Ink Sticks
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(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artistsí Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

In the Orient, ink is found in the traditional form of a solid stick. Liquid ink is made by rubbing the ink stick against the wet surface of a particular type of stone. Ink sticks are made by burning either vegetable oils (such as sesame oil, rapeseed oil, and paulownia oil), or pine wood and pine resin and collecting the soot, or lampblack, which is then combined with animal hide or bone glue, spices, and minerals. The mixture is compressed and dried into a stick.

Ink sticks made from vegetable oils tend to produce a warm black ink, with a hint of brown or purple. Calligraphy inks are made primarily from oils and their exact shade is often regulated by the addition of various plant matter, as well as the source of the glue (what type of animal and whether the shin or other bones were used). The plant matter and glue are added to the soot before the stick is molded. A shine is considered a desirable characteristic in a calligraphy ink and an undesirable characteristic in an ink for painting. The shine is regulated by the particle size of the soot as well as through the addition of plant matter.

Inks made for painting do not contain any additional plant matter and the particle size is selected to give a matte appearance, so that the subtlety of the painting can be seen without distraction. Painting inks are made from either vegetable oils or pine. Those made from pine soot produce a cool, bluish-black ink, which has a lighter appearance than those made from oil. Pine-soot inks are used for washes as well as for the overall background of a painting. The darker inks made from oil are used for the final details and for contrast.

When starting or testing a new ink stick, never use the first grind because ink sticks often have a coating that is best removed before use. One method of testing an ink is to dilute the freshly ground ink so that it can be used as a wash. Then make a brush stroke where, at some point, you reverse the direction, going over a part of the area previously painted. If the area or edge of the previously painted area maintains its integrity, it is a good sign. The more it dissolves, the less desirable the ink is. Some inks look better while they are still damp on the paper and become dead when dry, while others look better after drying than while in use; you should therefore wait until inks are dry to inspect them.

Oriental ink sticks are like wines; their quality is determined as much by the aging process as by method of preparation. An ink stick should be aged for at least one year (two to three years is preferable) before use, and, indeed, some of the very best sticks are more than four hundred years old. The aging process involves the natural oxidation of the protein that makes up the glue. According to Boku-undo U.S.A., Inc., only ink sticks that are handmade truly benefit from this aging process, and for this reason it distributes only handmade ink sticks that have been aged for a minimum of five years. Prices for Oriental ink sticks range from $1.50 to several thousand dollars for the highest-quality sticks that are several centuries old.

Chinese Ink Sticks are made primarily from pine trees that are high in resin and therefore characteristically produce a bluish-black ink. However, there are always exceptions because the addition of minerals and spices may change the hue. The Chinese make ink sticks throughout the year without regard to changes in weather. This, unfortunately, can result in an ink stick cracking when it is later shipped to parts of the world that have dramatically different temperatures and humidity. Broken ink sticks can sometimes be repaired by wetting the two broken ends and holding them together until they dry. Producing ink sticks year round also results in some inconsistencies in quality. The Chinese grade their ink sticks using a series of three-digit numbers.

101-The best professional quality commercially available

102-Very good, professional quality

103-Good, professional quality 104-Amateur

105 or higher-Student

Japanese Ink Sticks are usually made from vegetable oils and therefore tend to produce warmer blacks. But, because so much of Japanese history involves Chinese influence, blue-black ink sticks made from pine in Japan are commonly available. Many Japanese ink sticks have camphor added, which gives a silvery black appearance to the ink when it is used full strength. The illusion of silver flecks can be seen when the image is held to the light at an angle.

The Japanese make ink at only one time during the year (in the autumn), to reduce the possibility of cracking and to improve consistency. Buying Chinese ink is always a gamble even when purchasing a second stick made by the same family in China. It could be among the world's best or the world's worst. The Japanese go for consistency, so you may not get the world's best, but you also will not get the world's worst. They have good, constant quality so the second purchase will be like the first.

The Japanese utilize a series of dots to classify the quality of their inks. Five dots on the end of the stock indicate the finest quality, while fewer dots signify a lesser quality. Unfortunately, certain Japanese manufacturers sometimes take advantage of the beginner's limited knowledge in this area by putting five dots on their lowest-quality sticks and, in some cases, adding blue dye to ink sticks made from vegetable oils. Price should be some indication of quality.

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Last modified: 03/19/09