As screen-based reading takes over from print , as print once took over from hand-written texts, what role has ink to play in the future of writing, drawing and culture? Few people still write with a fountain pen, fewer still with a dip pen or brush, but still the vestiges of human touch remain in the tactility of life-changing moments – signing a register, will or consent form. Our hand expresses our intent in ink, we scrawl our name with a flourish and say, ‘I do’.
Thomas Little’s practice is to make ink from firearms, botanicals and gums. The deep black ink and many-coloured pigments also derived from guns are nothing like the impersonal, mass-produced printer or ballpoint pen inks we sometimes still use when digital is not enough. Through these inks, Little seeks to put right some vast harms. The process you’ll read of below is part chemistry, part alchemy, much myth, and contains a depth of ink-craft rarely seen in contemporary times. CR
I am not a practitioner of medicine.
I make ink and pigments. The materials I use are firearms, usually handguns, I purchase from pawn shops, or that are donated to me, which are then dissolved in acid to make the pigment-producing compounds. I live in the United States, where guns are quite accessible and the catastrophe they cause is immeasurable. I feel it is unnecessary to elaborate on the harm their proliferation is causing. There are the mass shootings, there are the deaths of despair, and there are the children whose deaths are primarily by gunfire. All of this violence and pain is the culmination of a vicious cycle of fear and anger. The fear of being shot going out in public has led to a huge surge in gun purchases, leading to more incidents of violence and more incidents of suicide and more incidents of children finding weapons and suffering tragic accidents.
Every time there is a bullet fired, there is a swelling of trauma and grief. We are a country inflamed.
As I said, I am not a practitioner of medicine. In plague times, however, you are motivated to alleviate the suffering surrounding you. We all have the capacity to become healers, and we begin by taking the most basic steps towards remedy. The first course of action in treating this affliction is a direct one, and that is to remove weapons from the cycle of violence. This is what I do, and though it is an infinitesimally small action in the face of the situation, it is nonetheless an action. This is the heavy lifting. If I were to stop here, I would still feel like I had done some good in this world.
However, it is not enough for me. If there is a chance of redemption in the material that is causing the affliction, don’t I have to investigate what those possibilities could be? Could there even be a remedy within the thorn extracted? It is here I find myself in this questioning space, holding the poison and seeking its potential. It is through alchemical means that I find my solution.
The transmutation of substance is one of the features of alchemy that has kept me operating under its aegis. And while the term is heavily overused, in part due to the ambiguity and mystery that permeates it, its method is one I can grasp. And so, it is through this process that I can visualise a weapon finding its material redemption. And what better place to start on the path to redemption than in the reduction of the weapon to its most essential and fundamental components.
What better place to start on the path to redemption than in the reduction of the weapon to its most essential and fundamental components.
What better place to start on the path to redemption than in the reduction of the weapon to its most essential and fundamental components.
Before I continue, I feel it necessary to introduce the term pharmakon. Pharmakon is an ancient Greek word, from which we get the term ‘pharmacy’ and words related to it. Within the definition of pharmakon, I find the essence of alchemy. Its definitions can be interpreted as healing medicine, harmful poison, mind-altering substance, magic potion or spell, or even (and especially relevant to my work) dyestuff or colour. Here we see the budding branches of science, art and magic all in one term. It is this that excites me most, because the most powerful of any one of those three things has substantial components of the other two. Through this holistic synthesis we can begin to dilate our perceptions to seek solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. This is the ‘Great Work’ that alchemy seeks.
So let us begin the process, commence the Great Work, and liberate our pharmakon, the weapon, from its singular definition to one of more universal utility. In order to do this, a weapon is procured, disarmed and scoured. The scouring is an important component, as this allows more surface area for the acid to bite. This can be accomplished by hand, by sanding the weapon after stripping it of all its non-ferrous parts. A particularly effective method for readying the weapon for its acid bath is through fire. When the gun is heated to red hot and then allowed to cool, it releases its temper and is more susceptible to dissolution. Either method works. The weapon could be added to the acid bath without this treatment, but the dissolving action would be much slower.
A vessel is chosen, with a large enough capacity to accommodate the weapon and a large enough mouth to make its removal easy. It can be of glass or plastic or even glazed ceramic, though I prefer a transparent material to better observe the process. Metal vessels are out of the question, obviously. It need not have a tight-fitting lid, but a covering for the top is handy to prevent anything from falling into the vessel. A sealed vessel is not wanted, as this is a gas-producing reaction.
