Inky Experiments

Inky Experiment 1: Ink Recipes

This post is part of a series of practical experiments regarding marking under drawings for embroidery. An introduction to this project can be found here.

Practical Experiment: Ink Recipes

To test these different ideas and search for the most ideal ink for embroideries I decided I would perform several experiments with both vine charcoal and lamp black mixed with Gum Arabic Medium.


  • Modern 2/0 Size Brush
  • Midweight Linen typical for embroidery
  • Water Container and Mixing Pallet (I used a clean cottage cheese container and lid)
  • Winsor and Newton Gum Arabic Liquid Medium
  • Vine Charcoal Powder
  • An Old Spoon and Candle

Each of these samples were made using a modern 2/0 size brush to create fine details on a fine midweight linen typical for what I choose to embroidery on. Cennini’s writing includes a passage on the production of brushes, so we know that medieval artists were using them at that time. However, Cennini directly references the use of a pen, but I did not have one on hand. A pen creates sharp lines while the brush creates softer shapes. To achieve a more historically accurate initial underdrawing, a pen is the ideal instrument.  

I did my best to achieve a similar consistency and saturation with the inks. I purchased Winsor and Newton brand Gum Arabic. This gum Arabic is pre-mixed into a liquid but it would have been made by grinding the gum/Acacia tree sap into a fine powder and then mixing it with water. Solid Gum Arabic can be purchased both from artist supply stores and food supply stores online. Experiments with solid gum arabic will follow. 

Lamp Black

The creation of lampblack pigment is surprisingly easy, and uses equipment every needleworker would have had access to. To make the pigment, I lit a candle and held an old steel spoon over the flame and was amazed that within seconds it was covered in black soot. I scraped the soot off and collected it in a container.

Clockwise from top left: holding the spoon over the candle, a candle covered in soot, and sooty pigment collected.

This was an easy process which took only a few minutes producing more than enough soot for my experiment. One would have to collect much more pigment for a major project, but the process can be maximized by using a larger metal object, such as a metal pot lid, to collect more soot. The best part of this pigment is that it is free. 

To create the ink, I mixed a small amount of pigment with a little water and gum Arabic into a deep black ink. This ink was incredibly easy to paint with and worked very similar to a good watercolor paint. At first, the lamp black was a little chunky, but easily dissolved in the water.

On the Left ink made with Vine Charcoal and on the Right Ink made with Lamp Black

Vine Charcoal

On the left is the ink made using charcoal and gum Arabic. This ink mixed up quickly and easily, using a few drops of liquid gum arabic and water mixed with the vine charcoal pigment. 

I believe both pigments are very appropriate for this application. Lamp black could easily be made in the home, while vine charcoal could be purchased easily at a market and was likely found in most artists’ studios. I found the vine charcoal slightly easier to work with because it did not clump as much as my home made lampblack, but I can’t imagine ever buying pigment again for this purpose knowing how easy it is to make my own pigment with a spoon.

Linseed Oil: The Failed Experiment

As part of this experiment, I also mixed both pigments together with linseed oil medium from Windsor and Newton. The medium produced a glossy black ink that was quite pretty, albeit a little oily in application. It dried flat and matte just as the Gum Arabic did. However, after a week or so, my fabric turned a hideous shade of yellow in the areas in and around the linseed oil example. Thus, it is not a recommended media to use for embroideries.

The Experimental under drawings after a few weeks. The figures on the right were made with linseed oil and have yellowed significantly.


The Gum Arabic ink made with either vine charcoal or lamp black produced a great ink for this purpose. I think either version could have been used in period for embroideries. The choice of one pigment over an other depends largely on the amount of funds available for the project and the availability of charcoal. Professional artists who often painted embroidery fabrics for embroiderers would doubtless have access to vine charcoal for this purpose. Embroiderers working at home or in their own workshop may have chosen lamp black due to its wide availability at home.

The modern embroiderer will find working with these inks to be fairly easy and a rewarding experiment in working with modern materials. However, the modern embroiderer should always remember that in medieval Europe, under drawings were often painted by professionals, so using modern methods for pattern drafting are appropriate short cuts when a professional painter is unavailable to draft your designs.

One thought on “Inky Experiment 1: Ink Recipes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s