Sumi-e and India Ink History

By September 25, 2016Processes
Sumi-e and India Ink

My Ink Wash Monotypes

Since working with washes I’ve had the opportunity to work with India ink and Sumi ink. But truthfully I didn’t know the difference. So here are my thoughts and also what I’ve found.

Asian ink, the ink stick, was invented more than 2000 years ago. Workers involved with kiln drying porcelain plates gathered the carbon soot left by the firing. They mixed this soot with animal glue in precise proportions and formed dough. This was then cut into molds to form rectangles and left to dry. Over time many varieties of soot have come to be used to form different ink sticks;

  • Oil soot ink:made using the soot of burnt tung or various other oils. There is more glue in this type of ink than the other kinds so does not spread as much. Gives a warm black colour. It is good as a general purpose painting and calligraphy ink.
  • Pine soot ink:made from the soot of pines. Has less glue so spreads more than oil soot inks. Gives a blueish-black colour. It is good for calligraphy and meticulous style painting.
  • Lacquer soot ink:made from the soot of dried raw lacquer. Has a shiny appearance and is most suitable for painting.
  • Charcoal ink:made using standard wood charcoal. It has the least amount of glue and so spreads on paper more than other inks. Mainly used for freestyle painting and calligraphy.
  • Blueish ink (青墨):oil or pine soot that has been mixed with other ingredients to produce a subtle blueish-black ink. Mainly used for calligraphy.
  • Coloured ink:oil soot ink that has been blended with pigments to create a solid ink of colour. Most popular is cinnabar ink which was reportedly used by emperors.
  • Medical ink:ink produced by mixing standard ink with herbal medicines which can be ground and taken internally.
  • Collectors ink:ink that is highly decorative and in odd shapes that are meant for collecting rather than actual use.
  • Custom ink:ink that has been commissioned by an artist who may want a specific type of ink to suit their needs.

It was different for me to spend the time to slowly grind the ink stick on the ink stone. I thought it would be like sanding but it’s not. You place a small amount of water on the stone and rub the stick in a circular motion. This creates a thick goo that you push into the trough at the bottom of the stone. Add more water and repeat until you have the amount and thickness you want. I tested the density of the ink by placing a drop on my glass palette. The process allowed me to think about what I wanted to achieve with the Monotypes I was going to create. I guess this was a little similar to ancient artists meditating about the work they were going to do as they ground their ink stick.

India ink on the other hand or as the French call it, ‘Encre de Chine’, is a carbon black ink mixed with gum and resin. Other formulations of India ink include a solvent and shellac as a binder. This allows the ink to dry permanent. From what I gather India ink has been used in India since the 4th century BC. The term India ink comes from the fact the source materials used to create the ink came from India.

Now I’m off to create more ink wash monotypes.

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