Exploring Black Inks

I love working with inks. Whether I am sketching outside or creating larger pieces in the studio, ink is one of my favorite materials.

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Like many of you, early on I began working with India ink. It’s rich deep darks provided a boldness that was, and still is, alluring. I know, sometimes it was a little scary too! Over the years I’ve tried lots of other types of ink and grown fond of quite a few. So, I thought that I’d explore the attributes of some inks that have I used, share a bit of basic info about them, and see what you like about them as well.

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Below you can see a page of ink tests that I made today. With each of the inks, I have kept my testing pretty basic, using four simple steps. In order to see how each the inks look and behaves on a dry paper surface surface, I applied a large brush-mark of each ink to the paper. Then I added a few parallel lines using a small brush. Because I also want to know how the inks interact with water, I conducted two additional tests; first I heavily wet a small area of paper and dropped a tiny bit of full strength ink into that wet paper surface. And, because I’m interested in the re-wetting of the inks, after those short parallel lines were completely dry, I brushed a liberal amount of water over parts of the lines to test test the ability of each ink to resist the effects of water.

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[ Note: When using ink, the substrate (or ground) will likely have a profound effect on how the ink performs. I do employ inks in my large mixed media drawings on Mylar (my Natural-Family-History series) and occasionally on large sheets of various Arches, Rives, or Fabriano papers. Since I use inks a lot for sketching, I conducted these tests on a Canson 140 lb cold pressed watercolor paper. (I also use Fluid Easy Block papers, Canson Multimedia sketchbooks, and Pentalic watercolor journals for sketching). I chose to use the Canson because of its subtle texture and the fact that it isn’t too heavily treated with a sizing. This would allow both water and ink to penetrate the surface at a moderate rate.]

 

IMG_4606 copy, edittedAbove is a strip of inks that I have tested in this manner. Now let’s get a bit closer look at the results.


To the left you can see a close look at three of the first inks I tested in this way. The Winsor Newton and Higgins (#4415) are both traditional India inks. When dry the large areas of ink where pretty even and flat (the Higgins a slightly less flat, a tiny bit less dense) and were only barely transparent. Both also had that “metallic carbon in shellac sheen” we associate with India ink.

The Higgins (#44041) Eternal Ink was very different; in fact it may be a renamed versions of a Higgins ink I remember from my college days. You can see that it is bit less dense than the first two and in the re-wetting test, it obviously isn’t water resistant … much less waterproof. This ink displayed something I used to associate with all black Higgins inks; it is definitely made with a non-black pigment. When younger, I was always aghast (and secretly a little intrigued) that Higgins would often break down into a violet and a yellow brown or olive green) when exposed to water. Here, in both of the water tests, we can see some of the warm and violet casts of the ink. On the plus side, it being labeled “Eternal” should mean it is archival (Ph neutral and fade resistant in light). So it is a good ink; just do be aware though of the visual surprises it may provide you when in comes in  contact with water!

In part because of the Higgins pigment issue, I have tended to use the Speedball Super Black India ink as my “go to” ink in the studio. The Speedball company has been creating art supplies for over a century (Hunt-Speedball-Bienfang) and they make some fine products. This ink definitely uses a black carbon pigment and has a very dense pigment load. Washes made with this finely ground ink tend to be a quite flat, even grey. Opaque at full strength, it flows readily in water but when dry it is very permanent. When using this ink during drawing or painting sessions, I have also noticed that at full strength, it also seems to repel/shed any water (or watercolor) that is laid over it. This is probably due to the shellac binder of this traditional India ink.

Another black ink I use a good bit now is the Yasutomo Sumi Ink. Sumi inks are derived from the same Chinese ink traditions that gave us India inks. I enjoy the velvety look of this one a lot; it is a rich, intense ink black ink. There is much less of a “shellac” shine to this ink and it makes a luscious grey wash too.

Everything I read on the bottle, in commercial descriptions, and on the product website says that Yasutomo Sumi is permanent. But, as you can see, re-wetting it produced a beautiful dark grey wash!  I re-did my experiment and waited six hours to allow the inks to cure more. It still re-wet producing a wash. Now, when reading about inks, you will often hear the term “bullet-proof” in reference to an ink that bind permanently to the cellulose fibers of paper. So, “bullet proof inks should be waterproof when allowed to dry in contact with paper’s cellulose fibers. Perhaps the Canson watercolor paper’s sizing kept the ink from coming chemically into contact with the cellulose … or maybe my ink application was so dense that the upper layers of ink where unable to reach the paper fibers? So, I have to wonder if claims for this inks permanence were negated by the way I was conducting my test with a sized watercolor paper. Maybe on an unsized Sumi paper, this ink is permanent as soon as it is dry?

