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."