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Once You Start Making Ink, the World Never Quite Looks the Same

On a quest to create paints gentle enough to use with his children, an artist and illustrator with a mad-scientist streak took to the parks of Toronto and gathered natural materials — leaves, berries, bark, moss — to transform into rich inks.

 

The pigments he concocts from these humble beginnings are as fun to make as they are eye-opening to work with.

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Meet the Maker

On the West Toronto Railpath, artist Jason Logan keeps track of plants for future dyes. "I love the little wild places you find in cities," he says.

Once you start making ink, the world never quite looks the same. Just ask Jason Logan, founder of the Toronto Ink Company, who's reviving the lost art of creating natural inks. "You can make them out of almost anything," he says — often using the most mundane of materials, which he forages from right outside his doorstep in Toronto. The hull of a squirrel's half-eaten walnut is easily turned into a rich brown liquid. Sumac growing through a crack in the sidewalk becomes the basis of a lush berry-red. The unloved invasive shrub known as buckthorn, which flourishes in ditches and muddy areas, metamorphoses into an inviting shade of green.

 

An art director and illustrator, Logan is known for his witty, wiggly-lined drawings incorporating charts, maps, diagrams, and his signature all-caps hand lettering, which frequently appear in the New York Times op-ed section. He first became interested in making his own paints out of concern for his family's health. "Most professional ink is made from potentially harmful chemicals and petroleum," says the artist, who has three children — Kes, 11; Soren, 9; and Winter, 5 — with his wife, Heidi Sopinka, a fashion designer. "When you start reading the warning labels about inhalation, it really makes you think twice about having it in your home."

 

He started working with golf ball–size black walnuts that he found in nearby Queen's Park. Playing with methods culled from blogs as well as medieval texts, he hit upon a perfect formula for his illustrations. Made from just three ingredients — black walnuts, water, and food-grade shellac — the result was not only nontoxic, but also soft and warm.

 

Now, Logan brews pigments from a mind-boggling range of materials, including turmeric, wild grapes, irises, rock lichen, bark, peach pits, coffee, river water, seashells, bricks, limestone, copper, and iron. "The other day, I made one from acorn caps and a rusty bed-spring," he says. "It came out silvery gray." Indeed, his colors are not bold and recognizable, like typical commercial varieties. "They tend to be subtle and earthy," he says. Nor do they have the permanence or consistency of industrial ones, which is why he thinks of them as alive. "The colors may fade, change, or even crystallize in time," he says. "It's all part of the beauty of a living ink."

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Indelible Memories

  • jason logan searching in yard

    Logan looks for specimens in a park near his home.

  • freeform ink paintings

    Logan's free-form ink paintings hang in his studio.

  • ink bottles

    His younger daughter, Winter, holds three bottles of ink, one of which she made herself.

  • ink swatches

    He tests out swatches of color on paper; no two batches come out the same.

  • jason logan searching in yard

    Logan looks for specimens in a park near his home.

  • ink bottles

    His younger daughter, Winter, holds three bottles of ink, one of which she made herself.

  • freeform ink paintings

    Logan's free-form ink paintings hang in his studio.

  • ink swatches

    He tests out swatches of color on paper; no two batches come out the same.

Artists' Collective

"Kids have a natural curiosity, which is perfect for experimenting," says Logan, shown here in his studio with his children, Soren, Kes, and Winter. "They'll see something on the street and say, 'What if we make ink out of that?'" He's currently at work on a book called Make Ink, which will be out next spring from Abrams.

Mix and Match Colors

This base recipe comes from Jason Logan. Pictured pigments from left to right use the following main ingredients: coffee, black bean, sumac, black walnut, spinach, red cabbage, iris petal, elderberry, turmeric, grape juice, pokeweed berry, buckthorn berry, jicama, onion skin, wild grape, and goldenrod.

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