Introduction: Home Made Ink From Nature: Perfect Purples

About: Black sheep engineer, Chartered, and very silly. Currently living in the UK. I have been fortunate to have lived, studied and worked in Hong Kong, Norway and California. I believe physical models help people…

Perhaps you value knowing a little about the provenance of your food, consumer goods, etc. - if so, have you ever pondered over the origin of the colouring of your clothes, or perhaps how paints are made for creating art?

I first got into making dyes for t-shirts when I was a kid, from cabbage, and using bleach to tie-dye. Since then, I've become a dad, so am enjoying revisiting some of these 'classics', but as I have a background in chemistry and engineering, I tend to get into it a bit more than time permitted at primary school!

This is by no means an exhaustive Instructable to making ink, but I think what it has value in, is the angle for kids. I've selected plants which are edible, and this takes out a lot of the inherent risk of dye making with chemicals and compounds you absolutely wouldn't want in your household saucepan! Purple is also one of the best colours to start with, as it can be easily derived from 'safe' things like grape skins (dark) to onion skins (dull), to sloe berries (pinky-puple), or more vibrant beetroot or red cabbage colours - which will change with pH.

Indeed, it was a happy coincidence to see this Instructables Contest (Rainbows) pop up - so it prompted me to enter. Please kindly vote if it was useful, be it for Violet or Indigo ;o)

If you are wanting to get into more serious ink/dye making with kids, I would suggest you get a pan that you *never* use for cooking food in. I actually have this for making Black in from Galls, but the point is you don't want to have any toxins or such get into your dinner. Please use all care and supervision when using hot pans, etc. with kids. And yes it will stain your clothes and hands. You know the score ;o)


You will need:
Saucepan (thick base), Scissors, Fork/Masher, Funnel, Tissue Paper.
Paintbrush or Dip-Pen and Paper to paint on.

Honestly, I'd have a go with the basics and see if you like it...
If you are really pleased with the result, then 'upgrading' to fancier stuff is reasonable if you want better results.

Optional Extras:
Gum Arabic - thickens and clarifies the ink:
Wintergreen Oil - preserves it longer:
Cloves - preserves it reasonably well:

Filter Papers - if tissue is not strong enough:
Indian Ink - for artwork:
Ink Pen - for drawing with ink:
Bristol Board - less prone to warping than paper:

Credit - I have learned a lot from various blogs, but this has been a terrific purchase and gives much more on the history and techniques of ink making. It's not a detailed chemical handbook, but does certainly get you started.

Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Ink-making

Step 1: Hunting for Inky Plants

As this is a beginners guide to making ink, it's simplest to assume that most of the time what you see in nature will either yield a dye of that colour, or it might be a little lighter/washed-out.

As mentioned earlier, if you are not sure of the safety of the plant, err on the side of only what you'd eat...and even then google if unsure - for example Cherries might be good to eat, but their stones are toxic.

I picked Sloes, Elderberries and Blackberries (in July/August FYI). It's a nice activity to get kids learning to identify plants but also to consider their applications (beyond just food).

A hand-full or two will do... You do not need much to make enough ink to make a painting!

Step 2: Know Your Onions - Using Scraps

A great source of ink-making plants can also be from your kitchen.... Red Onions Skins, Beetroot Peelings, and even the slightly bad/stale/bruised fruits (grapes, berries, etc) can be a perfect excuse to make something good out of.

Step 3: Equipment Check

Most of these items are listed in 'Supplies' a couple steps back, but the two noteworthy ones are:

- Gum Arabic. This is a tree sap in solution, which when added in a couple drops for a small volume of ink will add a smoothness to how it flows on the page, as well as making it clearer. This is hard to quantify, perhaps like salt in a mean - add to taste, but start with less and add more.

- Cloves. Some inks like cabbage smell famously flatulent, so adding a nice spice can help with this. However, the real reason for adding a Clove is that it has antibacterial properties, and so keeps your ink free(er) from mould. Not essential if you intent to use it right away, but needed for storage.

Step 4: Step 1: Smaller Is Better

I'm starting with Red Onion as it requires not expense, being a waste product. But it covers the basic steps for making all the following dyes.

As a general rule - the smaller you can shop, mash, grind things - the better it will be for your ink. Either in that it will release deeper colour, or that it will simply infuse faster.

Water is a 'solvent' and for it to extract colour, temperature is helpful. However, some colours you may notice will dull if you simply boil the heck out of it for hours, so as a rule try to keep to a gentle simmer when you have time.

Don't worry about having too much water, this is often better than too little, as it means the solution does not 'saturate' quickly (i.e. you can get more colour chemicals 'out' - and reduce later).

Cooking time varies quite a lot, but you're looking for between 5-10mins when the colour is leaching out of the ingredient you added, and is not looking much more intense. Then it's 'done'.

Step 5: Quick Filter

One can invest in fancy chemistry filter papers, or coffee papers, but I've found a simple 2-ply tissue will do fine for most cases.

