GNSI DC: October 2002 Meeting Report-
Black Walnut Ink Workshop
and Parker's Creek Canoeing

by Mary Ellen Didion-Carsley

On Saturday, October 12th the D.C. chapter of GNSI had a day of medium making at our home and a canoe trip up Parker's Creek. Members gathered at my house located on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.

Walnut Ink field sketch by Perry Carsley
An example of Black Walnut ink sketching by Perry Carsley. Done in Maine, ©2000
The day began with my husband Perry showing how to make Black Walnut ink from locally gathered nuts in the kitchen. Several weeks before my two year old son, Ben and I gathered a basket full of nuts in anticipation of this workshop. We left them to decay in a closed plastic bag on our porch. We quickly learned that these nuts are a real favorite of the squirrels, discovering that they chewed through the bag early the next morning and stole a number of nuts. Fortunately, for us the squirrels were thoughtful enough to leave behind most of the husks, which is all we really needed.

Walnut Ink field sketch by Perry Carsley
The Group at work, testing the results or Perry's cooking!, ©Colleen Lodge 2002.
From left: Colleen Lodge (GNSI NYC chapter), Tamara Clark, Alice Tangerini, Perry Carsley, Mary Parrish, Deborah Kennedy, Britt Griswold (GNSI DC chapter). Not shown Bill Discher, John Norton, Mary Ellen Didion-Carsley (GNSI DC chapter), Ben Carsley, Alex Kim, and SARGENT THE WONDER DOG.
The Black Walnut tree is a stately tree fairly common in the Northern Eastern States and Europe. Often used as a shade tree, the black walnut can be easily identified by it large fragrant leaves which have 15 or more leaflets, each finely toothy and ending in a long point. It's bark also possesses a distinctive rough texture running in long deep longitudinal furrows. In the autumn, these trees are among the first to change, turning from a brilliant yellow to a mottled ochre to burnt sienna. The nuts which fall from the tree fully mature during this time of year are encased in a thick green round husk with a slight "orange peel" texture and are approximately the size and shape of a golf ball. The Black Walnut is truly one of nature’s gifts. Not only is its wood valued by the furniture industry for its fine grain but, the nut itself, which has a remarkably hard shell is edible and considered delicious. The husks surrounding this nut shell have been used in America since pioneer days to produce a rich brown permanent dye. In the art world, it has been used for centuries as an ink for writing and for painting. It is versatile, nontoxic and can be thinned easily with water. Many of Da Vinci’s cryptic notebook writings were made in black walnut ink as well as Rembrandt’s beautiful landscape sketches. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has a fine collection of such paintings.

Other Artists to Consider for Examples of Work with Black Walnut Ink would be: Durer, Rubens, Giulio Romano, Perino Del Vaga, Claude Le Lorrain, Jacques Callot.

Recommended Text with many examples of Black Walnut Ink Drawings:
A Great Heritage Renaissance & Baroque Drawings from Chatsworth
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. exhibit catalog
ISBN 0-8109-3386-1

Most sources consider it a highly stable and archival medium when used on rag papers and true (acid free) vellums. However, like many natural dyes continued exposure to bright sunlight can break down the richness of its color.

A word of caution, the permanent staining capacity of black walnut husks should not be under estimated! Wear old clothes and rubber gloves!

  • 1 Heavy enamel coated or stainless steel 2 gallon or larger pot
  • 1 smaller enamel coated or stainless steel pot
  • 1/2 to 1 bushel of black walnuts
  • 1 heavy duty plastic bag or non-staining container
  • 1 pair of rubber gloves
  • water
  • old nylons or cheesecloth
  • denatured alcohol
  • watercolor bushes & paper
  • jars with tight fitting lids

The Process:
Step 1
Gather up a 1/2 bushel to a bushel of black walnuts from the ground surrounding the tree as well as some from the branches. Don't worry if they are already appear to have black spots or are all black and mushy.

Step 2
Set these nuts aside in a basket or plastic bag in a garage or sheltered area outside. Keep in mind that the decaying nuts will stain whatever container they are in and that attract insects and squirrels. Within 3 weeks they all will be completely black and ready for preparation.

Step 3
Using rubber gloves, tear away the husks from the hard nut inside and drop these husks into a heavy pot of boiling water about 2/3 full of water.

Step 4
Continue dropping husks into water until the water line reaches approximately 1 1/2 inches from the rim of the pot. Let simmer for one hour.

Step 5
From your studio get a watercolor brush and paper. While your “stew” is still simmering, dip your brush into the fluid and draw a line with it to check for the desired density of color. Continue simmering and testing until the desired pigment is mostly opaque (non-transparent). Turn off heat.

Step 6
After pot cools, put on your gloves & stretch an old nylon stocking over the smaller pot and carefully pour the ink through the stocking stopping occasionally to squeeze out the nylon and discard the husks.

Step 7
When the ink is totally filtered, estimate the quantity. Add denatured alcohol measured to approximately 5% of the total ink amount. Mix with a non-staining plastic spatula or other utensil. The alcohol will keep your ink from gathering mold.

Step 8
Pour into smaller containers and shelve.

Since the process involves simmering the ink for several hours we took the opportunity to talk shop, look at examples of black walnut ink as a medium and explore Parker’s Creek by canoe.

Just a little about our canoe trip: Parker's Creek is the largest, most diverse, undisturbed ecosystem remaining on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a fresh water creek that empties into the salt water bay. While canoeing we sighted several mature male Great Blue Herons, White Egrets and an incredible number of Blue Crabs and turtles while soaking in the quiet and the early fall scenery. Another great feature we enjoyed was watching the flora change for salt water tidal marsh to fresh water. We did find a number of beetles but, it remains unknown as to whether they were the preserve’s prized endangered Tiger Beetles. Unfortunately, the resident Bald Eagles were not to be seen.

Upon returning the home it was time to filter and jar the ink and say our goodbyes. I must admit I enjoy the changing seasons but, this was one day I was wishing for a long sunlit summer evening so our company could stay longer. I'm looking forward to hearing from everyone about trying their own hand at ink making and seeing their work in the ink.

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