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He Makes Ink From Acorns, Nails or Even Cigarette Butts

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A man walks away from the camera down a walking path in a wooded area.
Jason Logan foraging in Toronto. He said his obsession with ink began in the early 2000s, while he was working as a freelance illustrator in New York.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

Jason Logan gathers acorns, old nails and even cigarette butts to make his specialty pigments.

By Alec Scott

Reporting from Toronto

In early October, Jason Logan walked through a small wooded area next to the Humber, the river that runs through the west end of Canada’s most populous city. At the foot of a stand of tall oaks, he bent down and picked up an acorn.

“I like that they have these pinstripes, like little gentlemen,” he said, talking over the hum of traffic crossing a nearby bridge. Then, he popped it in his backpack.

Mr. Logan uses acorns and the other materials he gathers in semi-urban, semi-wild spaces like this one to make inks, pigments that over the past decade have been used enthusiastically by a small but distinguished group of illustrators and artists around the world.

Though the autumnal wood was full of color, most of the items in his pack at the end of our hourlong walk were drab: black walnuts, brown acorns, black grapes, some beige-green lumps that he had detached from an oak tree and two rusted spikes that he had spotted next to a railway line.

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A man in a green shirt kneels and scrapes something onto the page of a notebook.
Mr. Logan turned his foraged items into inks of royal blue, egg-yolk yellow, caramel brown, silvery gray, apricot orange and port-wine purple.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

Later, in the kitchen of his home nearby in the Little Portugal neighborhood, Mr. Logan, 51, turned those visually unprepossessing finds into inks of royal blue, egg-yolk yellow, caramel brown, silvery gray, apricot orange and port-wine purple. Or at least those were the colors they turned into after a few minutes — many began as different shades, changing as they dried on sheets of thick paper, or shifting, sometimes radically, as Mr. Logan added this or that other liquid.

“They change, they move — there’s something alive, something fugitive about them,” he said.

Brian D. Johnson, a filmmaker based in Toronto, captured the process when he was making a documentary in 2015, but then didn’t use the footage. “When you put a macro lens on a square foot of paper for a test of one of his inks,” Mr. Johnson said, “you saw it moving with a mind of its own, creating this alchemical kind of drama. I thought I’d like to see that on the big screen.”

And Mr. Johnson, with the help of the cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier, did make such tests a key part of “The Colour of Ink,” a 1 hour and 49-minute documentary on Mr. Logan that debuted at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and opened the Beirut Art Film Festival this fall.

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Mr. Logan mostly makes his inks in the kitchen of the home he shares with his wife, Heidi Sopinka, a novelist and co-owner of the Horses Atelier fashion line, and their three children.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

Mr. Logan said his obsession with ink began in the early 2000s, while he was working as a freelance illustrator in New York and came across a bottle of ink at Pearl Paint, a gone-but-not-forgotten art-supply store on Canal Street.

“The label on the oddly shaped bottle read ‘black walnut ink,’” he wrote in his 2018 how-to manual “Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking.” “And when I got home, I really liked the way it worked; it was a pale caramel-brown when mixed with water and used as a background wash, but it darkened to an almost mahogany-black when brushed on in layers.”

When he went for a refill, there was none because the ink company, apparently, was no longer in business.

He returned home to Toronto in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2012, when he was working as a creative director at a magazine group, that his interest in ink returned. “I was biking to work and noticed a beautiful old tree growing in the park that I passed through every day,” he wrote in his book. “When I realized that it was a black walnut tree, the memory of that original ink came back to me.”

The following year, he filled his pack with nuts and, once home, turned to the internet for help in making his first ink. And from there, he wrote, he examined “medieval recipes for Bible ink; hand-stapled lichen-dyeing booklets by British craft revivalists; Han dynasty-era recipes for pinesap black, printed from Google Books; and Russian chemists’ YouTube experiments with copper crystals.”

He read about the tattoos inked on Ötzi, the man famously preserved by a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps around 3,300 B.C.; about the Byzantine emperors who signed legal documents in ultraexpensive purple ink derived from snails; and about the Aztec scribes who used a vivid red ink made from the cochineal insects native to Central America.

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First, Mr. Logan extracts and intensifies the color from the foraged material: boiling acorn caps, say, until the water turns into a brown sludge.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

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Then he combines the tint with water and a fixer.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

Mr. Logan mostly makes his inks in the kitchen of the home he shares with his wife, Heidi Sopinka, a novelist and co-owner of the Horses Atelier fashion line, and their three children. “My kids,” he said, “are evenly divided between ‘I love my crazy wizard dad’ and ‘Why am I smelling this horrible smell?’”

Since producing that first ink from the black walnuts, he has expanded his repertoire slowly, relying on a series of trial-and-error experiments that he documented, with technicolor splotches, in many black notebooks. By 2018, he said, he had developed enough recipes for different colors to write his how-to guide: “It’s the book I would have wanted at the start of this process.”

Initially, he used mainly berries, flowers and nuts. “As a father, I was interested in the idea of being an artist using nontoxic materials.”

But whatever the ingredients, he tends to follow a standard procedure. First, he extracts and intensifies the color from the foraged material: boiling acorn caps, say, until the water turns into a brown sludge, mushing up grapes to produce a reddish-purple juice or grinding colored rock with a mortar and pestle.

