A Handmade Tale

When I was four years old I made my own pigments from dirt, bark, berries, and stones. I had a whole manufacturing operation going on the little stretch of sidewalk that led to the front door. I dried big lumps of colored creek clay, barks, and berries and pounded everything down to fine powders, careful to keep the colors separate, and swept each one into its own matchbox. I was very focused and concentrated and it took days to finish. I knew just what I was doing; I remembered it from another time and another place. Kids aren’t just little blank slates, you know. They come equipped with their own memories, talents, and goals. The amazing thing was that nobody disturbed my project. Nobody told me to get that mess off the sidewalk so that people could walk. When I finished I had a fine pale bluish grey, ochre yellow, rusty red, black and camel tan.


So when Nick Neddo published The Organic Artist in 2015 I quickly bought a copy. The cover alone was enough to suck me in – those same earthy colors from my childhood. His book is not just about making homemade paints, inks, and charcoals. He’s got detailed how-to sections on making your own dip pens, quill pens, papers and crayons, too. Last summer sped by in the usual blur of repair jobs, garden chores, and visitors and I never got around to experimenting with homemade paints and tools. But this summer I was determined not to let the chance slip by again.

Handmade twig pens by Rita J. McNamara

Carving pens from twigs and old bamboo garden stakes had a Tom Sawyer feeling to it. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Not hard at all. And the pens are good to work with. Much softer and smoother on paper than scratchy old metal nib pens. If you soak them in water for half an hour or so before working with them, they absorb more ink and write longer.

Quill pens handmade from old bamboo garden stakes by Rita J. McNamara

I made homemade ink washes, too, from coffee, herbal tea, rust “soup,” spices and berries. Basically, you brew strong decoctions and simmer them down to the desired color. You can test the colors with little slips of paper as you go along. To every 1/2 cup of finished ink, add 1 teaspoon each of vinegar and salt and a few drops of rosemary or pine oil as a preservative.

Folded Pens handmade by Rita J. McNamara

I also wanted to try making my own folded pens, or “pop can pens” as they’re sometimes called. Folded pens are a modern version of the old ruling pens used by architects and map makers more than a hundred years ago. The folded nib acts as a tiny ink reservoir, allowing you to write or draw for a surprisingly long time before having to refill. They take some getting used to. The shaped nib creates a wide array of marks from fine to wide and brush-like, depending on how you hold the pen. There are a variety of nib shapes, each with its own peculiarities and capabilities. The most popular are the “dragonfly,” a slim crescent, the “moth,” a wider rounder crescent, and the “dagger,” a sharply pointed wedge. Since pop cans are so flimsy nowadays, I made mine out of recycled aluminum flashing (laying around the shed, left over from God-knows-what.) I figured if I put the time in making them I wanted the pens to last for awhile and the pop cans I had seemed too soft. I made the pen handles from more of those old bamboo garden stakes. You can download printable directions from either PopCanPen.com or Erica McPhee’s “Folded Soda Pen” blog post at paperwhitestudio.com. I will be experimenting with my folded pens for some time to come. They are very painterly and pleasing to work with and I have just begun to discover all of their possibilities.

“The Book of Evening Clouds, Page 9” by Rita J. McNamara. Made with handmade natural ink washes and folded pens.
“The Book of Evening Clouds, Page 11” by Rita J. McNamara
Three versatile little handmade marking tools: wooden ink pen, double-ended bamboo quill, dragonfly  folded pen by Rita J. McNamara

2 thoughts on “A Handmade Tale

  1. another amazing and meditative posting that came just when I needed an art infusion…
    divine craftsmanship. So glad you carved out the time in busy july.


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