The Art of Henna
I have never been much of an artistic person–to my dismay.
Attempting to imitate my peers, I went through a singing phase, a guitar phase, a painting phase (oil, acrylic, and watercolor), a sketching phase, and even a bracelet-making phase.
All of these adventures of mine, experimenting with different media, could be summarized easily (in the words of my mother): impatient and rushed.
And she was right of course, I truly thought I was going to be the next Monet or Picasso within a week– that I had this potential within me.
A true child prodigy (as you can tell, I had no lack of confidence in my abilities as a child).
My mother knew best – mothers always do – and I never really produced anything of value. I wish I could say I enjoyed the process, but I didn’t, of course, because I was too busy rushing through anything I did. I thought I could become an expert after perusing several Youtube videos.
With that being said, there is one art form that I have never lost interest: Henna. I’ve always been fascinated by Henna. I have seen many people in my life use it– whether it was celebrating a religious holiday or just drawing fun, temporary tattoos.
Regardless of my previous history with art, Henna is the only form that I’ve been able to learn and practice at my leisure. While I might have begun my journey thinking about how easy it would be, I now have a deeper appreciation for Henna artists and learning how to use Henna.
Before I get to my experience with Henna, I would like to talk about where this beautiful art originated from, and how Henna is used in the modern day!
History of henna and its usage today:
Beautiful Mehndi bridal Art
Henna is thought to have originated over 9000 years ago. Natural henna comes from the Lawsonia inermis plant, which is also known as hina, or more popularly, the henna tree. Henna is typically made by drying the leaves of the plant, and then milling and sifting them. Once the powder is created, it is often mixed with a concoction of liquids in order to create a paste.
In earlier times, henna was used for its cooling properties. Henna powder was mixed into a paste, and feet and hands were soaked in the paste. As a result of this process, it was revealed that henna stained the skin, and designs on the body began to be created by utilizing paste and twigs. Henna was also seen as a natural remedy for skin problems, headaches, digestive issues, and hair loss.
The place where henna originated is disputed. Some believe its beginnings are rooted in the Middle East; others claim South Asia, and still, more argue for North Africa.
Some of the earliest instances of decorative henna come from ancient Egypt, where it has been popular for centuries. Cleopatra was said to have used henna designs on her body to enhance her beauty. In the mummification process too, henna was used to stain the hair and nails of the dead. There are also ancient Indian texts documenting the usage of henna (also known as mehendi, which originates from Sanskrit) as an art form.
Henna was and continues to be used for cultural purposes. In Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Religious holidays and weddings often have people adorning their hands and feet with henna. In many Indian weddings, for example, the bride’s hands and feet are garnished with mehendi. It is said that the deeper the henna stain, the happier the newlywed couple will be. Henna is also common among Islamic women, who use henna during religious celebrations like Eid.
The usage of Henna is gradually becoming more widespread as its popularity on social media grows and as many westerners begin to frequent henna artists for the beauty that they have discovered in it. They have found that it can be used to dye hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes as well as the traditional body art – some even use it to create freckles and beauty marks on their face and body.
My experience with henna:
The way I started with henna is a bit unorthodox.
I was heading to a cultural festival, where I planned to volunteer in the African, Middle East, and South Asian section. I originally thought I would just be speaking to people about Arab culture and the language, and perhaps writing the names of people in Arabic.
The job seemed like a piece of cake.
Let me preface my experience by saying that this volunteering experience was in the summer. The sun was blazing, and the environment was humid and icky. Any failures that occurred were not entirely due to the fact that I was unfortunately born with two left hands.
If I thought it was going to be easy, then I thought wrong.
I was asked if I knew how to use henna cones. The answer was, of course, no. At this point in time, I truly believed that I did not have a single artistic bone in my body. I mentioned this, but I somehow still ended up volunteering for henna art at the table. The henna cone felt suffocating in between my palms as I attempted to fumble with it. I had little experience with holding a henna cone, and no idea how to control it.
Was it like a pen? How was I supposed to draw with this? I can’t even draw with a pencil.
To keep this short and simple, I was terrified and on the verge of leaving the event. I would create a new identity to save myself the embarrassment of my artistic failures. And while I didn’t actually have to create a new identity and move somewhere far away, I was thinking about it as I tried to use the henna cones.
Henna is also temperature dependent– meaning if it is warm/hot outside, then henna can become loose/runny, especially if left in the sun.
And of course, in my situation, it was. Making the whole ordeal ten times better.
In order to prepare myself to give the henna, I began to practice on random pieces of paper I had found. If you are a beginner, I highly recommend practicing on something that is not skin first. But I’ll continue more on that topic later.
The cone I used came pre-cut– it had a thin stopper at the tip so that when you wanted to use the henna, you could simply remove the stopper and begin. After practicing on the paper, I tried to apply a little amount to my non-dominant hand to ensure that it flowed correctly on my skin. After that, I began applying it to the skin of other people.
Of course, before applying it on others I gave them the disclaimer that this was indeed my first time, and that I could only do simple designs. If anyone was displeased, they were fully informed that this art was completely free and they could leave at any time. It’s also important to note that not everyone reacts to henna the same, and some skin types might be sensitive to it. I gave that warning as well.
The next hour or two went by quickly. And while I was completely petrified almost the whole time I was drawing with the henna, I did notice that it became easier with practice. I started out extremely slow, attempting to get the hang of the cone, and as time went on, I became slightly more comfortable with holding it and doing the art.
