What is Ink? Ink is a liquid with a pigment or dye based colouring used for painting, drawing and printmaking purposes. The characteristics of ink vary wildly to suit specific applications. The term ‘ink’ is used to describe thick buttery substances, as well as liquids that will drip from a pipette. Lightfast inks tend to be made with pigments held within a clear binder, but there are also non-lightfast inks made from dyes available – which can offer vibrant colour that can be used for work that is not exposed to lots of light – such as sketchbook work, or work intended for reproduction.
What’s the Difference Between Ink and Paint?
The very best fine art paints are formulated to offer you as many single pigment colours so that you can mix exactly what hue you require, without any compromise of vibrancy. They are adaptable and can be mixed with mediums for thick impasto brush marks, or thinned out to optimise transparency and luminosity. Inks tend to be less adaptable. They are formulated for more specific art processes – such as for pen work, printmaking or intense splashes of colour to be applied with a brush or pipette. There are fewer inks than there are paints that can span a variety of image making processes. Ink based processes tend to be altered by the choice of tools used, rather than modifying the colour itself, although there are mediums available for some of the inks described below.
Drawing, Painting and Calligraphy Inks
Inks formulated for drawing, painting or calligraphy are usually very fluid (somewhere between milk and water in consistency) and vary in transparency, lightfastness and water solubility. Drawing inks can be pigment or dye based – generally dye based inks are less lightfast than those made with pigment, and may fade with prolonged exposure to sunlight. Waterproof drawing inks tend to be made with pigment and shellac binder (a resin secreted by the lac bug) or an acrylic emulsion, and can be diluted with water while wet. Rewettable water soluble inks offer an open working time, and are suitable for use with refillable fountain pens. There are also permanent water soluble inks than can be diluted in water but once dry can not be rewetted, which are usually better suited to brush or dip pen work.
Calligraphy inks are also available waterproof or water soluble. Dip pens can be used with either while fountain pens are best used with water soluble ink to avoid the ink drying and clogging the pen. Traditional calligraphy inks are more opaque than drawing inks.
Drawing Ink Tools
For these inks, getting started requires minimal equipment. First of all, you need to decide which tool you wish to use to apply your ink – a pen or brush, or a combination. A brush will allow you to vary the width of your mark depending on the pressure you apply, and it’s also easy to control the colour saturation. Pens on the other hand are best for a uniform application of colour – both in terms of colour saturation and the width of your line. There are a wide range of nibs for dip pens to allow you to make a variety of different marks. If you’re looking for suitable brushes, the best to use for inks are soft haired watercolour brushes, which are available with natural or synthetic hair. Hake brushes are traditional goat hair brushes that can be used for traditional sumi-e ink painting techniques.
Drawing Ink Surfaces
Once you have decided on your tools, you’ll need something to work on. Paper is an obvious choice – and any kind of paper can be used. The colour, texture and absorbency of the paper will impact upon how the ink behaves when applied and the overall finished results. If a paper is not sized or is soft sized (such as printmaking paper), drawing ink is likely to bleed or feather on it when applied. Harder sized watercolour papers may feel slightly scratchy when drawn on with a pen and more suited to crisp fine lines. These differences will play a part in the qualities of your finished work. Other surfaces you can work on are gesso panels – which is smooth with a degree of absorbency, or canvas – the weave of which gives a texture perfect for applying ink with a brush.
Indian Ink and Chinese Ink
Black Indian or Chinese ink usually uses lamp black pigment, bound in a gum like binder, which becomes liquid when mixed with water. The very first Indian inks did not even have a binder; they were simply made of soot and water. Its use dates back to the 3rd Millennium B.C, during Neolithic China. It was used originally by Chinese painters but often the materials were imported from India, which is why it is known sometimes as Chinese ink, and sometimes as Indian ink. Chinese Ink is usually liquid, but it also available in a stick, which will turn to a workable ink when ground into an ink stone by hand with a little water. As with drawing inks, Indian inks are either water soluble or water proof, depending on the amount of shellac in the ink itself (the more shellac there is the more waterproof the ink becomes). Watersoluble Indian Inks can be used in some pens and airbushes but it is worth checking the manufacturer’s individual advice to ensure that the ink is compatible. Indian ink can also be applied with bamboo pens as well as brushes. It will adhere to paper, canvas, wood and fabric.
Indian inks are not usually mixed with mediums, however watercolour mediums could be explored with water soluble Indian Inks, and shellac can be added to shellac based Indian Inks to increase their gloss when dry.
Acrylic Ink and Airbrush Ink
Airbrush inks are the lowest possible viscosity ink, guaranteeing consistent flow and maximum control of application, with minimal risk of clogging. Airbrush inks are acrylic based and can be applied to any surface. They dry waterproof, and can also be used with dip pens and brushes. To start airbrushing, all you need is your airbrush equipment and your airbrush colours, as well as the surface you wish to apply your colour on, which could be paper, card, canvas or metal. You may also wish to invest in a spraying booth to keep your spraying work contained.
