I want to use a variety of pens, nibs and papers and want a general all-round ink I can use for all (or most) of these cases. From a beginners perspective—which calligraphy inks would be easiest to work with in this situation?

Ideally I am looking for:

  • Minimal or no preparation of the ink (no need to dilute the ink, for example).
  • Ink doesn't clot or dry too quickly (mid-use or in the bottle).
  • An even spread of ink on paper.
  • No excessive running or bleeding of ink on paper.
  • Easy to clean pens, nibs, spills etc.

What I want is to be able to focus on the calligraphy, not if my ink is clogging up my pen, wether I need to dilute my bottle some more or if the ink is going to soak through my paper.

I know there are dye-based inks and pigment-based inks, apart from differences in specific brands what features should I look for?

  • 1
    "Easiest" is a word that tends towards subjectivity, which is something avoided on SE sites. You should consider rewriting your question to ask something more quantifiable like "As a calligraphy beginner, what features should I look for in a ink?" If you have specific needs, explain those in your question body.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:25
  • Fair point, and I agree it often is subjective, but there are objective answers to 'easiest' and I genuinely do want to know what is easiest to work with..
    – Cai
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:46
  • Also the 'subjective' close reason starts with "Many good questions generate some degree of opinion". "Whats your favourite X"—yes, close it. "Whats easier, X or Y"—I think it depends.
    – Cai
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:46
  • 1
    At the very least, you need to specify what you're looking for in an "easy" ink. You have "ease of preparation"... are there any other things? Cost? Acquisition? My lack of subject knowledge isn't helping me with other examples... but this is why I recommend the tack of "what features should I look for"... it gives the chance for people to explain what makes an easy-to-use ink.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:48
  • Hopefully my edit is a bit less subjective :)
    – Cai
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 22:21

2 Answers 2

  • All the liquid calligraphy inks I know of are ready to use, no dilution required.

  • Pigmented ink must be well mixed before use for the pigment to be uniformly dispersed.

  • I find acrylic ink sometimes hard to remove from the nibs if not immediately cleaned

  • Iron Gall ink flows well and is a pleasure to use but requires an acid free paper. The ink will look very clear at first but will darken when drying.

  • India Ink (what's called 'encre de chine' in French) is probably the easiest to find and to use. A good one size fits all.

  • Chinese calligraphy sometimes uses solid ink stock which is diluted in water on an ink stone. It's OK for brush painting but not easily usable in pens and nibs.

  • For pens the main factor is what can you put in them. If it's a cartridge system you're more or less limited to what is available in those. (I have seen refillable cartridges before, but they looked like a mess to fill.)

  • I've seen a lot of people talking about diluting ink but that may be more about getting a 'washed-out' look than anything else
    – Cai
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:17
  • 1
    and I'm guessing 'Bombay ink' is what is normally called 'India ink' in English, I may be wrong though :)
    – Cai
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:17
  • Speaking from experience: I used a converter cartridge (those you can fill by twisting the end) in my standard fountain pen for years back in school. They are easy to handle and quite sturdy if you buy a reasonably good quality. Gives you access to all "standard and fancy ink" types, even if your cartridge manufacturer doesn't offer them.
    – Stephie
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 20:29
  • 1
    @Stephie, however, if it's a fountain pen you're using, you only want water-soluble dye inks, otherwise you'll gum up the works of the pen and you'll probably end up throwing it away, as disassembly/cleaning would cost more than the pen's worth or damage it. Never use india ink or arylic ink (will gum up the works) or iron gall ink (too corrosive) in a fountain pen; they're for dip-pen use only.
    – inkista
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 18:30
  • Absolutely correct, @inkista, I sort of forgot to add the detail. But even water-soluble inks come in more colours than the standard few cartridge ones.
    – Stephie
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 18:35

In my experience, the best advice for newbies is that which educates them toward nolonger being newbies.

The qualities of an ink are based on its composition

An ink is composed of 3 parts which, together, define how it will behave. The general ingredient types are pigments, binders, and the medium.

The color is usually a pigment or dye. I usually refer to this ingredient as the "pigment" but this is just me not liking the word color as a descriptor of an ingredient. Pigments are a suspension, and will tend to separate a bit, so you need to mix them. If the bottle says "shake before use", it's a pigment. These can clog pens. Dyes are usually a solution, and rarely separate. Because they are much finer, dyes are less likely to clog a pen. Most black inks are just carbon powder, usually the product of some sort of burning and refining process- basically, liquid charcoal. Other pigments come from all sorts of interesting places. Pigments react to the acidity of a page and UV light. Some Pigments react more than others. Knowing how they react (and what your ink actually contains) takes research. There's no simple way around it. If you want to know, you need to take the effort to go out and find out yourself for each individual one. Higher opacity inks usually have more pigment, and also tend to be thicker, making them less appropriate for pens. In pen work, you want a thin ink with a fine, bold dye. Avoid anything significantly more viscous than water or alcohol. Places which have samples to try an ink are the best to do quick research into products with poor labeling.

