Ink runs through my work and life, the line it draws connecting many disparate incidents, projects, ideas and approaches. Sometimes it draws the world with a bold swish, sometimes with a faltering scratchy nib, or it might just whoosh into a blob of water and make a new cosmos where it lands.

A drawing started during a two minute silence on the radio in honour of the dead.
I recently sold this drawing and the one that follows as part of the excellent Artist Support Pledge initiative on Instagram

The sheer out of control runniness of ink is a great adjunct to thinking. I rely on its speed & fluidity to outrun the pedestrian metronome of reality. Let the ink get there first, it knows what needs drawing.

Ink has crow chicks, ink is rain.

There is no material like it for tension between spill and control: it’s tendency to spill and stain everything is as sure a promise as its readiness to express ideas with a clean and velvet precision.

One day last year, I was out walking with my young Canadian cousin Miriam – she was eyeing up a density of brambles with a scientific air. When I questioned her, she said she’d been making ink from berries, and alerted me to this book.

Inspiring book! I used Jason Logan’s tips and recipes, and I recommend.

I saw a copy in Moes Books early last spring and I did not resist. The author, Jason Logan, makes sensational inks with mainly foraged materials, and runs an outfit called The Toronto Ink Company.

I didn’t get into the recipes in the USA, it sounded distracting, plus the mystery of recognising American plants! Besides, I was enjoying discovering a new palette of interesting shades and tones with Noodler’s Ink from the Artist and Craftsman Supplies store on Shattuck Avenue.

Detail of a large painting, featuring Noodler’s ink in Baystate Blue.

Once I was back in Inklandt, that’s when the bug really bit me. On holiday this August it turned out that the combination of the season and the presence of the family were conducive to ink making as side hustle.

Ink factory

The first recipe I had to try was black from oak galls – the ink used by medieval scribes on their vellum. It’s what the Magna Carta was written in, proper black. I’d been surprised, once I concentrated my search, to find a lot of galls under the oaks in my local Brockwell Park. They are the convoluted husks left by a species of parasitic wasps that like to encrust themselves into innocent acorns. They contain a lot of tannin, which is the secret of their power.

Oak galls collected in August

Once in Devon, artist friend & fellow ink aficionado Alice Leach let on that she’d got a bag of ferrous sulphate, or iron in dust form, and was prepared to share.

Iron reacts with the tannin from the oak galls & the two substances lock together to make the black. The ink oxidizes and the black deepens once the marks are exposed to the air.

Maddie is a Singer & a Cotton Picker

I was mesmerised by the variety of tone and the extra colour within the black – it’s wilful inconsistency, marks dragging an undertow of nicotine yellow beneath their black, the wetter brush marks resting in a shimmer of handbag navy.

Manifestations of oak

I began to compulsively gather stuff I found whilst out walking: elderberries, lichen, rosehips… I found myself unable to throw out onion skins or avocado stones, my eyes darting towards lost pennies & bits of rusty metal on wet pavements. I began grinding up or boiling up all kinds of debris in vinegar. The barn we stay in would smell terrible – there was a lot of flinging open of doors!

Colour swatches, on left one layer, on right two or more layers.

The sample sheets, like this one, were fun to make. Though really I was using drawing to help me see what colours I could find. It was exciting to see the air react with my brushmarks, and reds and greens appear.

Forest of Grudge
Bow down before the Green
Vasilisa and the onions
Making elderberry ink in my kitchen

Since being back in London I’ve had to lay my inkmaking to one side. I have had a couple of story collecting gigs though, and tested my homemade ink alongside some shop bought black.

Listening to Aya, who spoke of her beloved late father.
Photo by Sophie Greenstreet, for Somerset House.

I was invited to listen and draw in the courtyard at Somerset House, as part of a large scale installation by artist duo Yara and Davina . Their project addresses life and death: is called Arrivals and Departures, and so as I sat at a suitable distance from participants, each of whom had booked a slot in advance, I heard many touching stories about love and loss, joy and shock.

Listening to Michelle, who had a truly wonderful grandmother. Photo by Sophie Greenstreet, for Somerset House.
still thinking about magnificent Millicent, Michelle made me miss her too.
Ollie’s story, out of all the things he told me, this touched me the most.

There were many more equally beautiful stories. It feels like a great honour to hear people’s memories, griefs, life changing moments – and to try to listen for the essence of what they tell me and get it down on paper. As ever, each narrator was given a same size copy of their drawing to take away.

The fact that I’d made the ink myself added another layer of connectedness, between me, the narrator, their material, my material – ink as blood, as water of life, as transformation, the black river of mortality we all briefly bob about in.

Eliza, and the shared creative times she loved as a grown woman with her mum.

In these brutal times making things feels like the opposite of severance – even making masks or meals or jokes – helps shift some of the relentless NO that we are all subject to under the pandemic, as well as the current politics.

Lara, who carries the storm

As part of the ongoing experiment in how to connect with others and continue live performance, The Crick Crack Club is offering sessions with me & my inky brush over zoom. I will be listening to personal tales that tie in with fairy tale themes, as I did for them during the summer.

A story told by Ben Haggarty, in which all the sisters marry birds, remembered by Krys.
Tracy, who finds herself in the middle of the story of The Handless Maiden.
Gerard rembering the magic of a visit to the Dennis Sever’s house off Brick Lane

You can book a slot via that link if they aren’t all gone yet, and I’ll see you across my kitchen table, almost like we were breathing the same air!

Also I’m proud to say that some of the original ink drawings I made of people’s food stories in Margate in 2011, will be up at great community organisation Our Kitchen over the half term break, as part of a brilliant roll-outable anywhere seaside festival called Back and Fill, which is designed to allow for local arts and participation to continue in fun and COVID safe ways, and as it is happening in a few seaside towns. Do check it out.

one of the many stories I drew in Margate in 2011 with Marine Studios, still surviving to tell its tale, on the 48 metre hoarding that runs along the seafront under Arlington Tower, next to Margate Station.

Ink! It’s led me in and out of landscapes and stories all over the world. Just an unsuspecting brush dipped into a staining liquid made from crushed debris and allowed to lead the way across unmarked paper terrain.

Thanks for reading my blog!

4 thoughts on “Tributaries of the River Ink

  1. Amazing stories, Sophie. I’m fascinated by your natural ink-making. As a herbalist, I’ve used many of those plants, but never paused to think of them as a medium for the written word.

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