Co-Creating With Nature: DIY Oak Gall Ink

“Nature, the mother and maker, requires that life take form, enflesh itself in the shapes and habits of the world’s unnumbered kinds. And then she requires each one at last to shed its guise, giving up its matter to the life to come.”

-Wendell Berry

1. Intro
2. What Is An Oak Gall?
3. Preparation

4. Process
5. Conclusion & Sketches

As a nature illustrator I spend much of my time observing the wild, then turn to paper in a humble attempt to record “the shapes and habits of the world’s unnumbered kinds”, as poet Wendell Berry so eloquently writes. My materials are made of the earth: cotton paper, earth pigments in my watercolors, charcoal from burned tree trunks. That being said, I typically do not create these materials myself. I, like most of us since industrialization swallowed us whole, are separated from the process of turning these materials into usable tools.

After playing around in the past with some natural dyes made from things like wildflowers, turmeric, and avocado skins with mixed results, I decided to bring some of this experimentation into my illustration work. Inspired by the simplicity of traditional pigment making, I opted to try my hand at the ancient art of ink making (pictured above).


Oak galls are growths that appear on all species of oak trees. Galls come in hundreds of varieties; each unique in shape, size, and color. Interestingly, the trees themselves don’t make the galls–or rather, they don’t intend to. Galls actually arise as a result of wasp activity.  A wide variety of wasp species lay their eggs in the soft tissue of the oak’s branches and leaves and secrete a chemical that disrupts the natural development of the tree. This results in a spherical object–a gall–that envelops the wasp larvae to protect them until they mature and break out of the gall. Galls do not damage the trees, and they often fall off on their own to disintegrate into the soil below.

Oak galls are one of the most widely-known materials for making ink with, and humans having been doing so for over 2000 years. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the many famous figures who used this ink for his work. The Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta were written in gall ink, and many early authors like Tolstoy also used it. The ink holds up astonishingly well, and many of the manuscripts and drawings created with it hundreds of years ago are still legible today. 

Drawing by daVinci using gall ink.

While out on a short hike near the coast late last year, I stumbled upon a grove of oaks that were studded with large galls. After crunching through the heavy leaf litter to make my way to the foot of the rather young oak trees, I gently plucked the hollow, papery spheres from the branches, squirreling one after another away until the pockets of my rain jacket bulged with my newfound treasures (and basically muttering “my preciousssssssss” under my breath the whole time).

There are many recipes online for making this ink. After reading a few of them I figured I had the gist and kind of just did my own thing, which is very characteristic for me (and also why I am terrible at baking). So I didn’t follow the directions exactly, which gave mixed results (read more in the conclusion at the end), but it was a super fun experiment and I had fun using the ink for some illustrations,



Oak Galls (about 2 handfuls’ worth)
Rusty Nail
Gum Arabic

Notes on ingredients:
If you can’t find a rusty nail, literally any chunk of rust will work. You only need like a penny-sized amount. You can also purchase iron sulfide online. Gum arabic, powdered, can also be purchased online or in the baking section of a grocery store. Historically, gall ink was made with water or wine. So I suppose if you’re all out of water and don’t mind wasting wine, have at it! But maybe don’t drink the ink, just in case.


Step 1: Grind
I used an old coffee grinder to get the galls ground into a fine powder. I ended up with about 3 full cups of powder, which, it turns out, is A LOT. I’ll explain more later, but you really only need like 1 cup for a pretty large amount of ink.


Step 2: Soak
Cover the galls and the rusty nail with water (in separate jars!) and let soak. I left mine sitting for only a few days, but some sources suggest letting it soak for a few months. There is no world in which I could have the patience for that, so I moved into the next step right quick! If you experiment with the soak time please let me know and we can compare notes on the results.

Step 2.5: First Test and First Boil
I took a sample of the mixture in its raw state to see what color the pigment would be. It was a light but lovely sort of sienna, pretty neutral and light. This ink is supposed to darken when heated, so I decided to continue the process and find out what happened after boiling it for 10 minutes.

Step 3: Boil Some More
I poured the oak gall/water mixture into a pot and boiled it for 22 minutes. Why 22 minutes? Because that’s the time it took for my patience to run out. You can try a shorter or longer boiling time. 

Step 3.5: Second Test
After heating the mixture then letting it cool down a bit, I did another test in my sketchbook. The solution did seem to be a little darker. I stopped the process here because it was late and I needed to sleep, but noticed the next morning that the test swatch had oxidized and darkened a bit more. SCIENCE!

Step 4: Chemical Reaction (kinda)
I want to try this process again for this step only! I saw videos on the interwebs of people pouring the iron-infused water into the oak gall mixture and seeing it magically darken before their eyes, but alas, my attempt was….underwhelming. I watched the muddy brown jar of liquid as I slowly added the rusty nail tea expecting a radical transformation, but all I ended up with was more liquid in the jar. I think this was because I used A LOT of oak gall powder, as mentioned above, which made the mixture so murky I couldn’t see the color shift. Oh well!

Step 5: Third Test
After adding the iron to the oak gall mixture I did another test in my sketchbook.


Overall this was a fun experiment. I ended up with way too much “ink”, as in like a quarter of a gallon of the stuff. It was also too watered down, which is partially because I added too much water initially, and used too much water for the rusty nail soak.
I also used too much gum arabic, which resulted in a stickier ink than I wanted. When you touch the paper where the ink is heavily applied you can feel a slight bit of tackiness. This is simply the nature of gum arabic and is still permanent and non-toxic, just a personal gripe. Next time using less water will help my gauge the amount of gum arabic needed to create a thicker ink-like viscosity.

I decided to paint a few oak-inspired illustrations with the gall ink. First I dipped my cotton paper into a shallow pan of the oak gall ink and let them dry overnight.

Then I sketched out some of my favorite species who rely on oak trees for their survival: a Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Polyphemus Moth. I also sketched a solitary oak leaf with a little gall on it. 

Overall this was a pretty simple process. Painting with actual materials I collected and processed myself was delightful, even though the ink worked a little differently than the watercolor pigments I’m used to using. I love the moody shade of brown as well as how it stains the paper. Perhaps it’s the way I made my ink, but it was too “syrupy” for me to want to continue using it on all of my projects, but I will try it again to see if I can create a better consistency next time around.

These original sketches are available for under $45 each (including domestic shipping!) over in my shop

Thanks for coming along on this little adventure with oak galls, and happy experimenting!



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