Going Wild: Berry Season

August saw the return of a natural source of colour for which I waited an entire year, having narrowly missed them last year: berries! I spent several days over the past few weeks, following my foraging routes in the hopes of finding ripe elderberry (خمان) within my reach. I just managed to scrounge enough together to make a decent amount of ink – until, for a change, I took the bus to the studio last week.

I walked off the bus and right into the arms of an elder bent under the weight of more inky-black umbels I could possibly carry. Well played, cosmos. I got more than enough to make a large supply of ink and still freeze several cups of berries to make a flu-preventing syrup.

Elderberries are toxic when raw (so don’t try to eat them off the tree!) and I notice that their ink is more durable than any edible berry: I suspect there is a correlation that would be best explained by someone knowledgeable in chemistry. The first ink sample I made was very pale as I had a small amount of berries and added too much water. I added iron mordant to make it darker, and at first was underwhelmed by the result (left): it seemed to make no difference at all with the ink remaining a stubborn pale pink. But 10 minutes later, when it was fully dry (right), it was a whole other story!






A more concentrated ink doesn’t even require mordant, and darkens nicely to a purple-black. My samples are up on a sunlit wall and it will take a few months of such exposure before I can be sure that this ink is reasonably lightfast. I do notice that it changes in the inkpot, however, darkening on its own, so that you can never really predict what you’re going to get – and that to me is one of the attractions of working with nature, all is constant change and surprise.

Blackberries (توت برّي) are also in season, so I made blackberry ink as well. I already know their colour fades quickly, so I used iron mordant to make it more lasting. This turned it a nice royal blue colour that threw me back to high school days, when it was regulation to use fountain pens with this exact shade of blue. The photo below is from my art foraging course, where we made and tested blackberry ink in the field (literally). The fresh juice at the top of the paper is quite pink, while the addition of iron mordant resulted in this lovely blue below. As the hue faded over a few days, the grey remained, so that this sample is today a desaturated version of itself – still dark, but without that hint of purple.

I got quite excited about these two inks and have been writing various compositions with them, using various natural tools. In this work in progress, the elderberry ink is pink when still wet:

I then used blackberry ink for the reverse motifs, which looks greyer and plays off the two hues nicely. Here’s a close-up, and the inks will naturally keep changing with time.

And here’s the finished piece, a pattern study.

As I finish this post, I just chanced upon another berry…

Mahonia or Oregon-grape is not native at all but it pops up in ornamental borders and it yields a wonderful red-purple colour that dries purple. The ink is barely dry so I can’t tell you yet what it looks like after some time. But I did spot a few more bushes that are going to get a visit from me while they’re still fruiting 😉

Going Wild: Writing Tools

The small patch of woodland where I usually gather oak galls is known as Hollow Pond, and as the name indicates, there be a pond with a large population of water birds including large geese and swans. In the springtime the banks are strewn with molted feathers, including large remiges, used to make quill pens. I started picking up the biggest and cleanest that I would come upon, without any particular plan, as I didn’t think they could have anything to do with Arabic calligraphy.

But it so happens my friend Allison, a fellow artist, is primarily a Hebrew scribe, and we periodically meet up to exchange on art and nature. I found out that even though Hebrew requires strokes very similar to Kufic (and other Arabic styles), she uses quill pens. While in the Middle-East, the Jewish scribal tradition uses reed pens just like Islamic calligraphy (indeed Islamic scribes adopted the reed from the earlier scribes), the European tradition requires quills for the simple reason that the right reeds don’t grow here. This interesting fact got my attention. Quills can’t achieve the same breadth as reed pens, but they are much sharper, much better for delicate work, and of course they are local and completely eco-friendly.

Long story short, we had a work session where she showed me how to cut quills, after soaking the feathers overnight to soften them.

It took a couple of feathers for me to get the hang of it (happily there’s plenty of room for multiple attempts on any given quill), and mine don’t have the beautiful curves that a practiced hand can cut, but they write just fine!

Here’s my practice sheet (the first Ayin, top left, is Allison’s, the rest are my attempts to emulate it). The ink is actually black but very shiny, so this photo is not showing it well. I am pleased though, and now have a purpose for picking up feathers. It really tickles me to be able to make both ink and writing implement from “waste” picked up in the same place, a short walk from home.

