The Henna Experiment

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

How many times has this thought sprung to mind when you’ve contemplated learning something new? It’s too late for me to pick up a guitar. It’s too late for me to try my hand at watercolour. It’s too late for me to sign up for those tap dance lessons I’ve always wanted.

But what if it wasn’t? What if you decided to try and pick up a new skill just for the heck of it?

My Introduction to Henna

henna_carfreedayTattoos have surged in popularity in the past few years and, while I’ve been intrigued by the art aspect of them, I know myself well enough to know that their permanence would be a real problem for me. I have a hard enough time picking out artwork for my walls where I have the ability to change it up in a few years. I’d never be able to pick a piece of artwork for my body that I could be satisfied with for the rest of my days.

It was the impermanence of henna, as well as its intricate artistry, that led me to the stall of a henna artist at the Car Free Day festival this past June. I chose a fairly simple design among the artist’s offerings and, using a henna filled tube like a cake decorator might use, she squeezed out this design completely freehand in a matter of minutes. I was fascinated!

By the time the design started to fade from my hand a week later, I was ready for a new piece of body art. But first…

Research, Research and More Research

When I decided that I wanted to try my hand at henna myself, I did what I always do when I’m about to tackle a new project—I dove head first into the Internet. We are completely spoiled by the information that we now have at our fingertips. Whether it’s YouTube videos walking you through guitar chords or step-by-step Photoshop tutorials on how to create the perfect anime hair highlights, trust me when I say if you want to learn it, then there’s someone out there online who wants to teach you.

A few evenings spent on Google and I had pulled together everything I needed to get started including:

Take Baby Steps

I believe the most important thing when you’re trying to teach yourself something new is to set yourself up for success, particularly in the early stages. You wouldn’t try to learn piano by tackling Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee as your first piece. Sure you might be able to slog your way through, slowly and painfully, but by making the learning curve unnecessarily steep, you are much more likely to get discouraged and walk away from the project before you’ve had any real success.

For my first attempt at henna, I set out some very clear and very simple goals for myself.

  • Mix up a batch of paste and make sure it worked — Throughout this project I gained a whole new appreciation for my pre-mixed acrylic paints. Even with my super simple recipe, there were no guarantees that the paste would have the right consistency or leave behind the design in the way I hoped. Interesting fact: the essential oils in the henna paste can change the colour of the design as it appears on your skin. As my essential oils were a mix of a whole bunch of different kinds, I wasn’t even sure what colour I was going to end up with.
  • Apply the design using a tool I was comfortable with — I’d watched with awe when the henna artist had squeezed out that design so quickly on my hand, however I couldn’t see myself having that kind of fine control with a squeeze tube. Instead I opted for a much more familiar tool that would give me all the control I wanted—a size 0 paintbrush.
  • Choose a simple design that I had the greatest chance of applying well — There are some fairly mind boggling henna design out there, but I made a point to steer clear of them as much as possible. Certainly I wanted something that would be a little bit challenging, but I knew if I went for something super elaborate and ended up with a brown blob on the back of my hand, I would be much more likely to get discouraged. Ultimately I created a design that combined this moon and an owl that was inspired by this bird design. To make it even easier on myself, I traced my hand on a piece of paper before I created the design so that it would be roughly to scale.


I was ready… or so I thought.

If At First You Don’t Succeed… Ask for Help!

  • Henna paste with good consistency — check!
  • Use paintbrush technique to apply henna design fairly accurately — check!
  • Leave henna on for a couple hours while watching TV — check!
  • Remove dried henna paste and reveal finished design — hmm, well that didn’t work…

I’d left the henna paste on for about two hours–approximately the same amount of time as I had with the design I’d gotten at Car Free Day. My design however was much lighter, a pale orange instead of a satisfying deep tan.

What had I done wrong?
I decided to consult my Facebook friends on the subject.

I know there’s a temptation when learning something new to not show your work until you’ve perfected the final result. For myself though, I like showing my process because it’s an opportunity to bounce around ideas with other people in my creative circle or get a second opinion when challenges arise.

