The History of India Ink

More than 5,000 years ago, the invention of black carbon ink launched the unbroken use of pigmented ink in pen drawing that continues to this day. Through an ancient, but sophisticated process, oils, resins, and other hydrocarbons were converted to highly refined pigments that were the basis for the type of inks still in use today.

Image (right): Collecting pine smoke to make Chinese ink, 1587-1666 AD

The black ink we use in dip pens, technical pens, and advanced fiber-tipped markers got its start in ancient China with an ink made from a very special pigment called Lamp Black. This black colorant is made through incomplete burning of hydrocarbons like oil, wax, tree resin, and more recently natural gas and coal. Lamp black is essentially a type of soot, like smut from a smoky candle, or from the inside of an oil lamp chimney.

Image (left): Early 20th c. lamp black furnace

What makes lamp black so good for ink is its tiny particle size. It’s a carbon pigment without a structured, crystalline shape like charcoal or graphite. This “amorphous” kind of carbon has particles small enough to stay suspended. That's called “colloidal suspension”, and it’s why ink stays mixed together in the bottle without separating. Ink with small enough particles can even be used without a binder added, becoming a “staining color”.

People in Ancient Egypt had already used carbon black ink as early as the 4th millennium BCE, but the ink that we use today got its start in China around 3000 BCE. The traditional method for making this remarkable ink started with special lamps with a glazed ceramic cup resting above to collect soot from burning resin or oil, which was whisked out with a feather to gather only the smallest particles.

Asian inks are crafted as solid sticks made from a dough consisting of carbon black pigment and gelatin-like glue. This dough is pressed into molds, and the sticks are dried slowly over several weeks in containers of wood ash or sawdust that go from damp to dry, to ensure they don’t warp or crack. When rubbed against a dish or stone, the stick combines with water to make a liquid ink for drawing, painting, and calligraphy.

Carbon inks were used in Europe for centuries, but these were cruder inks made from various types of soot, including “bistre” from wood ash, and sometimes even including burnt paper or bread. Brownish Iron-Gall ink was also widely used, but it was acidic, and caused a brown halo to form around ink marks.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Asian ink arrived in Europe where it was called “China Ink”, and eventually came to be generically called “India Ink” for the trade route through which it was obtained.

Image (Left): The White House ("President's House") Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1807

This dark, waterproof ink capable of crisp contours and sensitive gradients was ideal for a new style of architectural drawing emerging in England that incorporated landscape painting into beautiful illustrations. Asian-style ink from India contained shellac to make it waterproof, perfect for combining watercolor washes with precise line work in the newly invented metal pen nibs, successors to the hand-cut feather quills used for centuries.

Image (right): Ink drawing of church with Zebra Comic Pen Nibs

Even after fountain pens were introduced in the early 19th century, artists continued using dip pens because dye-based fountain pen inks weren’t lightfast, and pigmented India ink clogged sensitive fountain feed mechanisms. Then, in the 1950s technical pens could finally use filtered India ink with a fountain-style feed. These sophisticated drafting instruments, which use metal and synthetic gemstone tips, were expensive compared to disposable nibs and required careful maintenance, but artists loved the precision rendering and stippling they made possible.

Technical pens are still alive and well today, but the most popular pens that use pigmented inks are now fiber-tipped. “Felt-tipped” pens had been around for decades, originally using nibs made of natural materials like wool and bamboo fiber, with dyes that weren’t permanent enough to replace carbon ink, but soon compressed synthetic fibers replaced felt. In 1982, Sakura launched the Pigma Micron, made possible through development of a lightfast, pigmented ink with particles less than one micron in size, small enough to pass through marker nibs through capillary action. A year later, Uni developed Posca Paint Markers, with advanced fiber tips that carry a specially formulated paint, made with extremely fine pigments in a formula as thin as ink, bridging painting and drawing with one amazing instrument.

Pigments and binders in today’s fiber-tipped pens are mostly modern, though some brands like Pitt still use a version of real India ink. And, many artists still like to use traditional ink with dip pens, including Black Cat India Ink, a Blick exclusive product for over 80 years. But, all of these products can trace their beginnings back thousands of years, to an ink produced by fine handcraft and the ingenuity to recognize the amazing potential of ordinary candle soot.

Image (right): Black Cat Ink from 1970s Dick Blick Catalog

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