Natural Inks and Sustainability

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Sitting in a dark room, I’m thinking about colours. Specifically, I’m thinking about the ink that we use for writing, painting, or even dyeing our clothes. It’s a wonder really how we achieved such beautiful colours with amazing varieties of hues and vibrancy.

Colours are so easily and cheaply acquired today that they are almost taken for granted. One side effect of our appetite for colour is an excess of pollution. The chemicals that are used to produce modern dyes and pigments are harmful to our health and the environment. 

Natural inks are a cleaner, more sustainable alternative that could help to keep dangerous chemicals away from the environment and may even bring about greater appreciation and connection with nature. Artists and home hobbyists should take notice of the potential in natural inks, sourcing colours and producing them for small scale projects.

Finding Sustainability from Natural Inks

Synthetic ink is made primarily from fossil fuels and other harmful chemicals that can find their way back into the environment. The process of making them involves solvents that release gasses known as volatile organic compounds (VOC) that are harmful to humans. 

Choosing natural inks helps to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals. That isn’t to say that natural dyes don’t also require additional chemicals, but the difference is that naturally sourced chemicals are more easily broken down and are more sustainable compared to their synthetic counterparts.  

The use of natural inks has traditional roots in a wide spread of cultures over a very long period of human history. There are cave paintings that date back to the Neolithic era that are made using ochre clays mixed with water. Another example, Indigo, derived from the Indigofera plant, was used by the ancient Egyptians to colour the fabric that they used to wrap mummies. 

Indigo dye

Source: Plural Magazine

Despite its long lineage, natural inks have largely been replaced by man-made synthetics that are cheaper and more consistent in quality.  However, growing awareness of the environmental issues calls for more sustainable options and this should bring our attention back to natural inks. 

As the saying goes — ‘you can’t do everything but you can do something,’ that something could easily be as simple as choosing to use natural inks.

Art and Nature

Ola Curve Print Layflat Notebook in Forest Green

Turning to natural inks is a great way to reconnect with nature. One of the best things about natural inks is that nearly anything in nature could be experimented with to create inks. Of course, some sources would have better results than others…but there are even many plants of trees growing in your surrounding area that could have potential as a pigment or dye for ink making. 

Learning about foraging is vital to uncover the sources of colour in the natural world-  from flowers, leaves, fruits, roots, and barks, to insects (more on this later) and even minerals. Just keep in mind the good etiquette of foraging including not over harvesting or leaving waste behind. To explore natural inks is to explore and learn about nature. This is sure to cause greater appreciation for the environment.

Natural inks also add another layer of value to handmade pieces of art. When you finally get to working with natural inks you will notice that there is an ephemeral quality in these inks that could be hard to explain. It’s as if natural colours have an intrinsic quality whose beauty brings out something of a natural yearning- a more intimate connection with each medium. 

There is also the opportunity to be more experimental with different types of materials and processes to produce different and more unique pieces of art. Whether you like to paint or to dabble in some calligraphy, making your own natural inks adds another level of personal touch to any artwork. 

Making your own inks

This isn’t going to be an in depth guide to creating natural inks at home. Rather, if you would like to begin your journey into natural inks, this is intended to be a starting point to get you acquainted with the fundamentals.

Firstly, inks are made up of colour, a binder, and water or oil. Playing around with different inputs will give you different results. Start by picking your natural ingredient. You may already have something you could use in your pantry or fridge. Then boil the ingredient in water for a period of time. The longer you boil, the stronger the colour. Acids and salts are usually added in this stage to affect the colour. Simple white vinegar and table salts could work and they would also change or intensify the colour. 

Finally, a binder such as gum arabic is added at the end to stabilise the ink and a little clove, wintergreen or some other preservative is added to extend shelf life— it is an organic product after all! Once filtered, bottled and labelled the ink is ready to be used. 

What to do with your natural ink

Now that you’ve made some natural inks, you should put it to good use! Here are three suggestions: 


Calligraphy is a great way to take advantage of your homemade natural inks. You could spruce up your letter or card writing game by using natural inks and calligraphy. The organic and natural feel of the ink would lend your writing a feeling of natural warmth and vibrancy. Two things will be important; one, that your ink is at the right consistency; and two, your choice of paper will vary the behaviour of the ink as you write. Add more gum arabic or use less water in your ink to achieve the right consistency. Use a Ph neutral paper that is also sturdy enough to hold ink. 


Screen Printing

In a nutshell, screen printing is a technique to transfer designs onto paper. It is very effective in producing multiple prints with a high degree of consistency. You will need a few necessary equipment such as the screen, film, rubber spatulas and inks. While it is the case that there is an initial hurdle of acquiring equipment and learning the basics to screen printing; the upshot however, is that you can make multiple copies of the same design. It is common to find screen printed designs on the covers of handmade notebooks. 


Treat natural inks as you would with water-colour paints. In theory they can be painted on anything that can absorb water-based inks, so go ahead and experiment. One helpful tip is to use higher quality paper that can handle water-colours for your natural inks.

Moglea Osaka Journal

Featured: Moglea Osaka Journal & Notebooks

Moglea is one of our favourite brands for hand painted notebooks and cards. Their notebooks and journals are adorned with beautifully painted designs that are each painted by hand by artisans in their studio. Ola uses high-quality paper that will withstand light watercolour work. Their layflat notebooks will also lay flat on the page which makes working on them much easier and pleasurable.

Ola Dash Print Layflat Notebook in Klein Blue

Featured: Ola Dash Print Layflat Notebook in Klein Blue

Consider using natural inks the next time you have a project to do. It’s a great way to add more sustainability to your craft and hobbies while also taking advantage of the artistic benefits that natural inks can offer. Also, don’t forget to head over to Līneae for any supplies you need!




Written by Adam James

Art & Design Slow Living Sustainability

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