My Facebook friends didn’t disappoint and I quickly discovered how many of them had had henna done in the past, sometimes at their own wedding and sometimes at the weddings of friends and family. The consensus was that the design was pale due to a lack of heat. It had been a blistering, hot summer day when I’d gotten the henna done at Car Free Day and, without realizing it, I’d spent two hours baking henna paste into my skin walking around in the sun. Other suggestions included leaving the paste on a lot longer–like overnight if possible–and/or using pre-mixed paste instead of trying to mix it myself.

I filed away all these suggestions to use next time and then went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, much to my surprise and delight, the design had darkened on its own. My failed attempt hadn’t been a failure after all!


When You’re Ready, Stretch Yourself

One thing I’ve found in doing my own creative projects is that, after the initial surge of discovery and success, there’s a tendency to settle into a comfort zone. This might mean painting the same kind of subjects over and over again or only writing fiction in a particular genre. Of course one can make the argument that you are simply honing the skill over familiar ground, however sometimes it is stepping out onto unfamiliar ground that gives us challenges that we wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

When my partner learned of my henna project he enthusiastically—and rather bravely, in my opinion—volunteered himself for the role of human canvas. Since I was still very new to applying these henna designs, I was a bit nervous about the idea of him having to walk around with one of them, particularly if I ended up botching it in some way. He wasn’t concerned though and I reminded myself that it was the impermanence of henna that was part of its appeal. Even if I screwed it up, the evidence of it would be gone in a week.

As it turned out though, our biggest problem was getting the designs to show up at all as his skin didn’t react in the same way as mine to the henna paste. The first design I tried on the inside of his wrist was barely visible even though we left it on about the same amount of time as my owl design.

henna_armband2For our second attempt, I tried an armband design on his upper arm. We left the paste on for at least twice as long, however the final design was still much, much lighter than I wanted it to be. Why? Was my paintbrush technique not laying down enough paste? Was the henna too old now? Was there something about his skin that was just inherently resistant to the henna dye?

I also discovered that painting on a 3D object such as a person’s arm is not the same as painting on a flat surface like a canvas or even the back of my own hand. Belatedly I realized the design had gotten bigger as I’d made my way around his arm, which made the final result look a little bit warped. If I were to do it again, I think I’d tie a couple pieces of string around his arm that I could use as guides to keep the design’s proportions reasonably straight.

In any case, it was a mystery and it was also starting to get a bit frustrating. Still, neither of us were ready to throw in the towel quite yet.

henna_turtle_designFrom the beginning my partner had wanted me to try doing a turtle design on his chest as he has a strong affinity for turtles. The other designs had been good stepping stones, but the intent had always been to build toward doing this larger and more elaborate design. I went back online and pulled together more design research. As henna is most often used for bridal designs, I looked to the more masculine Polynesian and Maori tattoo traditions for my inspiration. My final design was largely based on this piece by Maori tattoo artist, Ta’a Marseilles.

I also tossed the last of the old henna paste and whipped up a fresh batch. I was still very hesitant about my ability to draw with only a henna tube, so I put about two-thirds of the henna into tubes made of magazine paper and left the remaining third in the bowl. I used what was in the bowl to paint on the design with my little paintbrush and then thickened the design by drawing over it with the paste from the tube. It was a bit of a crutch, but the end result looked a good deal more like what I’d had on my hand at Car Free Day.

The other thing we did differently was attempt to bake in the design using the lowest setting of my hair dryer. This had been one of the heat suggestions that had come from my Facebook friends after my owl attempt.

In essence, I was applying every trick I’d learned so far during the course of my henna education to ensure that this design would actually stick. It’s something that I likely wouldn’t have done if I’d just stayed in my comfort zone and continued to putter around with drawing designs on the back of my own hand.


I was a bit crestfallen after he sent me the photo of the eight hour mark as there didn’t seem to be much improvement in the darkness of design. The photo from the next morning though completely made up for it. EUREKA!

So get out there and learn something new! Take classes. Dive into Google or Youtube. Get messy. Make mistakes and then just keep going.

Dogs of any age are perfectly capable of learning new tricks–just ask Lola.