DIY Natural Ink

Thanks to Frédéric Boyer giving a course at BazArt I am now inspired to make natural, homemade, eco-friendly plant-based ink, paint, pigments and charcoal. With this article, I hope you will be too! If you do give it a go, please let me know how it went in a comment below.


The Teacher

Drawing With Flowers

The Magic Red Cabbage

More Plant-based Ink


Test Results




Online Resources

The Teacher

Frédéric Boyer runs Paysan des Couleurs, an “educational laboratory” for environmental education. He offers courses for people of all ages in many eco-related topics.

Drawing with flowers

You can simply use colourful flowers to draw on paper with! They colours might very well fade over time, but this is still a fun way to draw, especially for kids. Add lemon juice (acid) or soap (basic) with a brush to experiment with different pH values’ impact on the colours.

The magic red cabbage

With one single vegetable you can produce many different colours. Just take the red cabbage as an example! The raw juice gives us violet, mixed with lemon juice it’s more purple, soap makes it blue, and “ash tea” (hot water + ash, then filtered) makes it seagreen! Adding baking soda to the solutions also changed a couple of our tests… And it’s all due to different pH values.

More Plant-based Ink

Since the course was in French, I must admit I didn’t catch all the technical details, and Fréd doesn’t use any set recipes for his ink. He’s like a great chef: The quantities all depends on the specific ingredients; no two plants are exactly the same… For your convenience I have added some additional info from an online resource in English:

Mordant: Some natural dyes, including black walnuts, onion skins, tea or turmeric, are called substantive, meaning they don’t require a mordant to bind with the fibers or retain wash and light fastness. However, most other plants do. Mordants are generally tannins or mineral salts. The most common and safest mordants are alum and iron. Iron can be obtained by boiling the dye in an iron skillet or adding a rusty piece of iron to the pot. Soda ash is also known as washing soda or sodium carbonate. It is an alkaline mordant and will bring out different colors from the plant material.

Gum Arabic: This is used to thicken the liquid. It helps the ink flow onto the paper in a controlled fashion and binds the ink with the paper. It will also help preserve the color.

Thyme Oil: This is used to help prevent mold from forming in the ink.

General recipe: Simmer 1 cup of fresh or 1/2 cup of dried plant material with 1 cup of water and a mordant (if necessary) for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain out the plant material. You should have about 3-4 ounces of liquid. Whisk in 1/2 teaspoon gum Arabic while the ink is still warm so it dissolves easily, and let it cool. Pour the cooled ink into a small bottle and add 3 drops of thyme essential oil. The ink is ready to use to write or draw.

Source: Hobbyfarms

Tips from Fréd: The ingredients might be expensive when bought in an art supply store or herbal store, but you can often find them cheap online or at pharmacies. To help prevent mold one can also use whole cloves instead of thyme oil.

Samples underneath:

Sophora (Styphnolobium japonicum)
Yellow Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) 
Weld/Gaude (Reseda luteola)
Nerprun (Rhamnus cathartica)
Brazilwood/Bois de Pernambouc (Caesalpinia echinata)
Garance (Rubia tinctorum)
Avocado skin


This is the only non-vegan mixture from the course; the traditional tempera made with egg yolk. Here simply blended with either clay, dirt or grinded charcoal. I think I’ll have to test this with aquafaba (=chickpea/bean brine) for a vegan version… 😉

Test Results

A tidy sample sheet made by one of the participants at the course.



Pigment is the concentrated powder that you can make ink or paint from later on. Frédéric made it by simmering a test plant with water and alum, then filtering it, then adding soda ash and filtering it again. The chemical process involved makes it look like an awesome lab experiment! Dry the residues from the filter, and you end up with a pigment powder that you can blend at your convenience. 

Sidenote: After the course I’ve done some research on the ingredient that was used to make this magenta-like colour: Brazilwood.

Perhaps the only wood that was so famous, it was responsible for the naming of an entire nation. When Portuguese ships discovered the trees on the coast of South America, they found that the wood yielded a red dye—which made for a very valuable and lucrative trading commodity. They named the tree pau brasil, the term pau meaning wood, and brasil meaning red/ember-like. Such a vigourous trade resulted from this wood that early sailors and merchants referred to the land itself as Terra do Brasil, or simply, the “Land of Brazil”—and the name stuck.

Unfortunately, Brazilwood has been exploited in centuries past, and is now listed as an endangered species, with international trade being tightly restricted. Prices are likely to be very high, and from dubious sources. No plantations or sustainable sources for this wood are known to exist at the time of this writing (2012). 

Source: Wood

I’m going to find a substitute ingredient if I make this colour later on…


Who would have thought that making charcoal for drawing is that simple! I’ll never need to buy expensive charcoal for my drawings ever again. 

Branches, for example from a chestnut tree.

Fire. Woodcutter/Knife. Pierced metal box.

How to
Cut branches. Put in box. Place on fire.

Until no more steam is coming out of the pierced box.



Here are some books that Fréd brought that might be of interest. The first one depicted, Peinture Végétales Avec Les Enfants by Helena Arendt, caught my attention as a fun and easy-to-understand introduction to the theme. It is published by La Plage which seems to have many interesting books to offer.

Online Resources

5 natural ink recipes (Hobbyfarms)
Natural Ink (Martha Stewart)
5 diy natural ink recipes (Basmati)
DIY Natural Herbal Earth Paints (The Hippy Homemaker)
Natural Dye: Experiments and Results (Catharine Ellis)
Plants to Dye For in the Garden (State By State Gardening)

Encre végétale : c’est bio et facile à faire ! (Encre & Impremante)

Tip: You can also dive into the world of natural dyes for textiles, since many of the same plants used for colouring fabrics can be used to make ink as well.

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