Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history


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Follow-up on gall ink

Gall ink

Just before Christmas I wrote about my experiment making ink from oak galls. Read it here. I tried using the mixture as an ink fairly early on in the experiment, using recipes found on the internet, with disappointing results. It came out very pale and did not darken with exposure to light as I had read that it would. That could be for many reasons.  I maybe didn’t use enough galls, or fresh ones, or I hadn’t left it all to soak enough; maybe the mixture was insufficiently concentrated; maybe I hadn’t added enough iron. I also learned that ink would flow better with the addition of gum arabic. I couldn’t find my stock of gum arabic, so I sent off for some (in powder form).

When the gum arabic arrived I decanted some of the gall liquid, added an iron mixture (made from rusty nails and vinegar) and allowed it to reduce naturally by leaving the jar in a warm dry place. I hoped to concentrate the pigment. I then added a small quantity of powdered gum arabic and made some drawings and scribbles using sharpened twigs: a proper quill pen would have been great, but I was short of a goose.  The second ink result was somewhat better than the first, but having looked at some manuscripts written in gall ink, I think it could be a more intense brown/black. I’m leaving the galls to continue soaking and will try again later in the year – as well as looking for more samples in late summer when they will be fresh.

Time will tell if I have used too much iron and my ink rots through the paper – definitely a problem with ‘over-ironed’ dyes of the past which ate their way through wools and silk.

I spent my childhood in the New Forest and have enjoyed following artist Stephen Turner’s blog about his year in the ‘Exbury Egg’. I know the area he is writing about intimately. Coincidentally, Stephen has undertaken a similar experiment with gall ink and you might like to look at two of his posts. He describes collecting galls here, and his ink results here. Stephen’s observations on the Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) were completely new to me: apparently this species was reintroduced into the British Isles in the eighteenth century and there were concerns that acorn production, vital for the local feeding of pigs, was affected by the arrival of the Turkey oak and its attendant galls. The Oak Marble Gall Wasp (Andricus kollari), for which a Turkey oak is vital, is responsible for the marble galls Stephen used.

The galls I collected in Devon are not the same thing as Stephen’s New Forest marble galls. They were found on a different type of oak and produced by a different wasp. But as far as I know all galls are tannin-rich and can be used to produce ink. So I’ll keep try-ink. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.

 

Breaking news.. extra course at West Dean: Brilliant with Pattern

Because my West Dean course in March has a waiting list double the size of the course itself, the organisers have scheduled an extra course from 9th – 11th  May. See the West Dean programme here. You can also download the full West Dean College Course programme here.

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Gall-ink…

Last week I found some oak-galls, or oak apples, in a hedge. They were easy to spot after the final fall of leaves. Oak galls are nothing to do with acorns. They result from  chemicals injected into a developing leaf bud when a female gall wasp lays eggs.

photo 4

Oak galls spotted in a hedge

The galls contain high proportions of tannin and, mixed with iron salts, were historically the source of a purple-black or brown ink. The comprehensive and scholarly Iron Gall Ink Website has an ink history here. The fourth century  Codex Sinaiticus, one of the most complete versions of the Bible, was written in iron gall ink, in Greek. Follow the link to read about a great collaborative project, and an entire website devoted to the Codex. Because the manuscript has been broken up and spread worldwide, the project exists to reunite it digitally. 

Anyway, I picked the galls and am soaking them out. Apparently I can use a solution of rusty nails to make up the ink, according to Wikipedia’s recipe, and I shall try it in the New Year when I have found my Gum Arabic.

All this think-ink reminded me of an encounter with shaggy ink caps (Coprinus comatus) a few Novembers back. I found an ink-cap-ink recipe – and the delightful word deliquesce – on Regia Anglorum’s site here, recipe number 3. No cauldrons were available that week, so a plastic pot emptied of E numbers sufficed for deliquescing. The fungi did their thing and weren’t particularly smelly at first. They just looked a bit sinister (shaggy ink caps aren’t poisonous, although I wasn’t planning an omelette). I put the increasingly soggy black mixture in the corner of my studio and forgot about it. Until it began to make its presence felt. 

It produced a putrid, mouldy, rotting smell which was murderously  incriminating. I poured the mixture through a sieve at arm’s length and improvised a cooking put from an empty tin. If the smell was bad before, nothing compared to the hellish fumes that arose from the pot once on a stove (some recipes suggest that boiling reduces and blackens the mixture). The mixture obediently reduced to a ghastly, shiny black mucus. The stench was so bad I had to hold my breath to stop myself gagging. To hell with research like this – I couldn’t live with the smell. I poured off the mixture and found a large paintbrush and some paper and made a simple snot drawing (see below). I then introduced the mixture to the far corner of the garden.

The conclusions the Ink Cap Escapade were:

1.That the recipes I found are incomplete, or some additional ingredient neutralised the decomposition and the smell. Vinegar, perhaps? As the fungus is only found in autumn, there must have been a way to preserve the ink through the year without knocking out an entire community of Cistercians with the pong. Or maybe I’ve stumbled across a new cause of the Reformation.

2. A lot of ink caps would be needed to make a good black and you couldn’t use a quill with the snot-like stuff I made. It needs to be blacker and more runny. It was too thick for a small paintbrush. Maybe I boiled it too hard.

3. Perhaps monks had no sense of smell.