I’ve been making an exciting foray into the world of natural paints and inks. It’s not so different from natural dyeing really. You can use the same dye plants but just create a really strong dye bath by using a higher proportion of plant material to water. If the colour isn’t quite strong enough when you strain it, simmer it down until you reach the desired effect.
For my first paints, I’ve gone with some classic dye plants. Above is red onion skin, brown onion skin and marigold flowers. I cooked these for about 2 hours, but the beauty of it is that there is no right or wrong length of time, just different colours and strengths. A lot of plant dyes will brown if you cook them at too high a heat though, so keep it at a low simmer.
Here I tried painting circles on watercolour paper with the red and brown onion skin paints, and adding in a drop of iron mordant (rusty iron dissolved in vinegar). It is so beautiful watching the plant dyes and the iron mix and blend. And I love having a new use for the mordants that I already use for my natural dyeing.
Next up was some avocado seed ink. The gorgeous peachy colour at the top was made after a short amount of cooking. The right sample is a simple brushstroke of the final colour, a beautiful earthy pink. The middle sample shows how beautifully it spreads on Japanese paper. And the bottom left two pieces have some iron mordant dropped in to modify the colour- which creates patches of gorgeous lavender purple and smoky blue.
After cooking, you do need to strain the liquid very well to remove any small particles of plant material. Use a coffee filter, or a piece of fabric folded over several times and placed within a metal strainer. Then you can use the paint as-is, or add a binder such as gum arabic to give it a more painterly consistency. Add a clove to each jar of paint or keep them in the fridge to prevent moulds from developing.
Here is my collection of paints so far. They look much darker and sometimes even a different colour in the jar to how they turn out on paper.
If you want more inspiration on making your own natural paints, I highly recommend the books Make Ink by Jason Logan and The Organic Artist by Nick Neddo.
If you want to come back to this idea later, you can pin the image below.
14 thoughts on “Making natural paints and inks from plants”
What a great article! Thank you so much!
You’re so welcome, glad you enjoyed it!
I’m inspired! Thanks, I made a lot of walnut ink quite a while ago. (https://www.madebybarb.com/2017/10/14/make-walnut-ink/ ) It has a lovely golden colour and the bottles have lasted well. It was quite messy but mostly outside. Maybe the onion skin will be my next as it was amazing for the egg dyeing.
Your walnut ink post is great, so comprehensive. I made some walnut ink last year too, I love blending it with some onion skin ink and iron mordant on paper.
Great article, feeling inspired!! Thank you 🙂
Wonderful, my pleasure!
Ooh, I’ve been on the lookout for natural dyes! What a well written article to boot!! Thank you!
Is this paint or watercolor? I want to use this experiment into a panel. I hope i can make it as an acrylic paint. Do you have an idea how to turn it into acrylic paint? Thank you
Hi, these are more like a watercolour paints. You could mix them with an acrylic binder, but be aware that natural dyes often aren’t very stable over a long time frame, so the colours will probably fade.
Hi Louise, I bought a lovely bunch of gold everlasting flowers and they seem to give off a lot of colour just in cold water. Do you have to heat up your inks/paints for any reason other than to extract the colour?
Hi Kate, no it is fine to do cold water extraction especially if you are just playing with inks for fun. I often leave small amounts of dyestuff in jars in the sun, to slowly extract colour and test the dye/ink potential
This is a very thorough and helpful artical. Thanks so much!
Great article, just what I was looking for! Have you tried indigo from Japanese indigo plants? I have quite a lot, and have kept a bit of it in a paste form to try using as watercolor and/or ink. Also, thank you for the recommendations of resource books.
No, I haven’t tried making paint with indigo yet. Liz Spencer might have some posts on Instagram about that, she does a lot with both indigo and making paint.