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 quiet flat and very 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 may be due to the shellac binder included in this ink.papers

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 are waterproof when allowed to dry in contact with the cellulose fibers of the paper. 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 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 hard 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 you can see … I can be more than a bit nerdy about art supplies butI do hope this hasn’t been pedantic or preachy. I would love to hear what inks you like to work with too. Also, 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!


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


From Chicago; Then Back Home Again …

As I promised, I have finally gotten around to posting some more of the sketches from my recent trip to the Urban Sketchers gathering in Chicago a few weeks ago. This first image was actually done in the morning of the last full day of the symposium. I was on Michigan Avenue just south of the Chicago River watching the morning light and shadows play across the tall buildings across the bridge.

Early Morning Shadow, Wrigley Building

After doing the watercolor sketch above, I shifted a few feet on the sidewalk and completed a second sketch using just ink (both fountain brush pen and fountain pen). Here again, I was drew the Wrigley Building but it was after the full eastern façade was in light. (As an aside, I’ll admit that I really like the light poles and lights I found throughout the Loop and Grant Park  parts of the city!)

Wrigley Building, Chicago

Earlier, during in the first full day in Chicago I participated in a session led by Lynne Chapman, an illustrator and urban sketcher from England. Lynn had us concentrate on using line and color separately … finding ways for them to harmonize or counterpoint one another rather than always controlling our color with line. It was an interesting experience; one that I have many times worked on with my adult students in classes … but which I need to remind myself to incorporate often in my own work.

For our first exercise we glued down several pieces of arbitrarily shaped pieces of color paper onto to our sheets of watercolor paper. Then, using inks and other materials (I chose to use dry color marks made with Caran d’Ache watercolor leads), we drew a view of the skyline across Michigan Avenue. Here is my 2nd exercise piece from that session.

My 2nd exercise piece from the Lynne Chapman’s workshop USk-Chicago

I had lots of fun with this … it felt good to be back in “student” mode a bit, It resonated with how I imagine my adult student feel when I push them to try a new type of project. After several more related exercises, we all went off to try and incorporate some of this idea into a piece on our own. I worked up a watercolor sketch using a different part of that skyline viewed through some of the bushes and trees of the arboretum in Grant Park. I worked very loosely, applying color and lines … sometimes together, often separately; trying to define forms using both line and color … but rarely directly conjoining the linear and color shapes.

stage 2 of  my watercolor sketch of the Chicago skyline across from the arboretum

Chicago Skyline (as completed in my USk-Chicago workshop w/ Lynne Chapman)

One of the last pieces of my time in Chicago was again down along the river on Michigan Avenue. This one is in some ways my least successful piece of the symposium. I was working on a large-ish (1/4 sheet, 7.5 x 11) watercolor paper. It is a sketch of an icon of early modern architecture in Chicago … the Tribune Tower.  It proved most difficult. The building is a soaring mass with an ornate gothic style top; it  is so distinctive and so very impressive. This sketch had big shoes to fill; it needed to feel solid and yet leap towards that intensely complicated and powerfully graceful beauty that graces the upper portion of the building. My sketch feels too overworked: I should probably have diminished the visual weight and attention it gave to the dark building immediately behind (to the left) of the Tribune. Those shadows along the road and bridge are a bit necessary to ground the building and were also real … but they also seem a bit heavy handed to me.

I guess it an honest attempt … that just falls a bit short.

North on Michigan, Towards the Tribune in

Frankly, like trying to sketch the Tribune building, everything about the experience was SO very intense. There were many, many fine folks there; right at 500 or so talented and committed sketchers from all around the world. I worked with several great teachers and workshop leaders. Besides Lynne Chapman, I also had wonderful sessions with Uma Kelkar (the beauty of mystery) and Jane Blundell (she spoke on one of my favorite topics, the permanent watercolor pigments). And I got to meet some favorite artists, Marc Taro Holmes and Sheri Blaukopf … both hailing from Montreal.

And I must not forget to mention the friendly, gracious, and magnificently helpful members of the Chicago Urban Sketchers chapter (including Paul Ingold) all of whom worked tirelessly as volunteers.

Charlottesville Rooftop View

We did make it home of course. And I have returned to sketching between and in the cities and towns near where I live. It feels really good to re-acquaint myself, to re-adjust, to be back into my more normal practice.  And if I struggled a bit with the immense height that the central core of Chicago presented me with … my hope is that some of what I saw, did, and experienced in Chicago will rub off on my work as well as my teaching of sketching.