Biking through a Toronto park in 2014, artist and designer Jason Logan noticed a sign at the base of a tree identifying it as a black walnut. The name struck him. Years before, he’d bought a bottle of black walnut ink in New York; now he wondered if he could make his own. But it was summer, and the walnuts looked like limes high in the branches. So he waited. And watched.
By late autumn, he was stuffing his backpack full of fallen walnuts in their still-green hulls.
“I remember their spicy, earthy scent,” Logan says, “and my racing home to boil [the hulls] up. I remember the big black pasta pot I put them in. It felt like they boiled a long time. My hands were stained brown, and I remember knowing from those stains that this was going to work.”
All through the making of that first batch, one image stayed with Jason, who works as an artist and creative director: “I had that little square bottle of black walnut ink in my head. The ink was long gone, but I remembered perfectly how it layered on the paper, [building] from coffee to chocolate to mahogany brown. I knew that I wouldn’t stop boiling until I had that color again,” he says. “In the end, though, it was shockingly easy.”
A few days later, Jason registered the Toronto Ink Company as a business. He opened a bank account and started designing labels. And that, he says, was that.
These days, Logan makes ink from all manner of foraged leaves and roots, including peach pits and buckthorn berries. Marketing his wares through Instagram, his newsletter, and the occasional print advertisement in The Paris Review, he sells around 12 different colors of natural ink, mostly to small art shops in Canada but also in New York and San Francisco. During harvest seasons, he also offers inks for sale on his website.
For the past couple of years, though, most of his business has come not from buyers of his bottled inks, but from companies and organizations looking for place-based custom colors. He also gives workshops—including a recent virtual class for the New York Botanical Garden—on how to make natural ink.
What does he love most about his work? He can produce his inks in his own kitchen, with his family around him. “There often seems to be competition between parenting and art,” says Logan, who has three children aged 16, 13, and 10, “where the goal is to get out of the house and into a studio where your kids aren’t bothering you. Of course, sometimes it’s nice to be alone, but being able to make art in a domestic setting was something I wanted for myself.” This is part of the reason that the inks he makes are nontoxic, safe for his kids—and everyone else’s—to use.
And what do his children—who also act as occasional foraging and packaging assistants—think of a home where the attic doubles as an art studio and the kitchen stands in as a part-time chemistry lab? Logan thinks their feelings “are evenly divided between ‘I love my crazy wizard dad’ and ‘Why am I smelling this horrible smell?’”
Making ink from foraged materials is about being open to sensations, Logan says. “It’s about smelling things and picking them up. It’s about seeing some red leaves by the train tracks and thinking, ‘How can I bottle that color?’”
That, in turn, changes where and how he wanders. “You start seeking out hopeful green spaces under a highway overpass or in a back alley,” says Logan. And then, if you’re looking with an eye to harvesting color, “a rusty nail becomes a possible ink, or a penny with greenish oxidation on it, or a cigarette butt.”
In time, Logan began researching medieval recipes for ideas. He recalls that at first they seemed “purposely hard to read; back then people who worked with pigments were like alchemists, and secrecy was part of their work.”
Logan’s own ink making has involved a lot of trial and error. “It’s really important to have patience, because you might boil up a particular kind of flower and get nothing. You might take the same flower and steep it in grain alcohol and still get nothing. But then you might mix the flower with vinegar and salt and pound away at it with a mortar and pestle, and after an hour or so get a beautiful blush-pink liquid. You might need to try a few different methods on the same material and be open to doing that.”
In fact, recipes for making ink often involve vinegar and table salt to create a weak acid that breaks down materials and helps open up color. A few drops of wintergreen help to keep ink fresh once stored. Isopropyl alcohol (or, in a pinch, a shot of vodka) is also an “amazing tool,” Logan says. “If you take a shot of vodka and add a pinch of turmeric, the alcohol will pull the pigment out of the turmeric and you’ll get a really bright yellow like the yellow in a highlighter marker.”
For mixing his inks, Logan uses Erlenmeyer flasks. “It’s really useful to have a flask that you can see through, that doesn’t break, that you can put boiling water into.” He also just loves their retro look: “The shape and design are genius.”
Logan shares his tips and recipes on hand-making inks and foraging in his book Make Ink, in his newsletter The Colour, and in the documentary The Colour of Ink (out in spring of 2022). His fans include novelist Margaret Atwood and illustrator Leanne Shapton.
When using his inks in his own art, Logan has experimented with applying them to ceramic, leather, and textiles. But he always goes back to his favorite paper, Legion’s Stonehenge. “I like to buy a big sheet and cut it up in little squares and play with the possibilities.”
He seldom uses brushes. “Brushes are designed for control,” Logan says. “I think that taking away the brush is a way to take away my control and let the inks do their thing—seep into the paper, or form rivulets, or move across the page. I want to get out of the ink’s way.”
Logan will often use his own finger or the bottom of an ink bottle as a utensil. “I also have a friend in Japan who sends me Japanese tools for applying ink. And I sometimes find things in nature to use for mark making.” Sometimes, too, “I’ll drop a puddle of ink onto the paper, then add a second color of ink to that arena and watch the inks dance.”
In the end, Logan says, “As an artist, what most excites me is how I can disappear, how I can let the materials themselves be the story.”