This is nuts! Level Up Your Woodgrains With Walnut Ink

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Guest Author Nicole Deibert

Who doesn’t love pulling out a can of a ‘glossy wood tone’ spray paint for a prop or scenic piece? And while it does amazing things, it is still often just a single can of paint. Sadly, there really isn’t a water-based, non-toxic version in large quantities to be found. That is, until I discovered walnut ink.

Image from Tom Norton

Walnut Ink is traditionally used in fine drawing and calligraphy, but like all Scenics, I have found other ways to use it. I will often use the ink for wood grain as well as in my gold metallic techniques, and find that it can make your set piece or prop amazing. In this article, I will show you the techniques that I use with walnut ink.

Before we get started, I should let you know that using the walnut ink definitely has some challenges. I have found the most concentrated ink comes in crystal form from places like PaperInkArts.com. It’s expensive to ship to Canada, so we purchase a large volume and it keeps for an exceptionally long time in its dry form.

When diluting it, I’ve found the best way to mix it is by adding it slowly to hot water and stirring constantly with a whisk. It will chunk up on you, but keep stirring! I will mix it into hot water first and then add that solution to different mediums. I’ve used it in Benjamin Moore Stays Clear Gloss, Artist’s Gloss Gel Medium, and in Rosco Gloss Glaze.

This is the typical formula that I use:

  • Dissolve 2 Tbsp ink crystals in 1/2 c HOT water
  • Add this to 2 cups of your medium of choice

Less ink to medium will result in a colour that is less dense. If you still have some chunks that won’t dissolve, just add it to your medium and keep stirring, it will eventually dissolve. Just don’t add the water to the crystal ink because it will form a ball and take forever to dissolve. However, if you do end up doing this, put some gloves on and get your hand in there and smush the clump of ink until it finally breaks down.

This is the downside to the walnut ink: Even though I’ve mixed this ink into polyurethane paint, the layer remains fugitive, meaning that you HAVE to seal it with another coat of sealant, no matter the medium you used with the ink. I typically thin Benjamin Moore Stays Clear Gloss or Low Lustre 1:1 with water and brush that on the surface. The ink will come up and your paint will get contaminated, as seen in the picture, so it’s best to pour off some of the sealant and label it as contaminated so that it doesn’t mix back to the clean paint. Minimize your brush strokes to minimize the amount of ink you pull off. It certainly IS fussy. But the result is way too beautiful.

Rosco Faux Wood Technique

Depending on what kind of wood treatment I’m attempting to do, I will use (or adapt to my needs) the most common of wood techniques, best illustrated in the “Guide to Scenic Finishes” in the Rosco resource library. You can see this technique in action here.

However, if I find that my grain needs to be “chunkier”, then I’ll do the technique that I’m illustrating in this article. The one thing that I’ve found is that by adding a layer of walnut ink, it gives a beautiful transparent tone that I often cannot achieve with traditional scenic paints.

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Wood Grain Technique

  1. On both samples, I’ve started with a solid coat of Benjamin Moore Super Spec Flat CC-110 (Muslin). The photo that I’ve included has a picture of my favorite graining tool – a Simms wallpaper paste brush.
  2. Once again, on both samples, the first grain colour is Rosco Off Broadway Raw Umber. My formula is 1 cup of Raw Umber to 4 cups of “Glaze Mix” which is made up of a 1:1 ratio of Rosco glaze to water. We like to do a 50/50 mix of Flat and Gloss glazes and then add that to the water. It ends up with a more satin finish. In the photo, I have sprayed the surface very lightly with water, then painted on the Raw Umber Glaze, then dragged the graining tool through vertically, then at a slight angle, then vertically once more. By dragging at an angle, you create a bit of a “cross grain” and it softens the intensity of the grain lines.
  3. On one sample, I did a coat, using the same technique as illustrated above, using Rosco Off Broadway Earth Umber. Same proportions as the Raw Umber. 4:1 ratio of glaze mix to Earth Umber.
  4. On the other sample, I painted the walnut glaze using the same technique illustrated above, using the ink crystals dissolved in Ben Moore Stays Clear Gloss You can see in the photo how much richer the colour is.
  5. On the walnut ink sample, I painted a second coat of walnut ink, but just on one side. This ink beautifully layers up and deepens its tone. Beware – sometimes this is NOT what you want, depending on the technique, so be aware.
  6. I did a clear coat to seal both samples using Ben Moore Low Lustre diluted 1:1 with water. After I painted the clear coat on the walnut ink sample, I wiped the brush on a piece of paper to illustrate just how much ink comes off with just a few brush strokes, as seen earlier in the post.

But Wait! There’s More!

Along with creating faux wood tones, I also really enjoy using walnut ink to tone and age metallic golds. I find it gives the gold a lot of character, and can really make set, or prop piece, cross the line from pretty – to beautiful.

Gift wrap as an alternative to leaf.

Gold Leaf Technique

I will use walnut ink on pretty much any gold surface: gold paint, gold leaf, even gold wrapping paper for large scale projects instead of gold leaf.

  1. Base coat your piece with Ben Moore Super Spec Flat 2088-10 (Red Oxide). This is if you need that red base. If you need a “yellowier” gold, then base using Rosco Off Broadway Yellow Ochre. If I was using the gold wrapping paper, I would skip this step.
  2. Apply your gold (be it paint or leaf). For this example, I used gold leaf. For the sizing, we use 3M Fastbond as a cheaper alternative to the sizing you get from the art supply store.
  3. Apply the walnut ink. Again, we used the formula above, but do your samples and see what proportions are best for you. Wipe off the excess and let it sit in the crevices.
  4. If you want to add more pizazz to your gold, also add a little bit of Golden Transparent Red Iron Oxide (fluid), diluted in a medium (Artist Gel Medium/Rosco Gloss Glaze/Polyurethane). It really doesn’t take much, but it makes it really glow.
  5. To add even MORE pizazz to your gold, add Golden Sap Green Hue (Fluid). Again, we dilute this in either gel medium or a polyurethane. Paint on and dab off the excess.
    (Video on Instagram of this entire technique here)

To watch some other great videos I made of accentuating other metallic treatments, go here.

Nicole Deibert is the Head Scenic Artist for the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Nicole has been painting for roughly 20 years, is member of IATSE Local 210, and has spent most of her professional career at the Citadel, with a short stint at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. Her other interests lie in photography and cooking. Instagram: @nixpaints

Nicole Deibert

2 comments

  1. Gary Fry

    Nicole,
    Lovely work and well explained.
    We call it “Van Dyke Crystals” in the UK, we traditionally use it for ‘inking’ up [fixing the final drawing ] backcloths prior to working up the paint. Due to its fugitive nature it bleeds through thin layers of paint meaning you never lose your drawing.
    Gary

  2. Christina Rainwater

    Is there a SDS for the Walnut dye? This is lovely, and I’m super excited because it reads like F.E.V. without the aniline or the shellac. Thanks!

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