The binder adheres your pigment to the paper's fibers as the medium evaporates. It's basically a type of glue. Different binders have all sorts of different qualities. Some are like a lacquer which barely absorb into the page, sitting on the surface and sealing the ink under a shiny, hard, crusty layer. India ink is an example of an ink with this sort of strong, rigid binding agent. Because such a binder is mostly a surface treatment, it can crack, crumble, and otherwise degrade over time. It also causes the ink to take much longer to dry, as there is a curing process in addition to the evaporation of the binder. Lacquer binders are the worst ink to use in a pen. They are extremely hard to remove from a nib once dried, requiring mechanical abbrasion, and they destroy the inner workings of fountain and technical pens if not thoroughly cleaned immediately following use. These kinds of heavy-duty binders are much harder to find, especially in colored inks. Most binders absorb into the paper and prevent the pigment from separating from the medium, keeping an even color distribution. These binders preserve more of the paper's qualities, and are more commonly available in most inks. These are usually fine to use in a pen. Some binders significantly alter the viscosity of the ink, causing it to be thicker, more like an oil, changing the way it flows and pools on a page. Higher viscosity inks generally take longer to dry, as the pooling reduces the air-exposed surface area, and prevents absorption.

The medium is the liquid carrying the dye and the binder. It is almost always water. Less common are spirit (alcohol) based inks, and even more rare are oil based inks. If an ink doesn't say "spirit" or "oil" on the packaging, it's a reasonable assumption that the ink is water based. Without additional ingredients, the drying time is based on this ingredient, and air-exposed surface area. The lower the viscosity, the more the ink will spread out and absorb into the page, increasing the surface area and speeding drying time. In calligraphy, you generally want as thin of an ink as possible, so your ink will dry faster. Generally, of the three, spirit based inks dry the fastest, and oils the slowest. However, additional ingredients are sometimes added to an ink which will speed the drying process and alter the viscosity. Water based inks are by far the most used because they are as close to being chemically neutral as possible, and so will generally last longer. If an ink is "archival", it is likely water based. Spirits, though thinner and faster drying, are highly acidic, and so generally give the work a much shorter lifespan. Spirit based inks also tend to be too thin for use on low weight paper. They soak in much easier, and so tend to also soak through much easier. Finally, they aren't very good for dip pen use, as an open bottle of spirit based ink will lose as much as 30% of its volume to the air over the course of its total usage, as alcohol is more volatile and evaporates much more easily than water. You're much more likely to encounter spirit based inks in contained pens- sharpies being the most famous example. Do not use oil based inks in a pen. They are insoluble in water, making them nearly impossible to clean. Being both thick and slow drying also makes them especially unsuited to calligraphy. They clog pens and cause headaches. Also, and this may or may not affect preference, but spirit and oil based inks usually STINK, as in they smell very bad.

In practice, the behavior of an ink also depends on the paper

A lot of the qualities you're asking for depend more on the paper you'll be writing on, and how the ink interacts with it. The absorbency, weight, tooth, and finish of a paper will dramatically alter the way ink behaves when applied to it. You say you're planning on using many different papers. Some are good for this, and others should just be avoided. Using India ink as a baseline example, because it is widely available...

A high tooth paper will interfere with pen travel and, if it is toothy enough, have visible ridges or texture rising from the mark, while a low tooth paper will allow smooth, uninterrupted marks and even distribution. Cartridge paper, letterhead, vellum, and most craft store card stock are good examples of the kinds of paper you should aim for when doing ink work.

A loose, highly absorbent paper will result in marks soaking into the page like it's paper towel, causing marks to become blobby, fuzzy, or blurry. A dense, tight, low absorbency paper will allow the ink to sit on the surface, but might fail to allow the ink to bind to the fibers well. The less ink absorbed by the paper, the more it pools, and the longer it will take to dry. Machine pressed papers, like craft papers and printer papers, tend to be really tight and sturdy. Watch out for hand-made papers, which can vary wildly, and construction paper, which is often very loose and soft. News print is another example of soft, absorbent paper. Recycled papers should also generally be avoided here, as they tend to have inconsistent absorbency across their surface.

A fine, low-weight paper will warp and buckle, possibly even dissolve, under the moisture of the ink, causing excess ink to run and pool into troughs as the page distorts. Fine paper also tends to allow much more bleed, as there's nowhere for excess absorbed ink to go, but outward from the mark. A heavy weight paper will hold up to moisture much better, will exhibit little to no rippling, and gives the absorbed ink somewhere to go within your mark area. Anything thicker than printer paper is better. The thicker the paper, the better for your mark.

A gloss-finished paper often has a coating, such as wax or kaolin. These tight, non-porous finishing treatments cause the paper to become hydrophobic, preventing any meaningful inkwork. Magazine pages and wrapping paper are examples of kaolinated finishes. Packaging paper, that brown stuff, is often coated with an oily, plastic, or waxy finish. Foils will also repel moisture and generally refuse the binding agent.

You want non-acidic paper. Acidic paper will chemically react with the ink's ingredients over time, and change its properties. The pigment may change color, the binder may degrade, the paper may dissolve. While some inks are less reactive, this merely slows the effect. If you're doing temporary works, feel free to ignore this advice.

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