Spotlight on: Indian Ink

Probably the most renowned ink, Indian ink is a permanent, opaque black. It mixes well with other colours, adding a cool, dense tint. It flows well on paper, producing strong, crisp black lines which makes it popular across many genres.

The History of Indian ink

Also known as Chinese ink, Indian ink stems from one of the oldest and most durable pigments of all time: carbon black. Made from ash mixed with a binder such as water, liquid or glue, various 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 from 40-90 AD survives to this day 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 conveying texture and emotions through ink strokes and varying shades of black and grey.

Why is it known as Indian ink?

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.

Who uses Indian ink?

Today Indian ink is used by illustrators, calligraphists, designers, cartoonists and tattooists all over the world. 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 it.

The iconic ‘gentleman spider’ wrapped around boxes and bottles of Winsor & Newton’s Black Indian Ink was created by the world-renowned designer Michael Peters OBE, and won a D&AD award for packaging design in 1973.

Surprising uses

Outside of the art world, it has many surprising uses; it’s popular for its permanence in various medical procedures, such as staining tissue and microscopic slides. It’s also used to polish metal surfaces to peak reflectiveness, a process that was patented by Nasa in 2002. In Japan, the traditional racket game of Hanetsuki involves the loser being marked on the face with Indian ink.

Winsor & Newton produce 26 colours in the drawing ink range, including 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.

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