Typography, calligraphy and lettering

5 Interesting Facts About India Ink

Discover 5 things you didn’t know about India ink, one of the most popular materials of all time

You may know that India ink was invented thousands of years ago in China (and that in many countries it is known as Chinese ink). And that it’s used in the legendary art of calligraphy. Of course you also know its color: black.

But did you know who were the first people to use it? Or that traditional India ink wasn’t in fact a liquid? Discover these and other fascinating facts about this material in the following video:

1. Why are flowers so important in the history of India ink?

‘Four Gentlemen’ play a very important part in Sumi-e, an ancestral technique using India ink. The name of this art is formed by the words sumi, which means ink, and e, which means painting.

Contrary to what their name might suggest, the Four Gentlemen are not nobles at an emperor’s court, but the brushstrokes associated with four specific plants. Orchids represent spring, bamboo: summer, chrysanthemums: fall and plum blossom: winter.

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The Four Gentlemen of Sumi-e.

Originally Sumi-e artists only worked with inksticks, which they rubbed against a flat stone and mixed with water. This mixture provided the range of ink densities that artists needed to produce their monochrome works.

2. Traditional India ink wasn’t liquid

Unlike other inks, traditional India ink was made to be stored in solid form as a kind of block that would only be liquefied when required. These sticks were made from different kinds of soot mixed with glue, and were decorated with a variety of sayings and motifs. Some were real miniature artworks in their own right.

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Traditional calligraphy materials.

Turning the inkstick into liquid ink involved rubbing the stick against an ink stone, which acted as a kind of mortar, then mixing the powder with water. Ink sticks, ink stones, brushes and paper are just some of the classic tools artists and calligraphers have used for centuries.

3. Artists were not the first India ink users

In 221 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang united the territories we now know as China and created the first unified Chinese alphabet, which was written in India ink. So calligraphy’s first masters were not artists, but mandarins: senior civil servants and scholars who built the country’s foundations brushstroke by brushstroke.

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The mandarins were expert calligraphers.

Having dedicated many years’ to study and contemplation, the mandarins used India ink every day in their work administrating the empire. This led them to create the art of Chinese ideograms, an alphabet used to organize the territory their emperor had united.

4. The significance of the mysterious red seals

If you look carefully, you’ll see that most traditional works of art created in India ink feature one or even several red ink seals. In China, red is the color of luck. Like calligraphy, poetry and painting, these seals were also a traditional art form, and their creation was a meticulous craft.

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Artwork showing several red seals.

In ancient China, these seals acted as the artist’s signature on paintings, works of calligraphy or documents. A specific red ink made out of mercury sulfide was used to distinguish them. Some of the most famous traditional India ink artworks also bear other seals indicating the people who collected and owned them at different times in history.

5. Unique and inimitable

Thanks to its incredible ability to withstand the competition over thousands of years, we still use India ink today. Many have tried to imitate it. Europeans used iron gall ink, made from iron salts and tannic acids, to try and replicate the qualities of its forebear.

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Documents corroded by time.

But there was a small problem: in time, the metal compounds in iron gall ink attacked the paper it was written on. So work created to last forever, was condemned to gradual dissolution.

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Calligrapher in China. Photograph by Anders Nord.

Intrigued by this post? Discover more about the history of India ink in this video. And if you’d like to learn how to use India ink, try Hilda Palafox’ online course: Introduction to Illustration with India Ink, and India Ink Illustration with Japanese Influence, a course by Mika Takahashi.

English version by @studiogaunt

You may also like:

- 6 Interesting Facts About Color Theory.
- 5 Interesting Facts About Manga.
- The History of India Ink: From Drunk Poets to Sumi-e.


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