Asian Watercolors & Inks

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

All the research on inks and watercolors leads back, again and again, to China and Japan. Calligraphy itself is the oldest form of abstract art, and watercolor painting developed from it. It would seem almost impossible to master waterborne media without some appreciation for the source of it all. And to appreciate the art of the East is to appreciate the nature of its materials, for they are inseparable. It would also help to understand that the selection of Oriental materials is more subjective than objective. It is possible, for example, to choose from as many as fifty different shades of black, ranging from warm blacks to cold blacks, all of the same level of quality. In such a case, how could a choice be anything but subjective-how can one shade be said to be better than another unless it meets your own particular needs or desires?

The best guidelines for the novice are price and previous exposure. With Oriental materials, price is a good indicator of quality because, in general, if it costs more, it’s usually better. Another guideline is not to overbuy. If, for example, you have never before been exposed to ink sticks and ink stones, it is unlikely that you will be able to experience the subtle differences between their levels of quality and you would be wise to buy conservatively.

Ink Sticks

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.

Asian Bottled Ink

In China and Japan, the use of bottled ink is frowned upon and generally considered to be a concession to barbarians. There are, however, several brands of Oriental ink from China and Japan that come ready for use in bottles. The best is not as good as the ink that comes in stick form, but it is usually superior to Western bottled ink.

Many manufacturers have switched from using animal glues to using acrylic polymers as a binder for the ink. These acrylic inks have a longer shelf life of seven to ten years, as opposed to the two to three years of inks that have animal glue binders. Acrylic inks also tend to be waterproof, rather than water-resistant. Consequently, it is more difficult to shade an area properly after an acrylic has dried. An acrylic ink can also ruin a brush that is left to dry in it, while animal glue inks can almost always be redissolved. The better grades of bottled ink are still made with animal glue.

Ink paste, which is a concentrated form of liquid ink, is also manufactured in as large a variety as bottled ink. Few stores, however, carry an equal variety.

Ink Stones

Natural ink stones are made from slate, and imitation ink stones are ceramic. The ink stone, with water, is used to grind the ink stick into tiny particles to form liquid ink. The better the stone, the smaller and more consistent the particles will be and the denser the ink. A good stone will make a poor ink stick perform slightly better than a good ink stick ground on a poor stone. It is best to have a stone that at least matches or slightly exceeds the quality of the ink stick.

The older the stone that is used to make an ink stone, the better it will perform. Because the geological formations in China are much older than those in Japan, the best stones come from China. Both the Japanese and Chinese make their best products out of the oldest stone that can be found in China. The Japanese term for the best grades of slate used in the manufacture of ink stones is tankai. There are several grades of tankai just as there are grades of diamonds. The very best tankai was found under rivers. Today it can only be found in private collections and in museums. Since China has a long history, all the stones of this quality have already been found. Today’s tankai is collected from caves and these lesser grades of tankai can be found even in the West, but they are expensive. Japanese ink stones that are more moderately priced are made primarily from more recent lava formations. The least expensive ink stones are made from ceramic rather than from natural stone. (For colored ink sticks, multiple ceramic stones are used because of the expense and to keep the better stone from being contaminated with residual colors.)

Japanese ink stones are made into a rectangular shape with a well, or deeper impression, on one side to hold the water separate from the grinding surface and to collect the ink. The better natural stones are often characterized by a natural irregular shape, or are encased in a wooden box.

Chinese ink stones are usually round in shape with either a concave or a flat grinding surface. It is also common to find a lid, which covers the stone, made of wood or of the same stone. The moderately priced stones are made of slate. Better quality is sometimes indicated by the irregular shape, a wooden encasement, and the purplish hue of the stone. Some Chinese ink stones have an oil or wax on them to help protect them until purchase. This material should be washed away before use.

Inspecting an Ink Stone involves looking for any hairline cracks that may result in the stone coming apart easily, and checking to see if it is a ceramic stone or a natural stone. If there are any natural imperfections such as streaks that appear to run with the tooth, or grain, of the stone, they are not necessarily to be avoided and are, in fact, sometimes sought after for the character that they give.

Testing an Ink Stone involves three steps of inspecting the grinding surface. The finer the surface, the finer and more consistent the quality of the ink will be. The surface of an ink stone is similar to a saw’s teeth, in that there are tiny peaks tilted in one direction that can grind off small particles of the ink stick when rubbed against it. The first step is to test the tooth of the stone’s grinding surface. This can be done by rubbing the surface of the ink stone with the tof edge of a fingernail in a direction away from the well. The better the stone, the more distinct and uniform the mark will be.

The next test involves the use of water. If the tooth is fine and pointed in one direction, a small amount of water placed on the (clean) grinding surface will appear to sink immediately just below the surface, but will not appear dry. The teeth will break the water tension and the water will be trapped beneath the tips of the teeth. If the surface where the water has been applied dries out quickly, then the stone is too absorbent and of lesser quality. If the grain is irregular or has imperfections, the absorption will also be irregular.

The final test is to check the flatness and smoothness of the grinding surface. Visual inspection and touching the surface with the fingers or tongue should show a very smooth and flat surface.

Ink stones range in price from three dollars to eighty thousand dollars, depending on quality. A stone of adequate quality can easily be had for between ten and thirty dollars.

A complete inspection should be reserved for the more expensive ink stones. Performing an inspection this thoroughly on an ink stone that is priced at less than ten dollars, is like using a jeweler’s eyepiece to inspect jewelry at the corner drugstore.

Asian Watercolors

The major difference between Western watercolors and Oriental watercolors is that in the Oriental system some colors are by tradition opaque, and others are transparent. They are sold in the form of a dry cake in a ceramic dish, or in a powdered form where the liquid binder is mixed in with water to make watercolor, or in colored ink sticks. (Although none of these materials should be considered nontoxic, traditional vermilion ink sticks, because they are made from mercuric sulfide, are highly poisonous and should be used with caution.)

The best Chinese watercolors come in a very limited number of colors and are in the form of little chips that are dissolved in water to make the color. With the exception of these chips, most of the Oriental colors available in this country are not of the first quality. Today, most instructors of Chinese and Tibetan painting who live in the West recommend the use of the finest tube Western watercolors and gouache over the lesser-quality Oriental watercolors.

New Earth Colors

These colors are artificial mineral pigments made of glass frits. They are similar to Egyptian blue in that their color depends on how finely ground the particles of pigment are. The main ingredient is lead borate glass, which is fused into such color-producing agents as metallic cobalt and chrome, and then ground. The ground glass particles are then separated according to size, which also determines the color. Holbein makes a line of these pigments, which have been used in Oriental watercolors and are currently being tested for possible application in Western artists’ materials. By employing this method of manufacture, they are able to make as many as two hundred different shades from a few basic colors.

Seal Ink

Although seal ink is not a watercolor, it is used to sign a piece of calligraphy or an Oriental-style painting. A chop, which is like a rubber stamp made of wood or bone, has the artist’s name or symbols carved on the face. The face of the chop is pressed gently into the surface of the seal ink (sometimes it is necessary to touch the seal ink several times to collect enough ink on the chop’s surface). In some traditions, the seal is placed so that it just touches the edge of the still damp ink, or watercolor, because the slight mixing that occurs is impossible to forge, and the original can be proved.

The seal ink container usually has a loose-fitting cover to allow for a thin piece of silk to be placed over the ink surface. This piece of material serves to keep the surface moist so it can be reshaped through the silk.

The best seal ink is made from genuine vermilion from China, which is composed of mercuric sulfide and is extremely poisonous.