Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Greenery and other colours

Each year Pantone selects a colour for the year and for 2017 the colour is 'Greenery' or to be more precise 'Pantone 15-0343 TCX', so be prepared for lots of green in the style magazines this year. The reason I've mentioned this is because it nicely links the first day of 2017 ... Happy New Year! ... to something I've been planning to blog about but haven't got round to, mainly because the first blog post evolved into something quite unexpected...

I'll begin at the beginning ... I was looking at a list of UK Butterflies' larval food plants, the reason to see if we could grow more plants in our garden that butterflies need - not just flowers. I saw that Brimstone caterpillars need Buckthorn. The Alder Buckthorn, Frangula alnus likes acidic woodlands - you don't find that in SW Suffolk - but Purging Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartic, is very similar and that is the shrub our local Brimstones would be searching for on which to lay their eggs. And so began my search for  Purging Buckthorn in the local hedgerows. I eventually found some on the Devil's Dyke and more planted by the gamekeeper for Pheasant coverts along our favourite hare-watching walk.

I didn't expect to find more Purging Buckthorn when I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see the fabulous exhibition 'Colour - the art and science of illuminated manuscripts', but that's exactly what happened! 
(By the way the last day of the exhibition is Monday 2nd January so you could visit if you get your skates on, otherwise do look at the online resources which are brilliant.)
The first part of the exhibition looks at the pigments used by medieval scribes and illuminators, ground up earth pigments and semi-precious stones and plants like madder and woad and BUCKTHORN BERRIES! The caption in the exhibition explained that the purple juice of Purging Buckthorn berries made green ink!

I picked some Buckthorn berries and found some basic instructions for making ink from berries ... which recommended freezing the berries as when defrosted the juice will extract easier without needing to add water.
I then mashed the berries into a paste, adding a tiny amount of water.
I then pressed this through a tea-strainer, the consistency of a fruit coulis (DO NOT EAT! it's called Purging for a reason)  
Then I added about a teaspoon of vinegar and a pinch of salt, this acts as a preservative, so the ink doesn't go mouldy.
And to make the ink slightly viscous so it holds onto the pen-nib/quill/brush, you need a teaspoon of gum arabic. 
Result - INK!
And the magic bit is that it's purple but turns green as it dries!

After further research I discovered that by using alum (as a mordant) the ink can be made a green colour and it was by a complex distilling process that the colour 'Sap Green' was made from Buckthorn berries.

I was keen to make some more colours ... 
I found a jar of dried Cochineal beetles, a holiday souvenir from a street market in Lanzarote, soaked in hot water they produced an intense red-pink colour.
But without alum to fix the colour, the ink dried a dirty grey-brown. In the next batch I added a pinch of alum and hey presto! PINK INK!

What colour next?

I remembered the Saffron harvested from our Saffron crocuses, this year the yield had been good so I have a small jar of dried stigmas in the kitchen cupboard. I put a small pinch of Saffron in a mortar and ground them to a fine powder.
Mixed with a little water and WOOOOO! Liquid gold!
The Saffron ink needed no alum and the colour is intense. No wonder it was prized as a colour in medieval times
Painting Saffron yellow over Cochineal pink creates a lovely bright red.
I used my home-made inks to make some Christmas cards, writing with a quill. The Buckthorn ink gradually changing from purple through indigo to green. I added red berries (and forgot to photograph them!)

One of my Christmas presents was the book 'Colour, travels through the Paintbox' by Victoria Finlay, it's a fascinating journey through the stories of colour pigments. It's certainly got me thinking about how much we take for granted the coloured paints, pens, crayons and inks we can buy so easily today. And it's sure to inspire more ink-making experiments.

Wishing you a creative 2017


  1. Fascinating - you can imagine how people must have felt when they first discovered how to make inks, it's just like magic, or alchemy! I hav that book too, must look it out.

  2. I have enjoyed this post Celia, the way that colours are extracted has always been of interest to me. I bought the book 'Colour' when it was first published and it is always in a prominent position in my book cupboard. My most recent reading on colour is 'The Secret Lives of Colour' by Kassia St Clair.

  3. What an interesting post - I wish I'd thought to add alum when I tried experimenting with blackberry and raspberry ink earlier in the year. Isn't it great when one interest leads to another and down such a creative path.

  4. Well, how interesting. Quite inspirational, thank you.

  5. Celia, what a delight it is to read this post and to see the processes you employed to create the beautiful Christmas card I now treasure!

    Amongst my New Year "intentions" is to finally have a look at the Fitzwilliam website. I know it is going to be as brilliant as the Colour exhibit. How lucky I was to be able to visit Cambridge.

    (I will also have to have a look at the Finlay book which certainly has intrigued me for some time.)

    Already, my notions 2017 explorations are taking shape. Will 365 ...or 354, days be enough time?


  6. Hello, thank you for commenting on my blog. Not sure if I have ever visited your blog before, I try and "collect" Suffolk Bloggers and what you do looks so brilliant, I'll keep reading. (Our eldest is a Textile Print Designer on maternity leave from Phase8 at the moment)

  7. How wonderful to read this post and now know the process that went into my beautiful Christmas card, which will of course be treasured. It's a fascinating book, one of my favourites.

  8. Gosh! How interesting and what beautiful colours. It reminds us what treasures lie in the hedgerows.

  9. You will love the Victoria Findlay book,just as much as I loved reading this Celia. Gosh how it makes me want to make ink too.When I was a member of the Weavers, Spinners and Dyers I used to do lots of natural dyeing of fibres and I think of those days whenever I read about the current trend for eco dyeing on fabrics. I also love reading about drawing etc with natural pigments too so I'm wondering if I still have some dyestuffs in my shed that might produce ink? Thanks for sending me off on a mission to explore. Must look at that exhibition online too. Can't wait to see any future experiments from you. Good luck with it all!

  10. Fascinating and so beautiful. I love how the colours change as they dry and also work together. So inspiring.

  11. I used to make plant dyes for wool and other things and that was always fun. I love the ink colours that you ended up with. I was quite startled the other day to see that Starbucks are introducing a Cascara Latte! I immediately thought of buckthorn and it's laxative properties, and decided that was NOT going to be one of my choices lol! however after some research it seems that the Cascara they are using is the coffee cherry: http://theroasterspack.com/blogs/news/14918821-cascara-the-coffee-cherry-tea-with-a-how-to-brew-guide, so no need to worry about trying the newest latte :)

  12. I know know why another blog I read was reviewing green inks http://www.wellappointeddesk.com/ I was interested because our eldest daughter is absolutely green mad but when I mentioned green ink to her she was revolted. Dads never get thing right do they.Personally I cannot think of a use for green ink in my life but then a year ago I never had any use for paint or lino ink or pencils so I am no going to discount it entirely. Love the post and I amnow of to explore the rest of the blog and look out the Victoria Finlay book, and I know it is a little late but Happy New Year to you.


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