Ink is arguably one of the most important parts of Calligraphy along with pens and supports (paper). Ink is also a highly personal choice – what works well for one calligrapher might be a disaster for another.
Fortunately, there is a wide range of varieties, formulas and colors to choose from that also can be confusing when searching for the “perfect” calligraphy ink. Ask ten different calligraphers what is the best ink and you will probably get ten different answers!
There are three types of inks suitable for calligraphy:
- fountain pen ink (only for calligraphy fountain pens – not dip pens)
- drawing/calligraphy ink (for dip pens)
- Chinese/Japanese stick ink (for dip pens)
A few general questions to consider when selecting an ink:
- is the ink for a dip pen or a fountain pen?
- do you prefer blacks to be a warm (brownish) or cool (bluish) color?
- does it need to be permanent (e.g. non-fading)?
- does it need to be waterproof?
You don’t need to run out purchase several different brands of calligraphy ink unless, of course, you happen to love all the varieties! Pick one or two to start and work with it a while before deciding whether or not it suits your requirements and style.
Over the years I’ve narrowed my “favorite” ink choices to two brands for all my calligraphy work :
- Winsor & Newton Liquid Indian Ink (Non-Waterproof) for general calligraphy
- Rotring Artist Color Opaque (Waterproof) for professional work.
The Winsor & Newton Liquid Indian Ink is rather interesting as it is a water-based solution of Chinese stick ink with no shellac.
Tip: Some inks labeled “India” or “Indian” inks contain shellac, a substance that dries very quickly and will clog and often damage fountain pens and dip pen nibs. Try to avoid using inks with shellac – most brands will have it listed on the label.
Unfortunately, the Rotring Artist Colors have been discontinued so I am in the process of looking for a comparable replacement.
The Rotring Artist Color was not technically an “ink”, but an acrylic medium with finely ground pigments that was lightfast, waterproof and permanent. It was used for a variety of techniques including drawing and airbrush. The black was dense, opaque, flowed well from the nib, did not “puddle” at the bottom of a pen stroke, and did not show the overlap of pen strokes.
Tip: Although some inks are labeled “waterproof”, a good soaking in water will cause some disruption of the ink. This will be especially noticeable when mixing calligraphy with other media such as watercolor. If you really need an ink to be waterproof, test it first or consider an acrylic-based alternative suitable for dip pens.
There are other brands of similar mediums on the market but I have not tested enough of them yet to decide which one would be a suitable replacement. It’s possible that any similar medium for airbrushing (finely ground pigments) would also be finely ground enough for a dip pen.
Calligraphy Fountain Pen Ink
Calligraphy fountain pens are a little more restrictive as to what type of ink should be used in the pen. One should generally follow the recommendations of the pen manufacturer or choose inks that are specifically labeled for fountain pens.
Calligraphy fountain pens typically use ink contained in plastic cartridges so it is relatively simple to purchase refills specific to your pen. A few brands might also have the option of purchasing or including a converter that will allow you to use bottled ink instead of cartridges.
Tip: Converters are handy for using fountain pen ink from other manufacturers if you don’t like the ink for your pen or want to try a different ink.
Note that even though the bottled ink label might indicate the ink can be used in a fountain pen, be cautious about using it as some inks not specifically formulated for your pen might clog the pen reservoirs and mechanisms, sometimes ruining the pen. If possible, test the ink in an old pen until you are sure the ink will not create any damage.
Since calligraphy fountain pens can be much more expensive than dip pens, make sure the ink is thoroughly flushed and the pen cleaned after each use. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations for inks and cleaning.
Note that fountain pen inks are generally dye-based and are fugitive (eventually will fade or change color). These inks are generally not recommended for projects that will be exposed to light for long periods (e.g. presentation certificates, broadsheets).
Dip pens allow greater latitude with ink selection, and can also be used with other media such as gouache or an acrylic-based ink.
Although I enjoy having a wide range of pen nibs to play with, I am very particular about the ink I use as I look for certain characteristics that suit my calligraphy style and archival requirements:
- dense, black color
- produces clean, crisp strokes without fading or “puddling”
- a “thicker” ink that grabs the reservoir but flows evenly
- does not fade or change color over time
- does not show overlapping pen strokes
- does not contain any ingredients that might damage the support material or pen nib (e.g. India inks that contain shellac)
- a “cool” color
Of course, inks that do not meet my personal preferences are not useless – certain ink characteristics such as more translucent or thinner, free-flowing inks can be used to create amazing artistic effects that add beauty and character to lettering.