I will have to explore that more at a later date!

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The next ink I tested, Pen & Ink Sketch, is also an India ink but of a quite different kind. It is made by Art Alternatives out of the UK. They make this black India ink and sell it bottled and in the smaller international size fountain pen cartridges. As soon as you know that it is for fountain pens, it is obvious why it is different from standard India ink. It has to be. Inks with shellac can dry and stubbornly clog the tiny ink channel inside a fountain pen and/or the nib very quickly. It isn’t a nice way for a fountain pen to die.

This ink is lovely though. A soft satin black, not made shiny by any shellac or super sticky gum/sap based binders, it flows beautifully into water. As you see to the left, it re-wets a tiny bit too. Most of the black ink stayed in the paper’s fibers or on the paper surface; only a small amount became active when I added water and gently rubbed the surface of the ink marks. This could make it an excellent candidate for sketching when you need or want to spread only a tiny bit of light washes from previously applied pen or brush drawn lines.

(PS.  Art Alternatives also makes some nice and fairly inexpensive fountain pens for artists under the same brand name as well!)

My next three inks are Holbien Special Black, Liquitex Professional Carbon Black, and Royal Talens Amsterdam Oxide Black. All are dense rich blacks. They all handle well in the brush and the pen. While they seem to react slightly differently when dropped into water or onto wet paper … the Holbien seemed to break down a bit and both the Liquitex and the Royal Talens ran pretty freely … they were equally permanent when I tried the re-wet test. This shouldn’t surprise us though. Each of them is in fact an acrylic polymer emulsion based ink.  Of the three the Hobien seemed the most opaque to me. The other two came close when seen as a mass of color, less so when in thinner applications.

The fact that all three are not re-wettable means they are great for using under additional wet mediums. The Talens and Liquitex seemed to flow well but I must admit am a little leery about using the Holbien to create washes.

These last four inks are really fun. Those first two are specifically made for use with fountain pens. Manuscript Black and Noodler’s Lexington Gray. The last two were both made locally. Fleagall, in the brown bottle with the dropper cap, is made by an artist/graphic designer who teaches at a local community college. The other ink, the Iron Gall is made by a local artisan/craftsman who makes a lot of his own artist’s materials .

As the names imply, Manuscript Black is a bit darker and more densely pigmented than the Lexington Gray. The Manuscript ink spread easily and pretty evenly in the water drop at the top of the test where as the Noodler’s reacted a bit oddly in water. Despite being lighter, in the re-wetting process the Lexington Gray appears to be more permanent than the Manuscript Black.

The last two inks are both iron gall inks. Iron gall inks were the primary inks used in European countries since about the 4th century and were only supplanted by other forms of ink in the 20th century. One of the reasons they were so popular is because they are easy to make and darken with age. Another advantage they have is that once they are thoroughly dry, they do not re-activate with water and hard to scrub off a surface.

Notice both the Flea Gall and the Iron Gall inks are slightly violet when they are diluted. That is a characteristic that I like a lot. The slight transparency of both when applied even at moderate applications make both excellent candidates for ink wash drawings and paintings.

There are two issues that limit the use of iron gall inks in the modern age. One is the tendency for them to be acidic. If not made properly they may be too acidic and can slowly “eat” through the paper. The second problem is they don’t play nicely with closed system mechanical pens. The iron-gallic particles that make up the ink’s pigment can slowly accumulate in a pen’s ink feed and clog it with a difficult to clean mass of hardened ink. This isn’t a problem in a brush or a dip pen which are easier to clean.

In the Upper Canopy, a 5×7 brush sketch using India ink

As if it weren’t obvious already … I can be more than a bit nerdy about art supplies but I do hope this hasn’t been overbearingly pedantic or preachy. I would love to hear what inks you like to work with too. Please tell me if there any inks you think that I ought to try out …. for sketching or for using in the studio? And if you disagree about the qualities of a specific ink that I have talked about here, that is  cool too; please do let me know. I am always open to re-evaluating materials … and to changing my ideas, my opinions!

Now, it is time to get back out there and do dome sketching! There is a 30%-50% chance I will use some ink. Wish me luck.

PS Coming soon, A review of other colors of ink. …. and some ink pens & brush pens too!

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View South On US 11, Mount Syndey, Ink brush sketch, 5×11

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