Inksmithing: an exciting trip down the rabbit hole

I recently had the joy of learning from a talented printmaker who had a passion for the natural, and a flair for science and chemistry. She taught us how to make our own printmaking inks (and oil paints) from raw, natural materials.

At the Inksmithing course at Malaspina Printmakers on Granville Island, Vancouver, BC

The inks I currently use are manufactured, but thanks to new technology, these inks are safer than they used to be. For printmaking, I use a great line of oil-based Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks that are lightfast and permanent, but wash up with water.

Still, the notion of making my own inks – from scratch and using natural elements – totally intrigued me. It also has these advantages: you make only what you need; you can easily mix your own custom colors; you use natural, non-toxic ingredients (such as linseed oil, or even shells, dirt, bark, and leaves!); dry pigments can be used for intense colors and store for a very long time; and you don’t have to add any fillers, binders or driers to the ink.

The ink ingredients: shell, oils & ground dried maple leaves

The class mixing plate at Malaspina: infinite possibilities

What we learned at the Inksmithing workshop at Malaspina Printmakers made liberal use of my left brain. I am an artist living in a time where there is an incredible abundance of art supplies ready-made at my fingertips, so it’s easy to forget that there is a lot of science that goes into making artist inks and paints.

In a few short hours we learned the very beginnings of the craft of combining a number of specialized raw ingredients to create ink and paint.

We also learned this is a study that could take much time to play with – depending on what you were looking to accomplish. To me, that is part of the fun. So, I dug right in.

I have now sourced the raw ingredients, and have since made my first homemade ink. For those who are interested, I used a #3 Burnt Plate Oil plus dry pigments from Canadian manufacturer Kroma (a lovely company to deal with). Our inksmithing instructor mentioned we could make our own “stand oil” thick enough to hold the pigment by boiling raw linseed oil – but warned us to be careful because it could spontaneously burst into flames! “Or,” she added with a shy grin, “you can just buy it if you’re worried about burning your studio down.” I bought it.

Dry pigments from Kroma come in a wide variety of colors to allow a great range of color mixing

Burnt plate oil and dry pigments mixed together in the right quantities make a colorful printer’s ink

For my recent print “Daisy Faces”, I mixed my own yellow from the pigment/oil mixture, and it worked surprisingly well. There would be modifications next time. My first attempt was a bit less stiff than I remembered in class, and that sent me on a wild goose chase for about a day trying to find specific ink recipes online.

Making my own ink for relief printing requires lots of mixing with a palette knife

I didn’t find an ink recipe easily, but there was lots of advice about additives like calcium carbonate in its raw form (hard to find locally), and discussions with my studio partner (an oil painter) about adding Liquin or alkyds which are used for drying/stiffening oil paints.

So began my trip down the rabbit hole as I searched for the right recipe for my own relief ink: What is the best combination of oil to pigment? Do I need to add driers? Why is the consistency not quite right?

After about a day, I chided myself for my fierce “do-it-myself” streak and emailed my instructor. She was delighted I asked and cheerfully countered my question about additives with this wise thought: “Calcium carbonate is used in the industry as filler and is exactly why one is making one’s own inks or oil paints. The fillers make a less pure product and will not impart intensity.”

She gave me lots of advice about making a stiffer ink next time: in short, I needed less oil, more pigment, and to work it vigorously with a palette knife with lots of energy and elbow grease (kind of like kneading dough) to impart a thicker ink.

For me, there will definitely be a next time (update: see part 2 of this adventure here), and I can’t wait to make another ink to print with. There is something very appealing – and very ancient – about the act of making my own art materials. When I do, I feel very connected to all those artists throughout the centuries who have used Mother Nature’s natural elements to make their mark in the world.

My Limited Edition Print “Daisy Faces” using my homemade yellow relief ink.

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17 responses to “Inksmithing: an exciting trip down the rabbit hole

    • Yes, how true, Drew! It was very cool, though still needs a lot of experimentation. But, that’s the fun part anyway — especially for someone like you who loves to use natural and reclaimed materials!

  1. Fascinating – making your own ink. Wow! I’m sure you’ll do great things with what you’ve learned and all you will discover. Can’t wait to see what you do. I’m thrilled to hear about the Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks! I assume from the website that they are not available in Alberta and I’ll need to order them. But thanks so much for the info! Terri

      • Ah, thanks! They’re fun to capture, and provide a break from the trees, trees, and more trees I usually photograph! I ADORE daisies though (even have a fledgling children’s book on my computer, devoted to them) — I actually have a daisy fairy awaiting a spot on the wall now. I love the colors/layout of your piece!!

  2. I havent made my own inks for printing yet, but have made tempera and wax crayons out of earth pigments I gathered and crushed myself.
    You would be amazed at how many colors of soil and soft rocks there are in your own back yard. It changes so much when you go for a drive and look for soil samples.

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  5. Hi Linda, I have been attempting making paints using natural elements,linseed oil, colour from boiled veg and corn starch, do you mean you made paint with only raw natural colour and linseed oil? I would love more info on the recipe you used, I’ve been hunting the Internet and finding actual specific ingredients difficult to find. Avoiding as much processed materials as possible!
    It was great to find your blog!

    • Hi Jojoshone! What I made was actually printmaking INK not paint, although in the quick course I took (about 4 hours) the instructor said making oil paints was possible, too. She did not give us a recipe, other than the ingredients (burnt plate oil + color pigments). But, have a look at my inksmithing blog part 2 here: https://lindacotestudio.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/inksmithing-part-2-mastering-the-craft/ where I describe my process in a little more detail, and with photos. The key I found to not having too oily an ink was to start with lots of pigment, then add a LITTLE burnt plate oil and mix it vigorously until you get the consistency you want. As I say, I have only experience with the ink version that would roll on a linocut base (haven’t used it with a paint brush or canvas). The teacher Kathryn Neun said paint was possible, but that’s not my area, so not sure! If you see the comment above yours, I give a link to Kathryn’s work, but am unsure if she can be reached on this or not! Good luck with your experiments!

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