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  • Writer's pictureJulia

Botanical Ink FAQs

What's so special about botanical inks? How are they different from commercially produced inks? Why has my ink changed colors? What's the difference between ink and watercolor and liquid watercolors? Are botanical inks waterproof? Are they lightfast? Why is my second bottle of the same ink a different shade?

These questions (and so many more) are the things I spent months researching before I even attempted to make my very first ink, and they're questions that I get asked pretty frequently, so I thought I'd get some answers to you in one place:

What’s so special about botanical ink?

Throughout the history of ink-making, all kinds of materials have been used to produce inks for writing from soot to lamp oil to charred bones to tar and natural, plant-based dyes. Most commercial inks today are a combination of dyes in water or organic solvents such as propylene glycol, propyl alcohol, toluene, or glycolic-ethers. Other ingredients like resins, preservatives, and wetting agents are also added. Don’t know what any of those things are? Neither do I!

My inks contain dyes extracted from botanical source materials (such as black walnut hulls, blueberries, onion skins, beets), distilled water, Gum Arabic (a naturally occurring thickening agent from the Acacia tree, which is added to adjust the consistency of the ink), and essential oils to help prevent mold. In some cases, salt, vinegar, or alcohol may be added to help preserve the integrity of the colors. And that’s it! There are no surprises, no carcinogens, no toxins, and no animal products or by-products.

How are handmade botanical inks different from commercially produced inks?

The one obvious answer is that they're handmade primarily from plant materials! I've experimented with things that grow in the wild (black walnuts from my backyard), leftover "trash" from my kitchen (onion skins), spices that come from plants (turmeric), basil from my garden... It's all natural!

Another huge difference is that my inks do not contain any chemical preservatives or anti-fungals to help prevent mold growth. Instead, I may use salt, vinegar, or alcohol to help preserve colors, and essential oils to prevent mold. Mold can grow on just about anything with even a hint of moisture in/on it, so even commercially produced inks aren't immune. A lot of anti-fungals that were used in the ink industry have been banned because of health concerns, so mold is becoming a bigger problem with inks lately, especially in inkwells for dip pens since we tend to dip our pens in various inks, rinse them in water, clean with cloths--all of which can contain mold spores.

I highly recommend transferring small amounts of ink with a pipette to a smaller inkwell or dinky dip and storing your inks in a cool, dry environment.

If you're concerned about mold growth in your inks and would like to take extra precautions, you can add a single dry clove to your inkwell.

Why has my ink changed colors?

There are so many things about botanical inks that I absolutely love. I love knowing exactly what goes into them. I love that the materials are all-natural and come from the earth. And some inks, depending on the source material for the dye, are as fickle as nature.

For example, Lofn, which is made from red cabbage is extremely ph sensitive—so sensitive in fact that the ph of the paper will alter the resulting color. If your paper is slightly more alkaline, the ink will change to soft blue. If you add a drop of vinegar or lemon juice to the ink, it will turn a pinkish purple shade.

Inks made from berries, such as pokeberry, blueberry, and blackberries, will slowly oxidize over time and gradually change to a beautiful, warm brown color.

Like nature itself, enjoy and embrace the unpredictable!

What's the difference between ink and watercolor?

There are 2 types of substances used to create color in inks and watercolors—pigments and dyes. Pigments typically come in powdered form and are insoluble in water, which means that the color itself and the solvent (in watercolor’s case, water) don’t become one. The pigments are suspended or “bound” in the solvent using a binder like honey or Gum Arabic. So when you paint with watercolor, the water gets absorbed into the paper and dries, and the pigments remain on the surface of the paper. This is why watercolor paintings can be re-wet and often need to be “fixed” to make it permanent.

Inks, on the other hand, are created with dyes. Dyes are water-soluble, so when the ink absorbs into the paper and dries, the color doesn’t sit on the surface of the paper, it’s absorbed into the paper, making it permanent, and in a sense, waterproof. This is the difference between getting watercolor paint on your skin—it can be easily washed off—and ink on your skin—it stains and will sometimes be there for days.

Obviously, this is a very simplified overview of pigments and dyes. There are definitely pigments that will stain and dyes that will fade and wash away over time. Which leads to the next two questions:

Are botanical inks waterproof? Are they lightfast?

Even things that have the potential to stain EVERYTHING can fade over time. Walnut ink is known to have excellent lightfast qualities, but all things have the potential to fade. Sunlight/UV rays are the worst when it comes to degrading the integrity of colors. Keeping your inks (both in the bottle and finished works on paper) out of direct sunlight will help maintain their color integrity.

As for being waterproof, most of my inks are waterproof. Made from natural dyes, the colors are absorbed into the paper. However, it is always best to safeguard your beautiful creations from the damaging effects of water and sunlight.

Why is my second bottle of the same ink a different shade?

Although I take detailed notes when I create my ink recipes, and I do my very best to match colors, botanical materials are unpredictable. The dyes contained in 2 oz of walnut hulls from one tree may be different from 2 oz of walnut hulls from another tree. Same goes from red cabbages and flower petals and tree bark. Some blueberries are darker than others, and the same tree can produce flowers of varying shades. If you ever find that two batches of the same ink are too different and you're unsatisfied with the variation, please contact me so I can help you find a solution.

The ink seems very watery and just runs off the nib! What gives?

All brand new nibs have an anti-rust coating on them that needs to be removed before using. If you don't remove the coating, inks tend to run right off the nib in a messy ink blob. There are a number of different ways to remove the coating. Some people swear by the toothpaste method (gently scrub your nib with a small amount of toothpaste w/ a soft bristle toothbrush and rinse), and others stick their nibs in a raw potato! I like the potato method. Just (carefully) jab your nib into a raw potato and leave it for about 5 minutes. Remove and wipe it clean with a microfiber cloth.

If you're using an older nib and still having the running ink problem, the ink is probably too watery for that particular nib. Add a small amount of gum arabic to the ink to thicken it. I prefer powdered gum arabic, but it takes some time to dissolve in the ink so just be patient! Gum arabic is also available in liquid form.

Please let me know if you have any other questions about your botanical inks!

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