A world of Inks

Ink can make or break calligraphy practice. The relation between your ink and paper should be the foremost thought in your mind when sitting down to practice. Some inferior inks can produce feathered shades and thick hairlines no matter what paper you use. When studying and practicing calligraphy it is important that the ink produces clean crisp lines because, understanding calligraphy is to master the distinct shapes that make up a letter. What you’re looking for in an ink (for practice and final pieces) is one that handles the transition from hairline to shade and vice versa in a clean-cut, well-defined manner.

(Always make sure you have clean ink, free of any impurities as any dust or fibre hairs will clog up the nib restricting the even flow of ink.)

Below are just some of my thoughts on some popular inks that I have used while learning calligraphy.

My go-to ink for any sort of prolonged practice is walnut. Walnut ink will produce superior results on almost any sort of paper – I have never had an instance where walnut ink has feathered except on the very lowest quality of papers. The beauty of walnut ink is, is that it isn’t abrasive so won’t attack your favourite nib like Iron Gall will; it can also be cut with water so it will last a lot longer and still maintain its exceptional qualities. I use Tom Nortons walnut ink for it's unrivalled quality, it's a bit more expensive but it comes ready to use. You can also purchase walnut ink crystals but, mixing the crystals to the right consistency can be tricky.

As beautiful as Iron Gall ink is, it contains copperas (iron sulfate) and will attack and disintegrate your nib normally within a couple hours of uninterrupted use. As it's an indelible and erosive ink, I personally would only use Iron Gall ink on commissions and projects that have to stand the test of time and if I had plenty of nibs that I had chosen to use for the intended project.

Sumi inks produce an intense, rich black akin to Iron gall ink with extremely fine hairlines like those produced by walnut ink and iron gall. I use Moon Palace Sumi ink which is a beautiful and highly sought after ink which dries with a slight sheen finish. The down sides to this ink are that it smells pretty badly (it gives me a bit of a headache) and if you don’t constantly clean the nib, over time that too will corrode. A truly beautiful ink to use but, for intensive practice I would give this one a pass.

J. Herbin fountain pen inks are limited in their colour choices but have 24ct gold particles so when dried they have a two tone appearance. I’ve found that they spread on the down strokes on most papers as you’ll see below. These inks aren’t really appropriate for long period practice sessions and because they are fountain pen inks they’re generally only for monoline writing as less ink is being used so there’s less chance of spreading/feathering.

If you want to add a beautiful pop of colour to your practice to break up the monotonous black or brown ink, I suggest using gouache. As it's opaque watercolour paint you can mix them so the colour options are endless and can be used on almost any paper without feathering. My favourite is Winsor and Newton gouache as it only needs to be mixed with water to reach the correct consistency with no need for gum arabic. Gouache also won’t corrode the nib and when mixed right will produce results similar to walnut ink.

To demonstrate some of these inks I have raided my collection and from the image you will be able to see the differences in the mediums I have mentioned above to compare and contrast. In my collection I came across two inks that I must have picked up over the years (Belt Qualitie and Signum) – I don’t have much experience with them but, decided to include them in this comparison mainly to satisfy my own curiosity!

For this quick comparison I have used Rhodia paper with a Blanzy 2552 nib (A vintage nib I purchased from a reputable dealer at a fair price!). All inks performed rather well apart from the J.Herbin fountain pen ink with the shade being less defined than the others, with a thicker hairline producing an overall rather sloppy finish – It could still be used, but carefully, and if you really wanted to have 24ct gold flakes laced throughout your calligraphy!

Whatever ink you choose it will ultimately come down to personal preference and how it performs on your chosen practice paper and nib. Without harmony among “The Three Graces” of the nib, paper and ink; calligraphy practice can fall apart or prolong your study without any real meaningful progress. Getting them right will set you up for intelligent, meaningful and hopefully enjoyable practice and study!

    Walnut Ink (Can also be picked up from Amazon and Ebay)
    Schmincke Gouache (Schmincke is another well respected paint manufacturer and popular amongst many calligraphers)