When colleges around the world closed their campuses following the emergence of the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes, I found myself struggling to adapt my studio art curriculum in drawing and painting to remote instruction. Worse still, after getting back in touch with my students, I found that many of them had left campus without essential supplies.
Foraging for art materials is not entirely new to me. In grad school I immersed myself in old painting manuals, from Ceninnos Il Libro Dell’arte to the more difficult to find De Mayerne Manuscript. In the absence of art supply stores and the ubiquitous dickblick.com, artists were an inventive lot. Many used stale bread as erasers. Most relied upon the labor of apprentices, who would grind and prepare their colors—a role they themselves would have served in during their youth. In the modern era artists, following the lead of Yale’s Daniel V. Thompson, rediscovered some of the joys and aesthetic particulars of older and more manual means of artmaking: grinding their paint by hand, gilding, and scraping gessoed panels. As could be expected, some artist favored more outlandish procedures, such as Salvador Dali with his wasp medium.
The idea for the ink came from a previous project making ink with black walnut hulls. Some recipes included steel wool as an optional ingredient to adjust the color. Would be possible to use just the steel wool? Video tutorials and instructions follow.
How to Cut a Pen
I initially carved pens from five different kinds of wood. I initially assumed a harder wood like maple would yield the best pen, but the density of this wood makes it difficult to carve. It will hold a fine edge and be quite durable, but is liable to chip. Some softer woods seemed better for general use. My favorites were cut from the ornamental Burning Bush (Euomymus Alatus) and from the dried flowering shoots of a succulent rampant in my wife’s flower beds: Hylotelephium Spectabile. Both of these yield a more flexible pen to which some light pressure can be applied for a more expressive mark. Pens cut from either of these two will likely need to be trimmed up occasionally to keep the tip sharp.
In a small glass jar, submerge steel wool in 150mL vinegar. Soak in the sun for 24 hours. The next day, drain and set aside. Boil 150 mL of water for a few minutes. Add 2 teabags and steep for 10 minutes. Then boil the tea and bags. Strain and add 50mL of tea to the vinegar mixture. It will turn a purplish black.
Swirl the ink once or twice in the jar, and then write or draw with it on paper or illustration board. The paper should not be absorbent. A watercolor paper, such as Arches 140lb paper (hot or cold press) works well. Your marks will at first appear faint, but will slowly turn to a darker sepia as the iron oxidizes. Notice the flow of the ink. You may see that the liquid moves quickly from pen to paper, making a few very wet strokes, and then leaving you with a dry pen. This reveals the need for the addition of a binder. Ideally this would be a liquid solution of gum arabic. PVA glue will due in a pinch, such as Tacky Glue or Elmer's. The important thing is to not add more than you need: roughly 1-3 teaspoons. After adding the first teaspoon of binder, mix well and observe the flow of the ink. You want it to move gradually from the pen to the paper, allowing you to write or draw freely for multiple strokes before needing to dip the pen.
Ink, Pens, and Sketches
The Science of Ink Making
Iron Gall inks have been in use from the medieval period to the present day, especially in northern Europe. They were important for commerce and correspondence. Governments even provided standard recipes for civil servants. It is the chemical reaction of Iron (II) Sulphate and tannic acid that causes the immediate change in color when the new compound, ferrotannate, combines with oxygen in the water. As the ink dries the color darkens as the ferrotannate undergoes further oxidation.
The ink, when not properly made, can be very unstable. Apparently a 3:1 ratio of acid to iron produces the most stable ink. Our recipe is certainly deficient in this regard, but creates a usable ink in a pinch. Iron sulphate is present as an impurity in steel wool, and additional sulphur is found in the vinegar, which besides removing the protective oxide layer from the steel wool, also is able to increase the iron sulphate content of the solution. The tea is used as a source of tannins, but other sources could also be used such as oak leaves, black walnuts, or oak galls. Additional recipes can be found at this link.