Ink by definition is any liquid or paste containing pigment or dye, which can leave a mark on a surface. Ink can be used to produce text, imagery or designs on surfaces such as paper or fabric, and different kinds of inks were developed in different societies around the world. While ink can be made from a lot of different things, it is generally made up of a few common elements; a colorant, a carrier to transmit this colorant, and any other additives which can affect the thickness, appearance or functionality of the ink. In this lesson, we are simply instructing how to create ink from simple bags of tea, and why it works.

Most of the vegetative plants which grow around us contain something called tannin; a slightly acidic compound which can bond to other compounds, acids and aminos. While the science behind tannin and tannic acid isn’t directly relevant to this article, knowing that these compounds exist is crucial in extracting color from plant derived sources. Berries contain tannin, usually of a color similar to the berry. Tea is no exception and it reminds us every time we steep a cup or pot; color is released from the teabag into the water, and that color is tannin.

Extracting tannin pigment from tea leaves is as easy as brewing or steeping tea. As hot water draws compounds out of the tea, it brings tannin and whatever pigments it has bonded to, along for the ride. For a darker, more exaggerated color or tone (more tannin), simply use more tea. Simply, one can use a few bags of black tea in a mug of boiling water to create a dark brown compound, or very strong tea.

While this dark tea alone will leave a mark, using an agent to help stabilize and settle your tannin/water compound will go a long way in preserving the dried markings when applied to a surface. Water alone will evaporate and leave tannin residue, but you will want something to help bond it to the surface on which it is applied. Thickening agents like gelatin can be used in a pinch, but any kind of naturally occurring gum, resin or glue will really do the trick. Gum arabic is one of the best things you will find, and you should add it to the concoction while steeping the tea bags. Adding approximately two teaspoons of agent per cup of tannin concoction will ensure a proper chemical bond, provided that your bonding agent is strong enough. If using something other than arabic gum, experiment and mix to a desired consistency, just note that in hot water the effects of your thickening agent will be reduced and not realized until the concoction cools.

ink from tea
A simple painting made with ink derived from tea. Note the variation of tannin coloration from different varieties of tea.

You will want to let the entire concoction sit for at least 20 minutes as it is, then remove your source of tea. Squeeze the bags for a little extra tannin if desired, and when fully cooled your liquid will work as an ink on paper. Bottle your concoction and label it as ink. You can create many colors from tea alone, but you can also easily use the same process on any other plants and their fruits so long as tannin is present, which it usually is.

When it comes to using your new ink, use it with a dip or steel nib pen, or possibly a quill, but do not use this kind of organic ink in a fountain pen without some further preparation. As an organic compound derived from vegetative matter and thickening agents; your tea ink may be too thick or will contain tiny particles which may clog pens which were designed for very different inks. Additional steps may need to be taken to adapt tea ink to a particular pen.

tea ink paintings
Two different illustrations using ink made from various teas and their colors. Different teas may contain different tannin coloration and the results can be spectacular.

Finally, remember that tannin is always at least slightly acidic, and that no matter what you have mixed it with to bond to a surface in order to preserve it; this acidity will ironically also break down surfaces such as paper over time. Markings, designs, text and images rendered in tannic ink may last for months, years or even centuries (depending on circumstances, acidity and surface used), but eventually a concoction such as your tea ink will fade with time and possibly deteriorate its host surface beyond repair. Any markings you make with ink derived from vegetative tannin should be done so with the consideration that you may have to replicate the process again in the future, possibly with a more permanent solution. However if you need to get some information or drawings down on paper immediately, and all you have access to are tea and water (and hopefully gum arabic or something comparable); you can create a simple ink and preserve your thoughts with about 20 minutes of easy work. Making ink from tea may prove useful to you, in addition to being environmentally sound and in no way detrimental to your health.