Homebrewing Brown Ink

8 Jan 2014

Rembrandt launched my ventures in the homebrewing of ink. I live in a city that offers vast riches of art, but I personally came to draw and paint late in life. As someone who learns by doing, I wanted to reproduce Rembrandt's rich combination of line and washes in his brown ink drawings, and wanted to go so far as to use the same materials he did.

Homebrew black walnut ink sketch on Lanaquerelle by Robert Haslach, 2013.
Homebrew black walnut ink sketch on Lanaquerelle by Robert Haslach, 2013.

We don't know now what tones and hues Rembrandt produced with his iron gall ink, Europe's standard from the 5th through the 19th centuries. Nowadays it cannot be easily found and it is not in most art stores. Few oak galls are even available where most of us live. Commercial "sepia" inks vary in color from reddish to dark brown. For a time, I used Pitt dark sepia #175 from Faber Castell to get close to the look of Rembrandt's drawings.

My homebrewing opportunity arrived this autumn. While walking our standard poodle, my first model, I nearly tripped on the litter of light green balls in our park. Not oak galls, this was the fruit of the Eastern Black Walnut (juglans nigra).

Cypresses in Assisi by Robert Haslach, 2012, pen and ink drawing.
Cypresses in Assisi by Robert Haslach, 2012, pen and ink drawing.

This native species grows in riparian zones east of the Atlantic, from southern Ontario to Georgia and Florida and west of the Mississippi. Pick up one of its round brownish-green fruits and your stained hands will testify to its use as a natural dye, wood stain, and ink.

Boiling walnut fruits for ink.
Boiling walnut fruits for ink.
Gather a pail of those fruits that have turned brown. The darker the outer layer the better. That drupe is the source of the dye. Cover the fruit with water and bring to a boil in a stainless steel pot. Simmer adding water as needed for 4-6 hours. Pour off the brown water through a cheesecloth. Cool. Strain again. Add a little ethyl alcohol to combat mold and fungus growth. Add a little gum arabic as binder.

You have just made rich brown natural walnut ink. I experimented with the ink with a dip pen and watercolor brush on watercolor paper. Let me know if you have any questions about my version of Rembrandt's brown ink.

--Robert


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Comments

on 9 Jan 2014 1:57 PM

Robert—

This is a very enjoyable article in so many ways.

Most of us take the materials we use for granted. At times it is good to for us to consider our roots and the origins of the tools and materials we use.

Years ago, I read an article on the evolution of the pencil which was fascinating. This sort of subject melts the barriers of time, giving us a closer link with artists of the past and a better understanding of the ways they worked.

Thanks,

Paul

@rt@rt1st wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 10:30 AM

The related topics are a welcomed variety and should be made a regular addition to Artist Daily.  Being a watercolorist for 30+years I especially enjoyed Bev Joswiak's paintings. As a realist painter and instructor I especially enjoy the intuitive artists'  approaches.

Rob511 wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 10:44 AM

Robert -

I had a black walnut tree in my back yard and cut it down because the walnuts, although a treat to the squirrels, were a nuisance to pick up. Reading your article makes me wish I had been more charitable toward the squirrels and more creative in my disposal of the nuts. I found this very enjoyable to read. Thanks for sharing your brown ink quest and insights.

Rob

on 11 Jan 2014 10:54 AM

I enjoyed this article. I have also played around with making some homemade supplies-- watercolor paint from some local clay dirt-- but that was a lot of work! This process sounds pretty simple. I will be looking for some northwestern species that ink might be made from... Thanks!

SAGart wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 12:30 PM

Traditionally, they let the hulls soak for several weeks, then strained the mixture & let the ink evaporate down to the right consistency. They also added  "lamp black" to darken the ink and prevent fading.

loisart wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 12:53 PM

Thanks for your very interesting article. As a child (60+ years ago) I remember my grandfather brewing Black Walnut hulls to dye his big walrus-style mustache. His facial hair had gone grey well in advance of his hair.

The Oak gall and iron filings ink had a tendency to eat through lighter papers because the iron would continue to oxidize. I have some very old notebooks in which the pages look like stencils, because the ink has eaten through the paper. Most drawing papers are heave enough so that this doesn't occur.

loisart wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 1:01 PM

In response to Daniellerenee:  Although the Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is not native to the northwest, it is often grown as an ornamental there. Your local County forester may know of individual trees, which are old enough to be producing nuts.

Hint: wear painters gloves or use plastic bags on your hands when collecting walnuts as the hulls can be very sticky and the older dark hulls will stain your fingers.

