Introduction to ink

Artist ink is a coloured substance used in drawing, painting and printmaking. The viscosity varies widely depending on the use. For drawing and painting it is a fluid liquid and for some types of printmaking it is a paste. Another characteristic of ink is lightfastness. Most inks made with pigments will be lightfast whereas inks made with dyes may fade when exposed to light for some time. Some drawing inks (Winsor & Newton Drawing ink and Dr PH Martin Radiant ink) are made with dyes because the colours are especially vibrant and the resulting work is expected to be stored in a sketchbook or to be reproduced photographically for graphic design work.

What’s the difference between ink and paint?

The very best fine art paints are formulated to offer you as many single pigment colours as possible so that you can mix exactly the 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.

What do I need to get started with inks?

Inks
Tools for application - dip pens, watercolours brushes, hake brushes, bamboo pens
Surface - paper, panel, canvas
Blotting paper
Ceramic palette
Water pot

Drawing, painting, and calligraphy inks

Inks formulated for drawing, painting, and 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 or artificial light. 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 watersoluble inks offer an open working time, and are suitable for use with refillable fountain pens.

Calligraphy inks are also available waterproof or watersoluble. Dip pens can be used with either, while fountain pens are best used with watersoluble ink to avoid the ink drying and clogging the pen. Traditional calligraphy inks are more opaque than drawing inks.

What tools can I use with drawing inks?

For drawing inks, getting started requires minimal equipment. First of all, you need to decide which tool you wish to use to apply your ink – a dip pen or a 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, though you can vary the width of your line by changing the pressure you apply. There are a wide range of nibs for dip pens to allow you to make a variety of different marks. 

Brushes 
Soft haired watercolour brushes are ideal for using with ink. They 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.

Dip pens and drawing ink
Modern fountain pens don’t have the same characteristics and don’t really prepare you for the experience of drawing with a dip pen. Most dip pens will only draw downwards strokes, and they will invariably run dry halfway through a long, smooth stroke. Rembrandt will have used a pen with these limitations every day. Modern dip pens are capable of producing a variety of textures, from long, sinuous lines to scratchy, hasty-looking scribbles. Unlike many of the quills or pens of the past, some can even make upward strokes as well as downward. 

You can get started with a dip pin with a couple of nibs (drawing and mapping nibs are a good place to start for drawing), a pen handle which can hold the nibs you have chosen, ink, and the appropriate paper. Another option is to go for one of the Joseph Gillott nib and handle sets made by William Mitchell Calligraphy, which come in Drawing and Mapping varieties.

Most dip pen nibs come coated in wax, to stop them tarnishing in storage. To draw with them, you will need to submerge them in boiling or just-boiled water for half a minute or so, which melts the wax and allows ink to flow freely from the nib onto the page. (Your nib should also be washed clean and dried completely after every use to prevent it rusting.)

It’s helpful to have a sheet of paper just for doodling when you first pick up the pen or change nibs. Practice hatching for laying down tints - large areas of uniformly spaced lines which describe the shape of an object. This will give you a sense of how the ink flows from the nib, what colour the ink is, and how the width of the line varies with pressure. Try cross-hatching too, drawing quickly to make your strokes more decisive.

Traditional drawing inks are made with shellac, so they dry to a water-resistant finish (though do be aware that they aren’t vegan). Sennelier makes a range of traditional light-resistant drawing inks that are ideal for dip pens. Winsor & Newton Drawing Inks come in a range of colours, though they do have a major drawback; the only lightfast inks in the range are the Black and Liquid Indian Inks, and the White. All of the colour inks in this range are made with fugitive dyes, which means the colour will fade over time.

Bamboo pens
Bamboo pens are made of dried bamboo sticks that are hollow so that the pen can be dipped into ink and then dragged across the surface on which you are working. The lines created with these bamboo pens are expressive and vibrant. Because they do not hold a lot of ink they need frequent dipping – they are not designed to create long unbroken lines, so are best used for relatively short lines where blotchiness and variation in the width of the line created does not matter too much. They are available with a flat nib and a pointed nib; the flat nib can be used to make a wider range of marks, but the pointed nib will produce finer marks. Once the ink starts to run out they are capable of making dry, textured marks which can also be very interesting. 

What’s the best surface for drawing ink?

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 have an impact upon how the ink behaves when applied, as well as 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 are smooth with a degree of absorbency, or canvas – the weave of which gives a texture perfect for applying ink with a brush.

Additional extras you may wish to invest in might be blotting paper (if using a pen), a ceramic palette, and a water pot.

Indian Ink and Chinese Ink

Black Indian or Chinese ink is made with lamp black pigment combined with water to form a liquid. Sometimes shellac or a binder such as gelatin is added to increase the durability of the ink once it is dry. 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 ink was 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 is also available in a stick, which will turn to a workable ink when ground into an ink stone by hand with a little water. Indian inks almost always dry waterproof, depending on the amount of shellac in the ink itself (the more shellac there is the more waterproof the ink becomes). 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 watersoluble Indian Inks, and shellac can be added to shellac based Indian inks to increase their gloss when dry.

For further reading on painting with Chinese ink, have a look at our Guide to Chinese Ink Painting here.

Sumi Ink

In Japanese ink painting (also known as ‘Sumi-e’), ink stones and sticks are still used today. The carbon for sumi ink comes from either the soot of rapeseed oil, the soot of pine sap, or from industrial oils that are used to produce a cheaper sumi which has a brown tone. Sumi ink is also available in a liquid form.

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, you need 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 ink

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, onto paper, card, canvas, or panel. Brushes and tools should be blotted on a paper towel before rinsed with 70% alcohol solution.

Ink for relief and intaglio print

The inks you can use for relief and intaglio printmaking processes have a  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 such as Caligo Safe-wash 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 engraved 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 onto 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, read Linocut Printmaking for Beginners – What You Need to Get Started.

Further reading on Etching can be found here.

Screen printing ink

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 have a PVC binder that are heat set and are popular for use when printing garments, but require solvents for cleaning. All screen print inks are formulated to make them easy to control with a squeegee and to 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 ink

Lithography is a printmaking process which involves drawing an image using something greasy on a plate or stone, 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, 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.

Further Reading

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.

Two Illustrators Draw With Jackson’s Indian Ink

Fluid Painting With Jackson’s Alcohol Inks

Jackson’s Metallic Drawing Inks on Black Khadi Watercolour Paper

In Conversation with Michael Craine from Cranfield Colours

Brush Pens: The Definitive Guide

A Guide to Dip Pens and Drawing Ink

Monotype Printmaking for Beginners