How did you first become interested in design and illustration? I finished a degree in history at University of Toronto and wanted to pursue something more visual—somewhere between art, research and commerce. I met the great Polish illustrator Jerzy Kolacz, who took me on as a mentee; I learned the fundamentals of visual problem solving from him. After that eastern European training, I immediately started working as an illustrator at the New York Times. After several years of illustration, I became interested in how art directors and designers fit artwork to words and took courses at OCAD and the School of Visual Arts to understand design and typography and art direction. I worked at the National Post, the New York Times, Saturday Night Magazine and the Walrus and had the amazing opportunity to be on both sides—editorial illustration and design—working with some of the best word people and picture people in the world.
How did you discover your passion for ink making? I have always loved ink, whether as the building block of communication in magazines, newspapers and posters, or in little bottles for illustration, hand lettering and abstract art. My passion for ink making came out of my love for the tactile possibilities of ink, amplified by my curiosity of nontoxic art supplies that grew out of being a father.
Why did you decide to start the Toronto Ink Company? I wanted to change the world.
What has been the trickiest recipe to develop? The trickiest one is always the one I am currently working on. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to make a deconstructed brutalist concrete ink. The series based on the Franklin expedition (a lost British voyage of Arctic exploration) was maybe the most elaborate set of recipes I ever worked on, involving lichen, bones, cigarette butts, ghost stories, sea salt and powdered pencil lead—a set that would eventually head up to the Arctic. My friend, artist and writer Leanne Shapton, used the Franklin ink series to draw artifacts rescued from the Franklin expedition. She went up there on a National Geographic icebreaker.
What does the community of natural ink makers look like today? It’s small, but vibrant! I am most excited by Beam Paints, an Indigenous art supply company with attention to place and materials and a love for the landscape of Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. But there are a half dozen others I have connected with through Instagram and mail that are true color collaborators. I am currently working on creating a “lake” with Beam Paints. This involves staining Beam Paints’ locally harvested limestone with plant matter. Most of its paints are hemp-oil based or watercolor, so finding a meeting point between locally harvested ink and locally harvested paint is interesting to both Toronto Ink Company and Beam Paints. I’m very excited to work more closely with Beam Paints and the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation on Manitoulin Island via workshops and collaborations, and learn some of their color-extraction traditions, which might pair with urban street color harvesting.
What in your research surprised you most about the modern commercial ink industry? The fact that it’s so hard to get good information about who is making the colors we are using, where the chemicals that make the colors come from and what sorts of chemical formulas are used. The early history of industrialized color is pretty fascinating, though. I think of William Henry Perkin, the guy looking for a cure for malaria who inadvertently invented the world’s first chemical purple, called mauveine, from coal-tar castoffs.
What should illustrators know about the differences between commercial ink and natural ink? Commercial ink is predictable, lightfast, archival and consistent. Natural ink, on the other hand, may break up, change color, and vary according to place and time. It might grow crystals or fade over time. In short, commercial ink is dead; natural ink is alive.
What’s your favorite ink you’ve made? I am loving turmeric alcohol ink. It’s electrically yellow, so it works in empty markers as a highlighter. I forage the turmeric from local cold-press juice bars that offer up their leftover pulp, so it’s ultrasustainable. It’s also really easy to make, and I love the way it smells.
How has making inks affected your understanding of color? I have recognized—with the author Victoria Finlay—that color is a verb. Something that materials “do” rather than “have.” It’s changeable and moving and a kind of dance of energy and electrons that’s quite peculiar when you really look at it. I’ve also come to recognize the subtle beauty of natural colors. The muddy purple-brown of avocado ink. The watery silver-grays of acorn-cap/iron ink. All the tones of brown you get out of a black walnut hull. The slight greenish tint of limestone dust in gum arabic. Once your eyes adjust to it, the subtlety is endless and inspiring.
What do you hope readers take away from your book Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking? I hope it opens people’s hearts, minds and eyes to a world of color that’s right at their feet. I hope it passes on some of my excitement for experimentation. I hope it sparks an intimate but ongoing revolution in location-based color harvesting—something like chef Alice Waters’s revolution around local, organic food. I hope it get families scrounging around in their local parks for ingredients, then boiling up stuff in their kitchens. If nothing else, I hope it makes a few people ask themselves what is in their pens.
What is the potential of ink? Ink is the basis of materialized human communication. Make your own, and the possibilities are endless.