How to Make Watercolor and Ink Using Plants

Reader Contribution by Sarah Hart Morgan
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Finished abstract landscape ink painting  

For anyone reading this, it’s a given you love plants and nature. I am constantly looking for new ways to use plants in my life. Whether it’s in a new reciepe, ways to incorporate herbs in my daily life, new ways to incorporate them in my skincare routine, and in my art practice. 

My art revolves around nature. She is my inspiration; my muse.  I am always looking for ways to incorporate nature more into my practice.  Earlier this year, during the pandemic, I started experimenting with plants even more. I did a little bit of research and started making my own ink to paint with.  Now, I don’t consider myself a painter, but I do enjoy the meditative practice of putting my inks to paper to create abstract landscape works.  I’m going to share the basic concept of how to make your own inks using plants that you can grow or forage for right outside your door!

*Qusai disclaimer – I am an intuitive artist, so I rarely have any ‘real’ recipes giving actual measurements. I prefer to go with the flow, allowing nature to take control. There is no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to do this- I am simply offering my method, feel free to add/change to this process to suite your own artistic needs.  Different plants will give different color results depending on the processing time, whether it’s fresh or dried, any additives to shift the color, different seasons will give different color results too. I prefer to work this way, always being surprised by the colors I get- I think of it as a gift from Mother Nature.

Gather Plants for Making Natural Paint

First, gather your plant material. I’d say a nice size bunch of fresh or died plant material, say 1 to 2 cups. You can use plants from your garden or forage in your area for materials. You can use leaves, flowers, stems, berries, bark, and even roots. *be sure to practice sustainable foraging. 

 Dogwood Leaves in the Autumn for ink making

Gathering Japanese Maple Leaves

Marigold blossoms

Fill Pot with Material

Fill a stainless steal pot with water, bring to a boil, and then add your plant material. This is where the process can get ‘tricky.” Depending on how much ink you want to make and for what purpose, you’ll want to add more or less water. I use water straight from the tap but depending on your own water, you may want to use spring or distilled water. With the way I work, I end up with 1-2 oz of ink and I probably start with about 4 cups of water when I start. 

Boiling Dogwood leaves


While the water/plant mixure is boiling, keep an eye on the plant material, I pull the plants out of the pot once all the color has been extracted. Depending on the plant, the color will actually dissapear from the plant while boiling. At this point, just keep an eye on the water so the pot doesn’t boil dry. 


I like to test my color while the water/plant mixture boils, testing at different times. I tear a few strips of paper (use a heavier weight paper for this. Watercolor, cardstock, etc.) and dip them into the pot to test the color. Once you are happy with the color, you can stop the boil.  I like to make test strips of color on watercolor paper, being sure to make any notes on the strips for future reference. 

Japanese Maple ink testing strips 


Osage Orange Ink tester strips 


Wild Ink Tester Strips 

Strain, Bottle, and Preserve

Strain your ink into your sanitized bottle of your choosing through a mesh sieve.  To preserve you can add Wintergreen essential oil or Clove essential oil. I found in my own research that some recommend a whole clove bud but I’ve noticed the ink will color shift after a few weeks with a whole clove bud so I choose to use Clove essential oil instead.

Rose Of Sharon ink swatch 


Marigold Ink swatch 


You can try adding a few additives to shift the colors of your inks. Try salt, baking soda, cream of tarter, citric acid, a rusty nail.  Try adding gum Arabic to thicken the ink depending on your use – a little goes a long way here and by adding the gum arabic, you will lose some of the ‘flowiness’ of the ink. I personally don’t use it in my work but it would be perfect to use in calligraphy. 

Have fun

Experiment! Have fun with the process- that’s half the fun!  Get out and enjoy nature, see what plants ‘speak’ to you while you are out. It’s a great way to learn more about the local plants in your area. This could be a fun project to do with kids and anyone looking for a more sustainable art practice. 

Sarah Hart Morganis a designer, photographer and author of Forrest + Thyme Apothecary: simple skin care formulas you can make uniquely your own. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley, where she works with foraged plants in her skincare and apothecary products, camera-less photography, using plants as a developing agent in film photography, and creating natural inks for painting. Connect with Sarah onher website, Instagram, Facebookand Pinterest. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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