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In the first blog post on how her work has been inspired and formed by the local natural environment, Jac Campbell takes us through the process of making natural inks from flora found on the floodplains of the River Lark.

Down in the River Lark floodplains I take a welcome break from my run and stuff my pockets full with the tiny dark brown alder cones from the ground. Back home I empty these promising ingredients into a pan, pour over some water, preferably from the river itself, and leave them to steep for a day or two, the water soon turns a chestnut brown. Vinegar and salt are then added to intensify the colour and the concoction is heated for a couple of hours to produce a rich brown liquid. Once I’ve filtered out the plant matter and condensed the liquid down to a usable viscosity I add a few drops of gum arabic, just enough to bind my found colour and liquid together as silky fluid. Finally I pour the ink into a tiny bottle and add a clove to discourage mould.

Alder cone ink was my first experiment with natural ink making. My fascination with the process started, along with many other strange occupations, during lockdown. I walked or ran through the River Lark floodplains most days and started to think about ways of better understanding this landscape. Natural ink making works very directly with the materials found in a place, a blend of foraging and cooking that distills the essence of the landscape. I’ve always loved all types of ink as an artistic medium and as a tool for communication, some sort of fusion of drawing and writing. Perhaps I like the idea of communicating something about the chalk streams through the plants and other materials I find there. 

As I’ve progressed I’ve found that extracting the pigment is a process that needs a vast amount of experimentation and documentation; a sensitivity to materials and possibly a delve into some plant science.

Not much equipment is needed but the family is pretty thankful that I’ve recently built up a collection of ink-dedicated old saucepans and utensils and relocated from my kitchen lab to an  outdoor hotplate. Ivy flower ink was an all round unpopular house fragrance and however much the process resembles cooking you really don’t want any of this stuff to end up in your soup.

I try to chronicle my adventures in my inky notebook to suggest a methodical, vaguely science based approach but in reality my recording is haphazard. Luckily I always enjoy a surprise!

Using my inks has challenged me more than expected. Until recently I’ve resisted drawing with the ink, preferring to let it do its own thing: forming rivulets, seeping, bleeding, feathering into complex dendritic systems.

Recently I’ve been thinking about colour maps of the river and the chalk stream landscape. Can I use the inks to think about our relationship with the plants that grow there? Which plants do we actively encourage and which do we just tolerate or eradicate? The invasive and highly unpopular Himalayan Balsam has offered up some strange colour changing pigments.

Perhaps I’ll share these with you next month.

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about ink making. I’m on Instagram at @flow.east @jaccampbell.rojo and @wildhabitsbury