plus several other herbal ink recipes, please click here. The Druid’s Garden website offers an extensive list of berries that work especially well for ink making and the corresponding ink colors that can be created from each berry.

pokeweed ink
via Wetcanvas

Incorporating natural color palettes into professional designs

Handmade inks afford a phenomenal array of colors, hues and consistencies and can be applied to paper, textiles and mixed media projects. The natural color palettes of handmade inks is truly inspiring, and designers should consider their placement in the overall composition of their work.


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The author: Leanne Flynn is a writer, poet and designer who hails from Cape Breton Island, Canada. She learned the craft of ink making from her mother as a young child and she continues to create using natural and hand made materials. Leanne has over 25 years of experience in the business of communication.