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How to Make Indian Ink

Chinese Ink provides detail and background in this Japanese watercolor
DRW & Associates, Inc

India ink, also called Indian or Chinese ink, is a simple mixture used for centuries by calligraphers and artists who needed a medium that can be used like a water color for writing and drawing. India ink was made by the Chinese in the third century using burned bones and tar pitch. The Japanese perfected the art of Sumi-e, a wash painting process using only black ink on white paper. For a long period of time lamp black, the soot left in oil lamps, was combined with charred pine and other woods as the base for the mixture. Although you can buy India Ink at art supply houses, you may want to make your own to use for water color and other art.

Harvest your carbon by using a brush to sweep carbon black fragments of completely charred charcoal into a stone or porcelain dish. Or, if you have hurricane or oil lamps, harvest the lampblack.

Pulverize the carbon in the dish using a ceramic or metal pestal. You should end up with a very fine dust that leaves a light coating when blown off the surface of a piece of paper. Place the dust in a ceramic or other hard-surfaced, non-metallic bowl.

Add a cup of distilled water and stir your ink with a popsicle stick until it forms a thick, soupy wash. More carbon will produce a blacker ink and less will produce a lighter ink. Since you can dilute ink when you are ready to use it, keep your solution as thick as possible as you mix it.

Mix in a teaspoon of sieved shellac or ground shellac flakes to your ink, which acts as a carrier so that the ink can be loaded onto a brush or pen.

Store your India ink in an airtight bottle or let it dry into cakes to use with calligraphy or artist's brushes. Ink will get stale due to the organic nature of the carriers, so use your liquid ink within a month or so of the date in which you make it. Dry and cake ink tends to last longer. Store-bought ink has preservatives to prolong the life of the ink.

Tip

India ink is sold in dry blocks and sticks for calligraphers and sumi-e artists. All that is needed is a brush and water to reconstitute the substance.

Use methyl hydrate, available at hardware stores, for cleaning pens and brushes clogged with India ink that uses shellac as a binding agent.

Ashes from burned charcoal will contribute potash, a substance that helps bind your ink.

You can use denatured alcohol or vinegar to liquefy your ink instead of water. However, water will evaporate more slowly than alcohol or vinegar and give you more time to perfect your solution.

Gelatin and gum arabic, which has the added advantage of being water soluble, can also be used.

Warning

India ink is sometimes formulated using toxic substances. Before using it for tattoos or other body art, check for contents and recommended uses.

India ink made with shellac can clog writing pens. Use only non-shellac India ink, especially for fountain pens.

About the Author

An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.