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