How to Make Indian Ink

Written by laura reynolds
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How to Make Indian Ink
Chinese Ink provides detail and background in this Japanese watercolour (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 colour for writing and drawing. India ink was made by the Chinese in the third century using burnt 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 colour and other art.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Source of Carbon
  • Water
  • Shellac

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  1. 1

    Find a source of carbon. Completely charred charcoal (unburnt charcoal contains wood chips and sawdust), wood or bone will do. If you have hurricane or oil lamps, harvest the lampblack with a brush. Ashes from burnt charcoal and wood will contribute potash, a substance that helps bind your ink.

  2. 2

    Pulverise the carbon in a stone or porcelain 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.

  3. 3

    Add a bit of distilled water and stir your ink until it forms a consistent wash. You can also use denatured alcohol or vinegar to liquefy your ink. Water will evaporate more slowly than alcohol or vinegar and give you more time to perfect your solution. 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.

  4. 4

    Use a touch of sieved shellac or ground shellac flakes as a carrier for your ink so that it can be loaded onto a brush or pen. If you've used charred pine wood, your carbon dust will already contain some resin that will act as a binder. The Chinese used gelatin, which dries very slowly compared to shellac. Gum Arabic, which has the added advantage of being water soluble, can also be used.

  5. 5

    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.

Tips and warnings

  • 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.
  • Methyl hydrate, available at hardware stores, has been used by artists for cleaning pens and brushes clogged with India ink that uses shellac as a binding agent.
  • 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. Look for non-shellac India ink use in fountain pens.

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