Calligraphy Inks for Review
These are just a few inks purchased from a local art supply store – not a comprehensive selection but inks I’ve heard about from other calligraphers and inks I have not used personally:
- Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink – available in a variety of colors that can be mixed. Labeled a “professional calligraphy ink for fountain, dip or technical pen and airbrush.” Non-waterproof and lightfast.
- Higgins Eternal – permanent, black. Considered the best ink of choice by many calligraphers.
- Design Higgins – non-waterproof drawing ink
- Higgins Calligraphy Ink – waterproof, labeled “for use in all calligraphic and fountain pens”
- Higgins Black Magic – waterproof drawing ink that is labeled “produces the most opacity available” and since I like opacity, I thought I’d give it a try.
The following tests were written on high-quality sketchbook paper with a dip pen using a Brause nib and thoroughly cleaned between each test. The samples were not retouched after scanning:
#1: Based on my own criteria, the Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink was the best: dense black; sharp, crisp hairlines and flowed very smoothly from nib without puddling. I found it very similar to the W&N Indian Ink (Chinese stick ink).
#2: Design Higgins was my second favorite with similar characteristics as the W&N Calligraphy Ink, but a little thinner – it didn’t “grab” the reservoir as much and flowed a little faster.
#3: Higgins Eternal: Now I know why many calligraphers rave about this ink – it’s a little too thin for my style of calligraphy and not as opaque as I prefer, but it flows well from the nib and creates very fine hairlines. This would be a great first choice for beginners.
#4: Higgins Calligraphy: Much thinner and less opaque than the Higgins Eternal. Overlapping strokes were obvious and the ink would “puddle” at the bottom of the stroke.
#5: Higgins Black Magic: This was actually the least opaque of all the inks tested. To be fair, although the label did mention “calligraphy”, this ink is probably formulated more for technical pens and drawings.
There are many other manufacturers that produce excellent, quality calligraphy inks – I selected the Winsor & Newton because I’m familiar with the outstanding quality of their artists’ materials and wanted to try their Calligraphy Ink. Higgins brand was selected because of it’s reputation within the calligraphy community and a brand I had not used yet.
Chinese/Japanese Stick Ink
Traditionally tools for Chinese/Japanese calligraphy and painting, somewhere along the line Western calligraphers discovered the unique properties and beauty of ground stick ink for dip pen lettering.
It might be a little difficult for beginners, but the ink can be ground to any desired thickness and a good quality ink stick will produce an amazing range of tones.
Ink sticks and ink stones can usually be purchased from calligraphy supply stores such as John Neal Bookseller.
A mid-range quality ink stick and ink stone will produce good ink for calligraphy. Student quality ink sticks can be purchased for a few dollars, and ink stones are usually priced according to their quality. Ink sticks are also available in colors and are best ground on an unglazed Gaken dish.
All you need is an ink stone for grinding the ink, an ink stick, and distilled water. The ink is produced by placing about a teaspoon of water on the stone and, holding the ink stick in an upright position, slowly grinding the ink into the water with a circular motion.
The ink needs to be ground carefully; too much pressure will cause bits of ink to chip off and might crack the stick. Once the ink is at the desired consistency, it is loaded into the pen reservoir using a brush. The ink stone should be cleaned with water (nothing abrasive) as dried ink left on the stone will damage the surface. When finished grinding ink, dry the ink stick and store it – never leave the ink stick standing on the stone!
For more complete information on ink sticks and ink stones, the Scriptorium Lundensis has interesting information about ink stick qualities, and the Art of Calligraphy site has excellent information on using ink sticks, ink stones and their care and storage.
Tip: There are plenty of opinions and recommendations about calligraphy ink, but ultimately only you can decide what ink is best for your style and purpose.
If you have access to a local calligraphy group, this is an excellent opportunity to see “inks in action” by looking at what other calligraphers are doing and what types of ink they use. Some groups will have an “ink exchange” where you can trade an ink you don’t like for something new to try!
Art supply stores might also have “sample” inks open for testing – if they do, take your dip pen and try a few before deciding what to purchase.
Remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” ink – just the ink that works for you – and your pen!