Fold the square tissue in half, then do it again, so it forms a smaller square. You will then have 4 'leaves' of the tissue paper at one corner, separate them to be 3 on one side and 1 on the other as shown. This is now a 'filter' and you pour liquid into this.

Tip is to trim the edges, as shown to keep from flopping into itself.

Step 6: Steady Does It!

Probably the best tip to speed up your process is to allow the mix in the saucepan to sit for 1min, and allow any sediments to settle. Carefully tip the pan, and allow the liquid to slowly flow out.

Avoid pouring in the very last of it, as this may have grit, or other stuff you don't need blocking your filter paper.

Step 7: Reduce

Like those beverage adverts you see - 'triple filtered' is a good thing!

Give the pan a wash first.

Then, adding the liquid 'filtrate' back to the pan, gently simmer for a further 5-10 mins until you've reduced the volume of the liquid has reduced to about 2/3 or 1/2 of what it was, or to the intensity of the colour you want.

(side note - you may want a deeper colour, but it might be too thick, in which case you may need to add a solvent like alcohol to thin the liquid, but keep the colour intensity).

Step 8: Thicker

Gum Arabic will make the ink thicker, glossier and more 'flow-y' - i.e. easier to work with on the paper.

It's about $5/£4 per small bottle like this, but worth it if you imagine doing it more than a few times.

A few drops to say a 20ml yield of ink is plenty I find, but add to your preference.

Step 9: Clove-Power!

As mentioned earlier - 1 clove for 100ml of un-reduced liquid will be fine. It will stop mould and funk building up in your ink if you store it. Keep cool tho.

Step 10: Testing

As much as I recommended a paintbrush, for comparative tests (i.e. not art) I actually used tissue paper in tweezers, as this meant no washing/cleaning, and gave consistent flow between tests. Oddly, it was quite nice to work with, and allows some different play around with what works for you =)

Step 11: Blackberry Ink

As with Onions...smaller is best, so mashing with fork helped.

Other than that, the same.

Step 12: Elderberry Ink

A terrific colour!

Some care needed to avoid eating the berries or indeed stalks (as they are toxic), but again - use your judgement on this. It is not hard to separate the berries from the plant, but just be aware this is important.

Step 13: Sole Berry Ink

Often called Buckthorn. The Berries are often used for Gin making. (Excellent btw!).

In this case I actually slightly regret mashing these up so vigorously. I realise in hindsight the better move would have been to scald them, and then slip the skins off - and just use the skins...the fruit (green) was too much of a conflicting ingredient in the ink, and diluted it from what would have been a dark purple I guess.

However, as is much of the 'way' of ink making, this was an unexpected 'win' in that the colour was really unusual, and it 'changed' colour on the page with time as it dried. This is common with more 'organic' inks and it's very much trial and error, even when you have read-up a lot. It's arguably part of the fun - and probably the closest we get today to feeling like an Alchemist!

Tip - for very 'pulpy' inks, a better pre-filter is Japanese Tea Bags, (last picture) as these strain out the water well, but you'll need to re-boil and filter through tissue again to get a clearer ink.

Tip - In hindsight this seems obvious, but Lavender didn't give a good purple ink, as even though the flowers were vibrant, they were overwhelmed by the green parts. In weight, it was probably like 1:9 so pointless! Worth considering with other plants what parts are actually doing the 'colouring' and what should be removed. One can appreciate why saffron only uses the stamens.

Step 14: Black Grape Ink

Probably my favourite, and arguably I'd not have 'figured it out' to use the skins with no fruit, has the sloes not thrown me a curveball!

The colour is just wonderful, and very permanent (as my stained t-shirt can attest!).

Probably the most vibrant and exciting purple ink I've made!

Step 15: A Rainbow of Purple...

You may have done this at school, but you can make Cabbage (and Beetroot) ink change colour by adding acid or alkali to it. I've not yet gotten around to this, but in theory one could make all the colours of the rainbow from these base inks.

To get yellows and such you need to hit ph14, which is like not one for the kids. So hence leaving this out. And it'd probably eat your paper of your painting in a few days! One can appreciate why dye-making is such a fine art, when you consider these inks will fade, change colour and perhaps smell funky....the things we take for granted, huh! ;o)

Credit for above (last) photo:

Step 16: Chasing the Perfect Purple...

I guess the preference of the perfect purple is your prerogative.

Puns over to you...

Step 17: All in a Day's Work

It was quite quick to do this, and I was surprised that the process can be sped up by boiling one ingredient while the other is being filtered. I got this done in about 2 hours all in (excluding my not-amazing drawings! I will stick to the making and leave the artistry to you folks on Instructables!)

Step 18: Arts, Crafts & Gifts

I had great fun doing this, and even though I'm no artist, there was something nice about seeing the ink flow and react on the pace, and together. It got quite into it!

And it even made some nice cards for birthdays, etc.

What will you make?

Please share any tips and tricks below?

Best wishes,


More at or if you like seeing more projects for kids, I post half-baked ideas here sometimes also:

Colors of the Rainbow Contest

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