Indian Ink: A Rich, Dark Concoction

In this post, Dave explores the origins of Indian ink and takes our audience through a workshop in which we made our own ink drawings.

Drawing workshop in the Learning Studio on Twelfth Night 6th January 2020.

We wanted to run a small drawing workshop for the visitor team using Indian ink that we mixed and produced by ourselves.

ink group 1

A permanent and opaque black, Indian ink mixes well with other colours creating cool dense tints. It flows well on the paper producing strong, crisp black lines or washes.

Also known as Chinese ink, Indian ink stems from one of the oldest and most durable pigments of all time: carbon black. It can be made from any ash, mixed with a binder such as water, white vinegar or gum Arabic- which is hardened sap from the Acacia tree. Different recipes for carbon black can be found as far back in history as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.  A recipe by the Greek scribe Dioscorides (40 – 90 AD) still survives on parchment.

Around 3000 BC, drawing ink appeared in China. Often using animal glue as a binder, the black ash pigment was dried into small sticks or little saucers which needed to be rubbed with water to create a liquid ink. Traditionally, black inks were favoured by Chinese artists who excelled in producing monochrome paintings, where the gift lay in creating texture and emotions through strokes and varying shades of black and grey. In India, scribes have used needle and pen since antiquity to write many of their Buddhist and Jain scripts. Black ink was known as ‘masi’ in India, a mixture of different ashes, water and animal glue. It was only in the mid-17th century, when Europe began importing ink from India, that it became known as ‘Indian Ink’.

Artists that have used ink to good effect include:- William Hogarth, Henry Moore, Deanna Petherbridge, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Cecil Collins.

Deana Petherbridge. Continuum City. 1978. Pen and Ink drawing. Source: the Whitworth.

Materials needed for the workshop included:-

Mortar and pestle

Willow charcoal (from Metzgers ‘Flailing Trees’)

120 grm Cartridge Paper

Distilled Water

White vinegar

Brushes and anything to make a mark with.

ink group 3
Mortar and Pestle with charcoal ground to a fine dust with white vinegar used to fix the ink.

Our own Indian ink was made by using fired charcoal Willow twigs and root remnants from Gustave Metzgers’ ’Flailing Tree’ sculpture. These small pieces of wood had dropped off over the months.

These pieces were trimmed and ‘vacuum roasted’ into charcoal and then ground up using a Mortar and Pestle to a fine powder. Mixed with distilled water and using white vinegar as a light binder we created our own rich, black ink for drawing.

Ink wall 2
A collective of the drawings we produced in 30 minutes.

When brushed wet on the paper it can produce almost watercolour style washes and shades. Yet when dry becomes waterproof.

ink group 2
Pomegranates are a fruit associated with Catherine of Aragon and are often laid on her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral to mark her birthday.

With a Pomegranate to draw, brought in by Sue as a still life, we produced a variety of ink drawings on the 6th January, Twelfth Night.

When cut, the blood red juice from the pomegranate added a pink tint wash to some of the drawings.

ink a
The pink tints are from the juice of the cut pomegranate used as a colour wash.

Some also responded to the images from Australia on the bush fires covering much of New South Wales.

ink wall 3
The ink flows like water colour.
ink 1
This becomes waterproof when dry.

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