I enjoy making potion bottles, especially ones that look very old and distressed. However, an old-looking bottle requires a similarly aged label. To create the effect of an aged label, I used a simple graphics program (in this case, MSPaint but you can use GIMP, Photoshop, or even MS Word) to generate the label, then print and age it using materials found in any kitchen. The result can look positively ancient.
Step 1: A Word About Ink
Because I want the printed elements of the label to look distressed, I aged the paper after the design was printed. I think this is the best way to age a label. However, some printer ink can’t stand up to this process. The ink should be color-fast. If yours isn't, get your labels printed elsewhere or photocopied.
Test Your Printer's Ink
Factory-filled cartridges or those refilled with pigment-based ink tend to work well. To check if your ink is colorfast, simply print something (or use paper you’ve already printed) and brush or splash water onto the printed page. If the ink does not bleed, chances are your ink should work fine. Try both black ink and color ink; you might find a difference. If it does bleed, one way of dealing with this is to use a light table (or window in bright light) to trace your printing with pigment-based markers onto your paper (again, if unsure, test for colorfastness).
Step 2: Use Clip Art to Create a Simple Label
Those of you with artistic skills or piles of amazing clip art at your disposal may want to skip this step. I wanted to add a short explanation of how freely available clip art can make simple labels kind of fancy. So I am showing you how to make the two labels pictured: Syrup of Hellbore (left) and Powdered Root of Asphodel (right).
You can create an image for your label using a border or interesting clipart found online or in your own clipart collection. On the label for Syrup of Hellebore, I used a piece of scrollwork as the basis for the art. On the right label for Powdered Root of Asphodel, I used and reoriented a single piece of scrollwork four times to create a stylized border.
In step one, I selected the scroll and turned it in the direction I wanted.
In step two, on the Hellebore label, I copied the scroll, pasted it and flipped it horizontally. Then I made an oval and placed the mirror-image scrolls on either side of it. In the second step of the Asphodel label, I copied the scroll, pasted it, flipped it, and repeated this for four sections to create the entire border.
Finally, I added the text part of the label and printed it. I have, in the past. used a good brush-tip pen with colorfast ink to go over the printed lines and give a hand-quilled look. This is another way to individualize your labels.
Step 3: Trim the Label
I suggest printing up several of the same label and subjecting them to variances in the aging and distressing process. It’s hard to know exactly how these will turn out and this will give you a variety of choices for the final application. Cutting the labels before aging them helps create more realism because the edges are subjected to the same aging process. Cutting the label afterward won't necessarily give the same coloration or distressed effect.
Print the labels onto sturdy paper. I used just plain white printer paper here and they turned out fine. Before making them look old or distressed, decide how to cut them out. It is important to give the paper label its final shape before aging it or the edges won’t seem as natural. Cut it out or carefully tear it out. Cutting can be done using standard scissors, fancy edge scissors, or other shape cutting tools. You can either carefully trim it according to shape or give it another shape altogether. See the picture for some different ideas about how to shape one single label.
Step 4: Aging the Paper
To age your labels, lay them on a glass or ceramic plate. Brew yourself some coffee or tea. Drink your hot beverage but don’t discard the bag or grounds. Instead, heap up the wet tea leaves or coffee grounds onto the labels. Make a nice thin layer and extend it out past the edges of the label. I tried several different teas and each gave a different effect.
You can also mix up your leaves and grounds, laying them onto the label in different areas to give a really nice varied effect. You can allow your labels to dry naturally like this. This will give a light layer of color. To deepen and intensify the colors you can put the plate in the microwave and heat for 15-30 seconds, depending on the size of label.
Starting from the upper left and going clockwise: coffee, black tea, mix of teas and coffee, green tea.
Allow the plate and contents to cool and then carefully remove the leaves or grounds. You can either let the labels dry before moving on or you can begin augmenting your aged paper with distressed effects now.
Step 5: Distressing the Label
Distressing, when done while the paper is still wet, will give a less defined edge to the drips and splatters you’ll be adding. If the paper is dry, it will cause the first layer of coloring to bleed and create a darkened edge where the bleed ends. Both are nice effects.
You can use food coloring, watered-down tempera paints, or water colors. There are probably many water-based substances you can use as well to make the label appear as though it has been subjected to lots of abuse. I tend to do most of my distressing with food coloring, and then add little bits of other colors spattered here and there. I use gel food coloring which I water down to make a usable fluid.
If you don’t have a dropper for adding spots of color, use a small drinking straw (I like the narrow ones used as coffee stirrers). Dip the straw in your liquid and then put your finger on the other end and you’ll be able to drip individual drops by loosening your finger pressure and letting air in this end. For very small splatter marks, dip the end of a toothpick into the coloring liquid and dab the color on the paper deliberately.
Tip your plate with the label on it to coax liquids to drip down the label, as it might if it were on the bottle at the time.
It’s also nice to dip the very top edge of the label directly into your liquid distressing medium where it will give a crisper color to the top edge making it appear as though liquid had accumulated here.
Allow all of this coloring to dry completely.
Step 6: Burn Marks
One way a label may have been inadvertently distressed over time is for the bottle it covered to have been hit with small sparks that burned it slightly. Of course, some kinds of bottles may not have been exposed to fire so you might skip this step altogether. For potion bottles, it's a nice little touch.
Burns could be in the form of small holes created when hot ash landed on the label and smoldered briefly. Maybe the edge of the label caught fire in a ghastly potion-brewing explosion and burned a bit of it away. Because some of these labels are very small, I decided against actually burning them as even a controlled burn might char more of it than it leaves behind. Instead, I artfully cut the labels and used a permanent ink marker to “char” along the cut edges.
To create a charred hole, you can fold or roll the paper around the point at which the hole appears. Trim off the tip of this point. Unroll the label and dab a brown marker along the edges. Let the ink bleed into the paper a bit. Finally, dab black marker along this edge but don’t apply as much as the brown so only the very edge is dark.
Step 7: Sealing and Applying
The label can be sealed with an acrylic varnish (but this is best done once it’s been applied to the surface of the bottle. Use shiny or matte finish varnish depending on the look you are going for.
Another way of sealing the surfaced that I tend to prefer is to rub the surface with candle wax. This gives a very uneven shine to the surface of the label which can be nice. I have some old white candles that were once stored with a variety of other candles. The other wax colors tainted the surface of the candles, making them grungy and perfect for sealing these distressed labels. Just rub the side of the candle on the outer surface of the label.
The label can be applied with Modge Podge, craft glue, or spray adhesive. Just apply a very thin layer to the back and stick in place. Consider not applying the glue to one edge or corner. Then, once it’s dry, curl the loose section, possibly tearing it a bit or making the edges ragged for a final flourish.