Then he combines the tint with water and a fixer. The standard fixer is called gum arabic, a liquid available in most art-supply stores. (Mr. Logan said the process might seem simple but that other inks do require much more work.)

Oxidized metals also are important in inkmaking — an iron sulfate solution, for instance, is one of the usual components of registrar’s ink, so called because it does not fade with age. Mr. Logan has made such solutions by adding vinegar or other acids to old nails and railway spikes, or by obtaining the compounds from a drug or hardware store.

He expanded the scope of his foraging over time: “I decided I wanted to make inks from anything at my feet” — including discarded drywall, railway ties and even cigarette butts.

“I was doing a foraging and inkmaking birthday party for one of my kids in 2015,” he said. “Most of the kids focused on the flowers and pretty things, but this one interesting kid brought me the cigarette butts, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

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Mr. Logan said he has been able to quit his other jobs to focus on ink.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

Mr. Logan said he thought about starting an inkmaking business right after his first try (with the black walnuts) produced the caramel-colored ink. “It was not only beautiful, but I thought it should be out in the world,” he said.

So he decided to use Instagram to find customers, posting some ink tests as the Toronto Ink Company, a made-up name for what was then a fictional company. He also began mailing samples to well-known artists and illustrators.

Now registered in Canada as a sole proprietorship, the company has continued to sell inks through its website, an Instagram following of almost 32,000 and at some art-supply stores in Japan, the United States and Canada. (Bottles are $15 to $25.)

Mr. Logan said he has been able to quit his other jobs to focus on ink, although most of his income doesn’t come from the sale of individual bottles. He conducts workshops, has a Substack newsletter with more than 5,000 subscribers and his book on inkmaking for children is scheduled to be published by MIT Kids Press in fall 2024. He also has worked with companies on special commissions and has made custom inks for artists, often in connection with a specific piece or exhibition.

Mr. Logan has continuing relationships with many of these artists, three of whom were mentioned in the documentary: Wendy MacNaughton, Marta Abbott and Yuri Shimojo.

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Mr. Logan also forages for berries and grapes.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

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“As a father, I was interested in the idea of being an artist using nontoxic materials,” he said.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

Ms. MacNaughton, an illustrator and graphic journalist in San Francisco, initially found Mr. Logan online. “I like that there’s a story in every bottle,” she said. “And I am using ink to tell stories.”

She got to know Mr. Logan better in 2019 when he led a foraging expedition to a dump on San Francisco Bay and then held an inkmaking workshop. And earlier in the pandemic, she ran an online art class for children and had Mr. Logan appear in a guest session. “He really got into it, putting on a wizard hat, involving his own kids in it,” she said.

During our forest walk, Mr. Logan spoke about how foraging connects him to his own childhood, one in which his mother died when he was 7 and his father, a United Church of Canada minister, often took posts in remote places. “We moved around a lot, and I didn’t have many friends,” he said. “I was often in my own world, out in nature.”

Ms. Abbott, a Czech American artist living in Rome, found Mr. Logan through Instagram in 2017. They exchanged inks: He sent what she described as “purple wild grape; a glowing, yellow goldenrod ink; buckthorn sap green, copper oxide ink,” and she sent him some made from avocado pits.

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Mr. Logan said he thought about starting an inkmaking business right after his first try produced a caramel-colored ink. “It was not only beautiful, but I thought it should be out in the world,” he said.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

She has continued to make ink from foraged materials, and in Mr. Johnson’s film she is seen gathering white marble from a quarry near Florence, Italy, where Michelangelo famously sourced stone. It also showed the ink Mr. Logan made from the marble being used by the calligrapher Soraya Syed in London to paint a verse from the Quran on a blue canvas.

And Ms. Shimojo discovered in 2021 that her beloved Boston terrier, Rudy, had cancer, and she wanted an ink infused with his blood.

To create it, Mr. Logan built on a big moment in the history of ink: the discovery of Prussian blue. There are several versions of the story, but one describes how a chemist in 18th-century Berlin mixed a red cochineal color with potash, a common fixer, but the potash had been contaminated with animal blood. The iron in the blood turned the mixture light blue.

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Toronto Ink Company sells inks through its website, an Instagram following of almost 32,000 and at some art-supply stores in Japan, the United States and Canada.Credit…Chloë Ellingson for The New York Times

“In the film, I just simply add some of Rudy’s blood to my Prussian blue ink, but there is quite a lot of behind-the-scenes fiddling that you don’t see,” Mr. Logan said.

The film showed Ms. Shimojo using the blue ink to draw a thin line that snaked across a wide sheet of paper, then turned back, and turned back again and again and again. “It required this concentration I wanted then — it has thick bits, thin bits, a place where I sneezed — it speaks of life, of Rudy,” she said in a recent phone interview. “It is a similar blue to what his eyes became after an infection.”

During our walk by the Humber, Mr. Logan tried to convey his own connection to the ink, paying minute attention to the place, its trees and rocks, its flowers and fruits — finding, for instance, a metaphor for a striped acorn.

“This,” he said, waving a hand around that urban forest, “is my work, too, noticing, and looking and being in a place. The inkmaking starts to happen in a place. It’s not just I’m going to grab some wild grapes here.”

For him, his meanderings through the semi-wild fringes of a city are links to his past and present. “My ability to tune everything else out and go into the portals provided by rocks and plants started when I was a kid — it’s how I became who I am.”

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