Sunday, December 8, 2013

Trees in the Near Dark, Plus a Recipe for Ink

Yesterday after being gone from home all day, I made it to the woods just as it was turning from late afternoon to very early dark.  Something about the light was very kind to the rhododendron trees in the slick that I skirt on the trail up to the top.  The trunks were like figures of animals, humans, who-knows-what.  I ignored the leaves and concentrated on very quick drawings of the trunks and some of the branches. 

I've never been someone who easily finds faces in trees, but drawing these trees was like being in a figure drawing class,  Some of them looked like couples.  Some looked like dancers.  When I got home I filled in the drawings with walnut ink.  If you want some walnut ink of your own, this is all you need to do:

Collect those annoying green walnut hulls that turn black as they sit under a walnut tree and that turn your hands black when you try to collect them.  Use rubber gloves to keep your hands from getting full of the tannin (which is what you want to make the ink).  When you have about half a bucket full, dump the whole mess into an enameled spaghetti pot or saucepan, depending on how many hulls you have.  Fill the pat with water to cover the hulls, and simmer them for a while.  The water will get darker the longer you simmer.  If you want really dark ink, reduce the water by simmering (uncovered) until the amount of water is only a couple of inches and it has gotten kind of syrupy.  Turn off the heat and let the filthy brew cool down a bit.  Then strain the contents of the pot through either a very fine strainer or several layers of cheese cloth, or, my favorite, one of those plastic and fine mesh coffee filters that you can buy in the grocery store for using as a permanent filter in a coffee maker.  Dump the hulls into a compost heap or somewhere else outside.  (One time I forgot to check on the simmering walnut hulls until all the water had boiled away and ominous smoke was rising from the pot.  I quickly turned off the heat, put more water in the pot, and started simmering again, this time using a timer.  The ink was especially luscious and black, but I wouldn't advise you  do it this way-)

After the ink has cooled down a bit, test it for darkness.  If it needs to be darker, put it back in the pot and simmer it some more to further reduce the water.  If the color looks good to you, add a little gum Arabic solution (which you can buy where watercolors are sold, and it may be called Watercolor Solution, but it's just gum Arabic and water plus a little phenol or other antibiotic to keep mold down) to help the tannin particles adhere to the paper.  Also add a little vinegar to keep mold down.  (But if mold does grow after a couple of weeks, just skim it off the top and dump in some more vinegar.)  This is a most gorgeous ink.  You can also make it using oak galls, but walnuts are usually easier to find than oak galls unless you live in the south of France or Italy.  The secret ingredient is the tannin in the walnut hulls and galls.

Today's drawings are all inside drawings thanks to the relentless icy drizzle outside.  At the top is a cute sock monkey jack-in-the-box that I got for Abby, our nine-month-old granddaughter.  To me sock monkeys are inherently funny, and this one has the added bonus of jumping up when you turn the crank that plays a weird little minor key tune.  Over on the right is another gift for Anny, this one a snuggly cloth doll that reminds me of her brother's favorite creature, Mr. Quacks, because of the triangular cloth body with little cloth knots for chewing on.  Actually Nate has about a dozen Quacks but only one, the mysteriously-named Ham-Ham, possesses the subtle combination of features that only Nate can detect and that he requires. 

Beneath the sock monkey lies Jesse, resting up from a rough night that resulted in a slightly torn ear for him.  We think he's been visiting a cat down the block, another male, and has not made friends.

Three more moving Jesse sketches, post-nap, pre-our-dinner.  On the right he plots a spring into the beef and broccoli stir-fry.


  1. rich and beautiful drawings, those trees. and thanks for the recipe, i'll add it to my collection! in my papermill i have a pot that has walnut stew that is ever so many years old and i just keep adding to it.

  2. interesting! do you put anything in the stew to keep down the mold?

  3. Fascinating, and now I want to try it. Except I don't have room for keeping dedicated pots here in the apartment. Maybe my daughter will let me do it at her house...

    1. You really need only one cheap enameled pot. It's so easy to make, and you don't need much of it, that a quart-sized saucepan is about all you really need.

    2. You really need only one cheap enameled pot. It's so easy to make, and you don't need much of it, that a quart-sized saucepan is about all you really need.

  4. I love the recipe for the walnut ink but even more Jesse, the cat. He or she has such a character.