Spotlight on: Indian Ink

A permanent and opaque black, Indian ink mixes well with other colours and adds a cool, dense tint. It flows well on the paper, producing strong, crisp black lines.

Also known as Chinese ink, Indian ink stems from one of the oldest and most durable pigments of all time: carbon black. Made from any ash, mixed with a binder such as water, liquid or glue, 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. The pigment was dried into small sticks or little saucers, often using animal glue as a binder. These then 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 antquity 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.

Today Indian ink is a standard among illustrators, calligraphists, designers and cartoonists, and is used for an eclectic range of activities: tattoos, scientific endeavours and the Japanese game hanetsuki. It’s long been a staple for any sketch, and artists such as William Hogarth, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol and David Hockney have all used Indian ink. The iconic gentleman spider wrapped around boxes and bottles of Winsor & Newton’s Indian Ink was created by the world-renowned designer Michael Peters OBE, and won a D&AD award for packaging design in 1973.

Winsor & Newton produces two professional quality Indian inks: Liquid Indian Ink, which is the traditional formula of the Chinese sticks and is not waterproof, and Black Indian Ink, which uses a shellac binder, allowing the ink to have washes painted on top without bleeding.