Doc2010 wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 1:29 PM

What a great article and boy does it ring my chimes! Having drawn in pen and ink since the 1950s I too wanted to recreate that Rembrandt Brown but was never able to do it though I have come close using brewed teas and some coffees. Now I have a chance since there is bound to be Juglans nigra around the Williamsburg, VA area. And now with a good recipe at hand I am going down to our Botanical Garden and research the most likely place to begin my search for black walnut trees. Many thanks Robert!

on 11 Jan 2014 3:40 PM

This is an excellent article, and I can't wait to experiment with black walnuts to get a brown ink. As a horticulturist, though, I must correct an error. With all due respect, your directions are crossed. I think you mean the black walnut can be found WEST of the Atlantic and East of the Mississippi, otherwise you are excluding precisely the area of the tree's range.

rhaslach wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 4:36 PM

Oops! I got the Black Walnuts but reversed geography - of course these trees are found for the most part in riparian zones West of the Atlantic Ocean and East of the Mississippi!

Thanks to the several readers who brought the error to our attention

sharonlinn wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 4:59 PM

Thank you for this idea! It was a light bulb moment for me with the walnuts. I live in the Seattle area now but I am moving back to southern Missouri in the spring. The Native black walnuts are plentiful along the rivers and creeks. The are delicious to eat also.  I am wondering how many other native plant will do the same thing, create an ink for sketching. Things that come to mind are elderberry, mulberry. I will do some investigating when I get back east.

This was a very enjoyable article and I hope to see more like it. I am wanting to use as many natural products in my artwork as possible. I have recently transitioned from other oil paint to M. Graham paints with walnut oil, they are amazingly versatile and less toxic.

Smiles

Sharon

Phil_B wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 9:02 PM

Great article.  Was curious if you could put a ratio of ethyl alcohol and gum arabic to the strained fluid.  Like how much alcohol and how much gum arabic to a pint of fluid?

Yamakawa wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 11:08 PM

I wondering about coffee

horses25 wrote
on 12 Jan 2014 2:04 PM

Love your sketch with the black walnut ink!

Looks like an excellent use for all the ankle-turning black walnuts in our former backyard. : /

Do you know if there are any drawbacks to using coffee, or concentrated black tea, as a watercolor ink?

rhaslach wrote
on 12 Jan 2014 5:34 PM

Several artists have posted questions about use of coffee and tea. I have not experimented with these - yet - the only issue will be light-fastness.

I have seen good drawings made with mud and burnt sticks (think about it!) - so why not Asam or Oolong or espresso? Let me know how it works for you.

Alan ilbert wrote
on 13 Jan 2014 12:31 AM

For Yamakawa - - - Try "Nescafe Cla'sico" instant coffee. I discovered it to paint with while  on a art/camping trip in the Baja.

for Yamakawa

on 14 Jan 2014 2:25 PM

This was a fun article. However, before everyone starts making their own art supplies, it would be good to consider a few things.

If you want to match Rembrandt's sepia colored ink, there is no reason you why can't do that with the india ink, colored inks and acrylic inks that are on the market already. You can do that without cooking walnuts. Plus, you will wind up with a lot better product than Rembrandt ever imagined. The archival and waterproof qualities of today's inks are  excellent. And if you are trying to hit a particular hue, you have an magnificent number of colors ready, waiting and bottled for you to mix.

Making your our watercolors or oils is an even sillier thing. A good number of the basic hues are poisonous. They are particularly dangerous in powder form.

The reason why I think this article is good is because it is hitting upon a new subject here at Artist Daily. This article is an introduction to a study and appreciation of the origins of the materials and tools with which we work.

A better understanding of the materials used in earlier times can give us a deeper appreciation for the artists of antiquity and their work. Also, this knowledge can offer us a closer identification with the artists and craftsmen of the past. And it can give us a better personal understanding of who we are as "artists".

Paul Sullivan

torkel wrote
on 23 Feb 2014 5:26 PM

I made a big batch of BWInk with walnuts I gathered in Seattle last November.  I boiled them, let them sit and rot for a month with no lid on, boiled them again, rot some more, strain them, boil again-  the boiling and sitting with no lid is to let it evaporate- sit some more: it took about 3 months.  Now i have this gorgeous ink.  I'll get some gum arabic, that sounds like a good idea.  I have a couple quarts in my freezer, keeping 8 oz. out to start with.  I added a little isopropyl alcohol but not enough.  It slowed down the molding process but didn't eliminate it.  It smells so nice and has an incredible variety of shades.  I love it.  Too bad it isn't waterproof, but I'll just work with that.

rhaslach wrote
on 23 Feb 2014 5:34 PM

Torkel - I am very impressed with your thoroughness!  The color and tonal range have been extremely rewarding for me, too - I hope you will enjoy the fruit of your labors

Robert Haslach

JenPadden wrote
on 16 Mar 2014 2:10 AM

Robert, what an interesting post.  Walnut ink....I love it!

Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer

on 21 Jul 2014 7:02 AM

Fascinating ! Thanks for sharing your experimentation with finding brown ink .i live in southern england so i dont know if we have walnut trees locally. We do however have oak trees a plentyI will be looking out for galls in the autumn