Going Wild: Tree Pearls

The proper name is “oak galls ” or “gall nuts”, but tree pearls describes very well what they are: a tiny (harmless) wasp lays its eggs inside the bark of oak trees, and the tree in reaction generates a ball of solid, tannin-rich wood around the intruder. These start showing up in summer and for thousands of years have been one of the best-known sources of making ink. This was still the case up to WW2, so it’s remarkable that they’ve been so completely forgotten.

All of the galls above came from a single, unhappy oak no taller than I am (unhappy because it grew beside a busy road and was never going to be healthy, which probably made it more vulnerable. Also, it was too small to put out acorns, and I think that’s a factor because a large oak busy growing acorns has little energy to spare to make gall nuts). I spotted them while they were still green, and returned to harvest them weeks later, when they would have browned and a hole appeared, signaling that the wasp had hatched safely! In case I pick up an unhatched one, I leave the lot in a bowl by the window for a few weeks, so any hatchlings can escape. They are very cute and well-mannered, so their brief presence in my kitchen doesn’t bother me at all.

When I was ready to make some ink, I pounded all my galls roughly, just to break them up a bit, and then placed them in water to soak for at least a week. A faster way of working is to grind them to dust and then boil them, but why consume energy if there’s no rush? This is an exercise in sustainability. After only two hours the water already looked like this:

A week or so of daily stirring later, I strained out the solids and ended up with a pure tannin solution. This has uses of its own, so I set some aside, and prepared to turn the rest into calligraphy ink.

One might ask, since this is about the tannin, can’t the same result be attained with acorns? Apparently, acorns can achieve a good result, but the tannin is more concentrated in the galls. Also and more importantly, acorns are the oak’s progeny as well as food for a multitude of forest creatures. It’s not right to seize that for our own purposes when the galls are sitting there useless to beast or tree once the wasp has hatched. If left alone, they don’t fall off but slowly decompose on the branch. Even a handful of galls will yield enough ink to last any calligrapher until the next season.

The next step in making the ink is adding an iron mordant, which instantly turns the solution a deep black. Then, for it to be a usable ink, I added gum arabic (pounded from the crystals below and dissolved in warm water).

Now I’m experimenting with different amounts of it, and also with adding a little honey to make it even thicker. Too much gum arabic can make the ink flaky when it dries, but this hasn’t happened so far, probably because I’m working on paper, which absorbs the ink. The real test would be vellum, which was the original surface for this ink, and I have a scrap somewhere so now’s a good time to unearth it.


Going Wild

I don’t usually bring up my nature-oriented lifestyle on this website (plastic-free etc) but my hiking and foraging for wild foods are now converging with my art practice: I have started drifting towards foraging for colours. Just as I was formulating this intention for myself, I made a serendipitous first find: chunks of red rock disturbed by a construction site, on the way to my favourite woodland walk.

I brought them home, ground them into sand, and proceeded to wash and extract the pigment… So much pigment I am still working at it, the earth hasn’t released it all!

This lovely earthy orange, below, is the hue I can expect from painting with this pigment (I named it Theydon Red). I can use it with any painting medium I like, which will be natural mediums: watercolour, gouache, egg tempera… Oil too of course, but it’s not one I use.

There is such a strong sense of place in making art with the very soil of a place you love, processed with care, it makes store-bought pigment rather boring and impersonal…

Before and after the process: rocks vs. pure pigment.

Earth colors such as these, which are iron-based, are easy to extract, and they are reliable and permanent. More tricky and much less predictable are plant colours, which I am now busy with. More soon…

Alchemy of Paint

I have had the most transformative week, a true revelation, learning to make colors from natural raw materials under the guidance of David Cranswick. Here’s a flying tour of the genesis of true artist pigments.

The alchemist’s lab

The three copper stones we’re starting with: malachite, chrysocolla
and azurite, alongside lapis lazuli (lower right).




Persian berries

Madder root





Gum arabic


Egg tempera

Oil paint

Final result of 5 days of intense work: This beautiful natural palette and so much inspiration.