After this experience, I decided that I wanted to continue learning and practicing henna. In the past, I had issues slowing down and learning art. With henna; however, there was more risk. I had to learn the basics: work slow and practice carefully because if I did not, I could potentially mess up a design that lasts for weeks on someone’s skin.
An elegant flower design on the back of the hand with accents on the fingers
How to start learning henna:
Here’s my advice on starting with henna if you are a complete beginner!
First, a warning:
To start, you’ll want to purchase henna. I want to emphasize that you should be extremely careful with this part, as there is natural henna in addition to synthetic henna. Natural henna comes from a plant and is then prepared into a paste, which is generally green to brown in color.. Synthetic henna (also known as black henna) comes from chemicals, the most notable one being PPD (p-Phenylenediamine). This is commonly used in hair dye. It is not approved for skin use, and PPD has been associated with cancer, mutagenicity, and toxicity. Usage of it as henna has led to allergic reactions, blisters, sores, scars, etc. As such, please be careful when purchasing henna. Any henna that is black, or claims to be black, should be avoided as natural henna is not black. When purchasing henna, use a reputable dealer that contains reviews and ingredient lists. You can also purchase henna in person from Indian or Arab stores, but you should always keep an eye out for the type of henna you are purchasing. Natural henna stains orange and turns dark over time into a brown or red color. When using henna, if it appears to be black or stains your skin black, consider discontinuing its usage.
With that disclaimer in mind, we can continue on with the process of learning henna!
In order to learn how to do henna, you should first learn how to hold the cone. There are many different tutorials online about how to hold the cone the “right way”, but it’s really a matter of what you’re most comfortable with. I’d suggest first seeing how you instinctively hold it: play around with the cone and see what gives you the most stability. After this, you could look through a few tutorials on Youtube and copy what they show you to gain an understanding of different techniques.
Before opening the henna, I’d first recommend making sure you have nothing you want to keep clean around you. Henna can stain things pretty easily and can get messy if you accidentally spill some from the tube. I would also recommend kneading the cone thoroughly. Next, get a paper towel, a little bowl of water, and a piece of paper. The paper towel and water will be for cleaning up any potential messes. The paper will be to practice the henna designs.
Once opening the cone, squeeze a bit of henna out of the tip. Generally, the first henna that comes out might be too runny, thick, or just not uniform. I would recommend trying to draw short lines on the paper until you see a consistent paste flow. Do not press the cone hard against the paper when you draw – pressure gently over the tip of the cone or very lightly against the paper. Then, start drawing lines and circles. Try to vary the way you hold the cone and see which technique gives the best stability and flexibility when drawing. Also, attempt different pressures when holding the cone – how much pressure you apply affects the thickness of your lines. Once you’ve gotten into a comfortable position, you can begin practicing drills.
Drills are a way to learn the basics of henna so you can build your confidence and also work up to more complex drawings. You can follow along with youtube tutorials that guide you through beginner drills. I recommend the channels Fairy Fox Design, Gopi Henna, and
You can practice however long you wish, and the more often you practice, the more comfortable you get with drawing henna.
Here is an example of the very first time I tried henna drills. I rushed, and I smudged, and not a single line was draped correctly. However, the point of drills isn't to be amazing on the first try. It’s to get comfortable using henna and holding the cone– so don’t worry if you feel like it’s “difficult” the first few times you practice. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.
Once you build up the courage, you can begin practicing on skin! Here are some tips before you begin.
Make sure you’re sitting comfortably and that you have space to move when you apply henna.
Make sure the area you are applying henna to is clean and dry.
Before applying the henna, inquire about sensitive skin or allergies. This could save your “canvas” from any negative skin reactions. If there are any worries, either avoid using the henna or test a small area of skin.
When you are ready to start, knead the cone, and once done, squeeze out the henna until it is uniform.
At least, in the beginning, practice copying other beginner henna designs. Creating your own style can take time. If traditional designs are not for you, you can avoid them altogether. When I started drawing, I began with simple hearts, flowers, butterflies, stars, and even writing names in English or Arabic.
Once you finish with the henna, make sure it is allowed to dry. The longer the henna is left, the longer it will last, and the darker the stain will be. I recommend, at the very least, 2 hours. I typically try to leave mine overnight. Do not allow any water to come in contact with the henna during this time period.
After waiting, remove the henna paste. It can be scraped or picked off. Try not to use water when you remove the dried henna and try to avoid water coming in contact with the design for the rest of the day. This will provide a better result.
After removing the dried henna, you will generally see a yellow/orange stain on the skin. This will then darken to brown or red within 1-2 days. The stain will last anywhere from 1-3 weeks, depending on how often you wash the area, where you drew the henna, and how long you left it to dry.
Henna is a beautiful art with a rich background in many cultural spheres. It takes patience and time to learn it, but I truly believe that anyone wanting to learn and appreciate henna, can.
If you would like to learn more about other cultures, try doing it through the medium of language! Here at ReDefiners we offer online classes in Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, and English. To find out more about our programs visit our website or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet The Author
Hiba Shaqra is currently a junior at Rutgers University, majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry, and minoring in Arabic, math, and chemistry. Hiba furthers her passion for Syrian and Arab culture in general by serving as vice-president of the Arab Cultural Club, where she plans and organizes events to shine a light on Arab traditions. In addition to this, Hiba maintains a second-degree Taekwondo black belt, enjoys reading fiction novels, and loves to experiment in the kitchen. Hiba aspires to assist and help communities around the world, including communities in her home country of Syria.