Ancient ink recipes and sustainable art materials

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

Here at Botanical Atelier we find great pleasure in seeking out unique and extraordinarily authentic products to bring to you. Our small collection from local illustrator and ink maker Thomas Barwick, certainly stirs up some curiosity from our customers with his unusual art materials.

Tom has been making inks and cutting dip pens from bamboo for twenty years using them to create his own beautiful drawings. We stumbled upon these specialist art materials and have enjoyed offering them to our students during art classes and as products in our shop.

bamboo dip pens


Bamboo Dip Pens

The pens Tom cuts by hand are beautiful objects in themselves, a throw back to simpler ways of mark making that humans began to use in Egypt around 4000bc. They are made from bamboo harvested in Cornwall is a marvellous strong material and a sustainable resource. Each pen is unique, one-of-a-kind and can be cut for either the right of left handed artist. We love them for making botanical drawings, but they have so many different uses for mark making. Writing with bamboo dip pens are very well suited to calligraphic work, particularly the pens cut to a broad italic tip, and according to Thomas feel almost meditative when used in this way. If you feel like exploring this further you can find our Bamboo Dip Pens here.


Botanical Inks

Oak gall

Image by Edward Smit

Tom uses ancient recipes he unearths by hunting through old books in cathedral libraries, reading correspondences between artists or in monastic records. Dr. James Stark’s recipe is a firm favourite a bullet proof dark indigo recipe from 1855 designed to be bold and indelible. Perhaps the most interesting recipe is the one Tom uses to make his range of Oak Gall ink. It's a recipe written down in notebooks by Jane Austen in 1813. The notebook is inscribed with a soft pencil inscription at the head of the left pastedown ‘To my brother, Frank.’ The remainder of the notebook is completed in dark brown oak gall ink with a quill pen and the recipe is in these pages, it includes lovely details ‘Stand pot in the kitchen corner by the fire’ along with unusual ingredients like ‘small beer’. (Small beer is essentially very weak beer that was drunk be one and all as a safer alternative to water).

 oak gall ink illustration

Our Oak gall ink reacts to the air as it dries, when you first put the ink down onto paper it is a light grey colour but as it oxidises in the air it dries to a deep nut brown, which is wonderful to watch in itself. 


The Helford Passage

 The Helford Passage

Whilst the Jane Austen ink recipe sounds wildly romantic, Thomas's story gets even better with foraging sustainably along the Helford Passage for suitable Oak Galls. The Helford Passage is a idyllic spot here in Cornwall for boating and swimming and the inspiration to for Daphne Du Maurier's 'Frenchman's Creek'. Everything about this place oozes historical interest and is a draw to artists and sailors alike.

Harvesting the Oak Galls in the autumn, mapping the galled oak trees, Thomas has found that some trees can be hard to reach by land, particularly the gnarled brackish oak trees that surround the Helford Passage estuary. This can really add to the fun of the process, he says, " I break out the kayak, wait for high tide and off we go harvesting afloat"!


We are yet to try this one yet but have heard it may be in the pipeline for Botanical Atelier. Tom’s oldest recipe was handed down by Giovambattista Palatino in 1540 in Italy this one uses ‘a flask of wine’  in the renaissance this would have been a sweet wine, so Italian pudding wine turned out to be the best ingredient.


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