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Mark Making with natural ink & brushes

Updated: Jul 4, 2018

Mark making with brushes and inks created from plant material, another wonderful workshop hosted by No Serial Number, led by artist Ross Belton and assisted by Jonathan Dredge his creative partner at @moderneccentrics. Ross supplied all manner of foraged goods, mostly natural, recycled from his locale or rescued from pavement litter i.e. broken wiring left lying and unwanted after electrical repairs. Not only did the brushes provide a myriad of mark making potential, they were also works of art in their own right. Ross encouraged the use of handles with a curve or nodule that would make our hands move out of their habitual comfort zone and into a different form of movement to free-up the use of ink marks on the paper.

Ross Beltons brushes
Ross Belton's beautiful brushes

Ross tied selected brush materials together using a range of items such as masking tape, wire, Japanese floristry wire, raffia, cottons and linen, the choice varied according to desired style, longevity required and project.

Avocado dye making
Avocado stones boiled to create red ink

Ross also showed us how to make red ink from avocado stones cut into small pieces and boiled for one or more hours. The photo (left, above) shows the depth of the colour after approximately one and quarter hours of simmering in water (rain water is best), the photo on the right shows the colour tests that were performed on strips of cartridge paper after 15, 30 and 60 minutes of simmering. During the process Ross modified the ink with a small amount of washing soda (sodium carbonate) and later he also added some Gum Arabica to thicken it. Interestingly in his studies Ross had discovered that the Aztecs likely gave the Conquistadors the key to brilliant red ink by showing them how they used avocados to create it. Finally Ross mentioned that he also added cloves or thyme oil as a preservative and all of his utensils were clearly marked with string to prevent their culinary use.

Brush and inks
Michelle's brush with Ross' inks (gall and avocado)

My attempt above towards the end of the workshop. My brush consisted of dry flower heads and their stalk attached to a thicker twig with raffia and wire. The shape of the bush did free-up the angle of my hand and the colour tones were made with Ross' gall ink, (extremely permanent, hence its use in the writing of the Magna Carta) red from the avocado stones and the lighter orange-wash tones from a spray of lemon juice before the red ink dried. The whole process felt restorative and a long way from my concerns a few years ago when I began looking into the toxicity of art materials, this workshop was as uplifting as it was creative.

Ross uses his brushes and created objects to make art collections e.g. 'Hope' selected by the V&A for the 'Inspired' exhibition, while being mindful of his environmental impact; hence he repurposes the found resources around him and uses natural colours to ensure that his work is sustainable as well as meditative, inspiring and challenging. To be further inspired:

The 'Art of Ross Belton' and a 'Mark Making tutorial' in this summer's edition (No. 13, Summer 2018) of No Serial Number:

The book 'Making Art Safely, Alternative Methods and Materials in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Graphic Design and Photography' has a comprehensive list of the chemical name, health effects, precautions and toxicity of art ingredients and their uses, however, when I tried to purchase it a few years ago I did so second hand, as it was no longer in print. It was edited by Merle Spandorfer, Deborah Curtiss and Jack Snyder M.D. (1993). It was one of the very few books I could find that gave such extensive information.


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