The acid I use is battery acid, sold over the counter at auto-parts stores. It is typically a 50/50 mix of concentrated sulphuric acid and water. It is not particularly aggressive on skin, and if washed immediately, there is little to no noticeable irritation. I place the weapon in the vessel and pour in the acid, about half full. The gun doesn’t need to be fully submerged, as capillary action will draw the corrosion upwards. After some minutes, a fine tracery of bubbles will begin to trail upward like mist from the surface of the gun. This is hydrogen gas, quite flammable, and for this reason I do my work outside in a well-ventilated area that is not subject to being disturbed. There is also a rotten-egg smell about the vessel, more reason it should be kept outside.
Crystal formation starts after a day. Within a week or two, depending on temperature, the jar will have an abundance of greenish crystals. This is iron sulphate, the prima materia obtained through the weapons dissolution. It is from this that we can obtain our ink and various pigments.
Let’s pause here, to discuss this mother substance. Iron sulphate, also known as copperas or green vitriol, was a staple in the alchemist’s cabinet due to its broad utility. As an iron supplement, it is a vital part of the modern pharmacopoeia, and is on the WHOs list of essential medicines. It is known to dyers as a mordant that tends to sadden colours. It is used to transmute cyanide gas into the lovely Prussian blue. It’s even used in lawn care. Already, in the pursuit of the Great Work, we see pharmakon enjoying the multiplicity of uses.
One of its applications has a resonance with my work, and it is worth mentioning. Of its various names, it is also known as the Powder of Sympathy and in this form was used to affect a cure on a wounded person by applying it to the weapon that caused the wound. This was a sympathetic medicine, and thought to work remotely. It was even suggested to have application in the 17th-century problem of maritime navigation, where accurate timepieces had yet to be sufficient to work properly on swaying boats.
Accurate time keeping was crucial in navigation, so it was suggested that a dog be wounded with a knife and put on board a ship. On land, a timekeeper would anoint the knife with the Powder of Sympathy at an appointed hour, and the dog, miles away at sea, would yelp feeling the effects of the wound healing. This way the captain would be given the correct time. I do not encourage experimentation in this direction, needless to say, but wanted to draw attention to the curious parallels with my practice and the materials involved. Perhaps the Powder would be more potent if it was produced from the weapon itself.
With the green vitriol crystalised, a variety of directions in the production of art materials become available. Perhaps the most accessible shall be the first described, and that is the method to make ink, specifically iron gall or ‘common’ ink. Recipes for this ink are as varied as grandmothers’ sugar cookie recipes, which is appropriate considering ink recipes were often kept alongside ones for food preparation in the commonplace books of the household. a basic recipe for its production is below, but I encourage your own research and experimentation to modify it to suit your needs. But first, let’s consider the other ingredients.
The other primary constituent of ink is a source of tannin. This is traditionally from oak galls, though there are other tannin rich plant materials as well. I use sumac leaf, Rhus copallina, a common plant here in the US, found on roadsides and on the edges of fields. The strength of the tannic acid varies depending on the source, so some experimentation may be necessary. The amount of plant matter in this recipe is based on sumac leaf.
Also crucial is a binder. Gum arabic or gum acacia is by far the most common cited, though saps from stone fruit trees, such as cherries, plums, or peaches can also be used as well as sap from grape vines. However it is derived, it must be thoroughly soluble.
A recipe for common ink
Remove 60 grams of the green crystals from the vessel, redissolve in 500 ml of water, and pour off the liquor.
Discard any dirt or sediment that falls to the bottom. Set the solution aside. Add 100 grams of tannin material to 2 litres of soft water in a large crockpot. Set to low and allow to cook for 4 hours.
While it’s cooking, add 50 grams of gum to 400 ml of warm water to dissolve. If your gum is in large chunks, it may be best to prepare it the day before and let it sit overnight.
After the tannin solution has cooked, allow it to cool and filter it.
In a large jar mix the gum and tannin solutions together and then stir in the iron sulphate solution. The mixture should be about half a gallon and dark black with a hint of purple. 100 ml of ethanol added will inhibit fermentation.
The bottle is the brain full of dreams, the ink, those dreams rendered.
