An Urban Ink Forager Explains How To Paint With All The Colors Of The Alley Concerned about keeping toxic art supplies around his kids, Jason Logan began making his own all-natural inks. He shares his process in a new book — and on a gathering expedition in Washington, D.C.
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An Urban Ink Forager Explains How To Paint With All The Colors Of The Alley

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An Urban Ink Forager Explains How To Paint With All The Colors Of The Alley

An Urban Ink Forager Explains How To Paint With All The Colors Of The Alley

An Urban Ink Forager Explains How To Paint With All The Colors Of The Alley

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/658452752/658628429" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Jason Logan looks at the ground searching for ink-making supplies on Heritage Island in Washington, D.C. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Jason Logan looks at the ground searching for ink-making supplies on Heritage Island in Washington, D.C.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Jason Logan is constantly looking at the ground.

"What I like to do is just walk really slowly," he says, eyes down. He's in a dusty, chain-link fence-lined alley in downtown Washington, D.C., with broken bottles and chunks of concrete scattered about. It's right off one of the city's major streets, and the buzz of traffic and wail of sirens fill the air.

"Part of what I do and part of what I'm excited by is just opening up people's eyes to what's going on at their feet," Logan says, scanning. "Kind of through the lens of: Could I make an ink out of that?"

Below, lye water (made from the ashes of apple trees with rain water filtered through it) is dripped on top of ink made from wild grapes with vinegar and soda ash water (baking soda that has been "double-baked").

Ink print

Logan used to be an illustrator for The New York Times and other publications. He now owns a business called The Toronto Ink Company that sells "street-harvested pigments" — ink made from the world around him. In his new book, Make Ink: A Forager's Guide to Natural Inkmaking, Logan demystifies the process, encouraging experimentation and taking a fresh look at urban environments.

That's what he's doing here, in the alley, staring at the ground, searching for ingredients. He points out an oak tree on the other side of a fence and stoops to pick up acorns. Chicory, morning glories and bright green grass sprout nearby.

Logan doesn't just focus on nature in his foraging; he also makes ink from the detritus of the city. He stops suddenly, picks up a rusty nail and puts it in his pocket. Rust, he says, can make yellow, red, orange or black.

"Some of the first rocks that humans used on cave paintings and stuff were iron oxides, which are essentially rusts," Logan says.

Other finds on this outing include brick dust, wild berries and cigarette butts. "Tobacco's actually an amazing dye and a really interesting ingredient," he says.

Jason Logan, author of Make Ink, holds an acorn that he found in Washington, D.C. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Jason Logan, author of Make Ink, holds an acorn that he found in Washington, D.C.

Claire Harbage/NPR

(Left) An assortment of natural inks from the Toronto Ink Company. (Right) Black walnuts that were picked by Jason Logan in Washington, D.C., can be boiled down to a rich brown ink, while a bright yellow ink can be made in a few minutes out of turmeric and vodka. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

(Left) An assortment of natural inks from the Toronto Ink Company. (Right) Black walnuts that were picked by Jason Logan in Washington, D.C., can be boiled down to a rich brown ink, while a bright yellow ink can be made in a few minutes out of turmeric and vodka.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Logan first started making ink after he had children and became worried about the toxicity of many of his art supplies. His first attempt, made from black walnut that was boiled for hours, produced a rich, dark brown that layered to create a complex texture on the page.

"It was just so successful that I had to keep going, and look for other things that I could find on the ground in the city and make color out of," he remembers.

Traditionally, ink is for mark-making, and should be stable enough to look the same after years on a page. Logan's inks are different — they're living. They might change color, fade or even disappear entirely over time. They react with acids, like vinegar, or basics, like soda ash, to form complex, multi-colored works of art.

"There's a couple sort of rules about good ink, and I often tend to break all of them," he says. "I personally love the feeling of something that's both in my control and out of my control. ... I guess I'm interested in unexpected results."

One of those surprises for the layperson: Flower petals, no matter how colorful, are hard to make into good inks. And one of the most challenging tones to produce, Logan says, is a vibrant green: Although there's plenty of chlorophyll in the plants all around us, turning it into a useful ink is a puzzle he's still working out.

Jason Logan uses items as varied as rusty nails to vine ash to black walnuts to make his ink.

Jason Logan uses items as varied as rusty nails to vine ash to black walnuts to make his ink.