Alcohol inks are fast-drying alcohol-based dye inks that create bright flowing textures, popularly used in pour painting. Once the ink is applied, the alcohol evaporates, leaving the dye behind. Once it dries it can be re-wet with rubbing alcohol, creating unique and versatile effects that can’t be achieved with water-based products, such as acrylic paint. Alcohol inks can be applied with a brush or pen, or dropped straight from the pipette in the bottle, on to paper, card, canvas or panel. Brushes and tools should be blotted on a paper towel before rinsed with 70% alcohol solution.
Ink for Relief/Intaglio Print
The inks you can use for relief and intaglio printmaking processes are much higher viscosity than drawing inks, with a consistency similar to neat oil or acrylic paint. Relief inks are available in water, acrylic and oil based varieties, while intaglio printing is usually done with stiffer oil based ink, with Akua Intaglio Ink offering a soy based alternative that can be thinned with water. Water washable oil based inks negate the need for using harsh solvents during the clean up operation.
In order to start relief printing, you need a matrix such as wood or lino which you would carve into using either lino or wood cutting tools, or wood engraving tools. A roller is usually used to apply a thin and even layer of colour to your matrix before you place a sheet of paper over your block and use pressure to make an imprint. For Japanese woodblock printing, a much thinner, water based ink or watercolour paint is used and applied with a special purpose made, soft natural hair brush.
Intaglio printing involves engraving into a matrix such as copper, drypoint card or an acrylic sheet. You apply ink to the surface of your plate before simultaneously removing excess ink and pushing ink into the engraving lines of your image by dabbing your plate with a ball of scrim or tarlatan. A print is made by placing a damp sheet of paper on to the plate and applying pressure using an etching press, so that the ink transfers to your paper.
For more in depth information on how to get started in linocut visit Linocut Printmaking for Beginners – What You Need to Get Started
Further reading on Etching can be found here.
Screen printing ink can either be water or oil based. Water based screen printing ink is thinner and pourable, while oil based ink tends to be thicker, but with a lower tack than relief or intaglio ink. Plastisol inks are have a PVC binder that are heat set and are popular for use when printing garments, but require solvents for cleaning. All screenprint inks are formulated to make it easy to control with a squeegee, and also push through a fine mesh stretched over a frame. In order to create a certain shape in a screenprint a mask is made to ensure ink is only applied in the desired places. Screen printing can be done on a multitude of surfaces, including paper, plastic or fabric. A number of acrylic screen printing mediums are available that can be mixed with regular acrylic paint to increase their tack and suitability for screen printing. Ready made screen printing inks are available, some of which are formulated primarily for textile printing.
To view everything you need to get started in screen printmaking methods, visit the Screenprinting department.
Lithography is a printmaking process which involves drawing an image using something greasy on a plate, then coating the plate with water and gum arabic, before inking the plate up with oil based ink and taking a print. The water and gum arabic repel the oil based ink so that only the desired image is picked up by the ink. The process requires a high amount of pressure, offered by a lithographic printing press. Traditional lithography involves the use of chemicals such as nitric acid, gum arabic and alum for preparing the plate; these will help to sensitise the plate to begin with, and then fix the greasy marks you make to create the image. More primitive versions of the lithographic process have been discovered, using cola or vinegar instead of acids, on aluminium instead of stone. ‘Kitchen lithography’ can be done at home without the need for a printing press. Lithography is a diverse process as you can draw your image with a wide variety of materials, from crayons to paint, and so resulting prints can look just like paintings or drawings, with the benefit of being able to print multiples of the image.
Lithography requires a very thin layer of ink, and so consequently lithographic ink is highly pigmented, with a relatively stiff oil binder that will not squeeze out of place when pressure is applied to make an impression. Relief ink has been known to be used in place of especially formulated lithographic ink in the past, but it’s key that a lot less ink is used than in relief printing to maintain control over the process. Because lithography works on the principle that oil and water do not mix, it is important to not use water-washable printmaking inks for lithography, as the water/gum arabic solution applied to the plate during the inking up process will dilute the ink you apply to the stone. This will make it possible for ink to adhere to the whole picture plane, when the process requires some degree of oil repelling so that oil only adheres on the image of your print.
From the simplicity of soot mixed with water, to PVC based colour that remains liquid until set with heat, the variety to be found within the world of ink is about as wide as you can get – and this is before we even consider the range of colours available. Whether you’re making a simple yet expressive brush painting, or planning a complex multi-layered lithograph, the qualities of the ink you choose to work with are paramount for ensuring a satisfying process and end result.