The After Effects of Ink in Water

Written by kevin ann reinhart
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The After Effects of Ink in Water
Ink in water forms artistic swirls. (Blue ink in the water on a white background image by Nadezda Kraft from

The aftereffects of ink in water demonstrate several scientific principles of fluid dynamics. Surface tension, buoyancy, hydrophobia, gravity, density, convection, fluid drag and fluid flow can all be seen as the ink moves through the water. The principles have been applied to inventions such as the lava lamp and to artistic pursuits such as Suminagashi --- the ancient Japanese art of paper marbling, graphic art and video production.

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The Lava Lamp Effect

The behaviour of ink in water may be observed through a simple experiment that simulates the principles of thermodynamics shown in a lava lamp. An 800ml beaker is filled with 600ml of vegetable oil. A 100ml graduated cylinder is filled with 90ml of water. The water in the cylinder is mixed with the vegetable oil in the beaker. The water settles to the bottom and the oil floats on top. Ten ml of ink is poured into the now-empty cylinder and added to the oil/water mixture in the beaker. The ink floats on top of the oil because the surface tension of the oil will not allow the ink to break through. The beaker is placed on a hotplate until the water reaches its boiling point. The ink will begin to break through the oil and convect through the water creating a lava-lamp effect.

The After Effects of Ink in Water
The principles of fluid dynamics are easily observed in a lava lamp. (lava lamp closeup isolated on white image by Robert Young from

The Explanation

Oil floated to the top of the beaker because it was less dense than the cold water and therefore more buoyant. Once the water was heated, the water became less dense than the oil and floated to the top, breaking the surface tension. Ink was then able to sink through the oil and into the water below. The water/ink mixture beaded into droplets because the oil is hydrophobic. The water-ink mixture did not want to mix with the oil, so beading occurred. The oiled ink in a lava lamp continues to rise and fall as the light heats the water and the ink is conducted through it.


Without the presence of oil, the ink first floats on the surface of the water as fluid drag and surface tension prevent it from sinking. At this point, the Suminagashi artist captures the surface dispersion of the ink on a piece of rice paper. A wonderful marbling effect is the result. By adding different-coloured inks, the product becomes more intricate in its design. The graphic artist uses the water/ink interaction to produce various effects in silk screening and printing. Finally, the videographer captures the motion of the ink as it begins to drop through the water due to the forces of gravity and fluid flow. Mechanically mixing the water and the ink will eventually result in a homogeneous solution of coloured water.

The After Effects of Ink in Water
Marbled paper is produced is produced using an ancient Japanese art called Suminagashi. (marmoriert image by Nina Hoff from

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