Fresh ink can be almost colourless when it first hits the page, and I think of Rudolph Hauschka and his book The Nature of Substance. He attributes iron to the quality of bringing the cosmic ethereal into the sphere of gravity, a phrase I often use when talking about ink. For what is the act of writing or drawing but twisting a thread from the roving ether? All forms are latent in pale fresh ink: ligatures, bellies, descenders, serifs, eyes, hands, mouths, all are pulled and laid and solidified in the single breath of ink drying. The bottle is the brain full of dreams, the ink, those dreams rendered.
The nature of this ink relies on a chemical reaction, both with air and paper. The pale soluble gallotannate of iron, upon oxidation, becomes a dark insoluble solid that is then embedded in the fibre of the paper. This is what gives it its utility. I use the word ‘utility’ over ‘permanence’ as the sought-after quality of this type of ink is its indelibility, which is to say, it won’t wash off after it’s dried, rather than its archival qualities.
This distinction is important. This ink was common, used to write grocery lists as well as constitutions, marginal doodles as well as masterpieces. Sometimes those things lasted hundreds of years, sometimes they were destroyed the day they were made. There is a millennium or more of history that has been written with ink of this nature. Sometimes it burned through the pages, sometimes it stayed perfectly legible. The formulation given here I believe can hold up to a century at least. That said, I do not make ink that’s archival, for the future. I make ink that is remedial, for the present.
I do not make ink that’s archival, for the future. I make ink that is remedial, for the present.
Much ink has been made, and there is still green vitriol available in our vessel. From this other pigments can be derived. These pigments are solid colour compounds, and differ from ink in that they are chemically inert and do not react with the surface to which they are applied. They are dry compounds that can be added to various binders including oil for oil paint, wax for crayons, or a gummy mixture for watercolour. These are the iron oxide pigments, known commercially as the Mars colours.
Mars Red, Mars Yellow and Mars Black are known by these names due to the association of iron with Mars, and references in alchemical texts which describe the manufacture of these compounds with such planetary associations. Mars Red, for example, is synonymous with the alchemical term ‘Crocus Martis’ or the ‘Saffron of Mars’. In production of these pigments, I like to think I am fine tuning the colour frequency of rust while acting as an agent of accelerated entropy in the process of neutralising the weapon.
It is also a way of returning the weapon to the earth, by turning it into earth. Iron oxides are some of the most common compounds on our planet after all, and what gives us the beautiful hues of mud and deserts.
Making Mars colours
To make Mars Red or Yellow, the green crystals of vitriol must desiccate and become a white powdery substance. This is roasted in a dry pan on an outdoor fire. Sulphurous fumes arise at first, so best to stay downwind. The vitriol will move through a colour change as the iron sulphate changes to iron oxide. It will at first turn a most venomous green, and this is when the sulphur is being released. It will then move towards a brownish yellow hue, an ochre colour if you will. At this point, when the iron oxide is still hydrated, it can be removed if Mars Yellow is the desired colour.
Roasting it further will dehydrate the molecule giving us Mars Red. The colour on the fire will tend to be less brilliant as it is still hot. Removing a portion and allowing it to cool will show the colour in its true form. When the desired hue is reached, allow it to cool, and wash the pigment in water. This is done by allowing the pigment to settle out, pouring off the clear water on the top, and then repeating. This process is known as levigation. The wash water will be highly acidic, so best to dispose of it on the ashes of the fire used to roast it. Wash until the water is clear, and the pigment is allowed to dry.
To make Mars Black requires some chemical reagents, specifically sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide. Equal parts of iron sulphate and sodium hydroxide crystals are measured out, 30 ml of each. In 150 ml of water, the iron sulphate crystals are dissolved. To this 50 ml of hydrogen peroxide is added, causing some fizzing and turning the solution an orangey colour. In a separate glass, the sodium hydroxide is slowly added to another 150 ml of water, carefully stirred occasionally. This solution becomes quite hot, and once the dissolution is complete, it is immediately added to the first. The heat and high alkalinity of the solution creates the black iron oxide, which falls out of the solution within half an hour. This is washed as described above.
These are my methods, this is my magic. Alchemy is not about product, it is about process. Though ink can do many things while a weapon can do one, it is not a wholly innocent thing. In fact it is one of the most weaponised substances on earth. A legal writ or a papal bull can be more decimating than an armed battalion. It is my hope that in outlining my formulae and elucidating my process, the reader may be encouraged to build from this, to expand the Great Work, and as iron is reclaimed from weapon, let imagination be reclaimed from ink. In small dosages, the poison will become the remedy.