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Evan Lindquist, Artist-Printmaker
First Artist Laureate for the State of Arkansas

Old Writing and Drawing Ink

At least as far back as the Middle Ages, there were two kinds of black ink in common use. One type is still being used today, the other is generally not available from ink manufacturers.
Carbon inks

A very old type of permanent ink that is often used today by artists is best known by such names as "India" or "Sumi". It consists of carbon pigments in suspension in a weak gum or glue solution which acts as a binder.

Since the Middle Ages, the carbon pigment that has generally been used is soot, or lampblack. It is made by scraping up fine particles of soot and mixing them with gum or animal glue dissolved in water. While this type of ink is regarded as being a permanent ink, some examples of documents and drawings have been found in which the binder has failed to hold the ink particles firmly to the paper or parchment.

Gallotannate inks

The other type of ink commonly in use since before the Middle Ages is not often used today. It is a suspension of an inorganic salt of iron which may be mixed with a solution of other salts. This forms a liquid which turns black after application. This kind of ink may be called "iron-gall" or "gallotannate" ink.

The best ink begins with gallnuts, preferably from Syria (Aleppo) or China. The gallnuts are created as a result of certain insects stinging and laying eggs on the leaf stems of oak trees. Soon afterward, a nut-like swelling will form. When the galls are collected and immersed in water, tannic and gallic acids may be soaked out. If a solution of an iron salt is mixed with it, the liquid will turn darker, acquiring its darkest color as it oxidizes after being applied to paper or parchment.

Many substitutes for gallnuts have been tried, with excellent results being derived from some and failure from others. Many experiments have involved various kinds of bark, nut shells and leaves as sources of tannin.

The dark color which finally appears is a result of oxidation, a kind of "slow burning" which is taking place in the fibers of the paper. Our word "ink", the Italian word "inchiostro", and the French "encre", are all derived from the Latin word "incaustum", meaning "burnt in".

A temporary coloring agent was always mixed into the clear (or perhaps light-colored) ink so the writer would be able to see what was being written.

This is the kind of ink our grandparents and great grandparents used, and they probably knew it as "blue-black" ink. Through the centuries, documents written with these iron-gall inks have usually retained their crisp legibility; but occasionally, some drawings or documents turn up in which the inks have faded, changed to a yellowish color, or even burnt holes through the paper, suggesting that something might have gone wrong in mixing the inks. Or perhaps the documents might have been stored under adverse circumstances.


This advertisement for "Pure Egyptian Black Ink", a carbon-based ink, was published about 1870. It describes carbon inks as being superior to iron-gall inks and lists several reasons to use carbon ink (most people knew it by the name of "India ink").
Egyptian Ink advertisement After people began to use fountain pens (early in the 20th century) they discovered that carbon ink was not good to use in the expensive new fountain pens, but carbon ink continued to be used by artists and illustrators. "The Egyptian Ink" is not a special type of ink. It is simply a brand name for the carbon ink sold by this merchant or agent in Michigan.
A Definition of Ink

In 1890, Schluttig and Neumann, ink chemists of Dresden, Germany, wrote what is in many respects the most important book on iron gallotannate inks: O. Schluttig, and G.S.Neumann, Die Eisengallustinten [The Iron-Gall Inks], (v. Zahn & Jaensch, Dresden, 1890)

Their definition, in nearly literal translation, is presented here:

By ink we mean a liquid, suitable for writing, which

1. Is a clear, filterable solution, not a suspension;

2. Is mobile and keeps for a considerable time; that is, it flows easily from the pen, and neither clogs, drops off, nor spreads on the paper;

3. Has good keeping quality in glass; that is, in the inkstand it forms
(a) A slight deposit only slowly,
(b) No skin-like deposit, on the surface or on the walls, and never any mold;

4. On a good pen it forms only a slight, varnish-like, smooth coating, but not a loose, crusted one;

5. Has no pronounced odor;

6. Is not too acid and does not penetrate through good paper;

7. Has an intense color, which does not become paler nor bleach out entirely in the liquid or on paper (in the latter case judged after the complete drying of the writing, for moist lines always look darker than dry ones);

8. Gives writing that is not sticky after drying.

Every good ink, whether writing, or combined writing and copying, should have qualities. There is no sharp boundary between the two kinds, but if the ink is intended only for writing, it should in addition:

9. Give writing that, after drying for eight days, is not removed by water or alcohol -- even by treatment for days -- to such an extent that it becomes illegible.

Finally, if the ink is intended for imperishable records, it must have:

10. A definite minimum content of iron,

11. And enough tannin; that is, it must give writing which after drying becomes deep black within eight days, and which, even after treatment for days with water and alcohol, still retains a certain degree of blackness.

From Circular of the National Bureau of Standards C413, "INKS"
U.S. Department of Commerce, Issued December 28, 1936
By C. E. Waters
The paper is part of the equation.

Any comparisons between early inks, later inks, and modern inks should consider the surface on which the ink was to be used. There are major differences to be found in the variety of writing surfaces. An ideal ink for parchment or vellum might miss the mark on paper. A good ink for early 19th century paper might be too acidic for 20th century paper, and through the centuries many types of paper have been in use. Various inks had to behave suitably for wood, metal, cloth, leather, glass, celluloid, ivory, etc.

I am not an authority on ink. I have used lots of ink and have an appreciation of its different qualities. I have often wondered about the changing nature of various commercial inks during recent decades. By publishing these recipes and notes, I hope to interest other people in the old kinds of ink and encourage them to study the fascinating subject of inks used by our ancestors.

This is the second of five pages of information about old ink.
Let's look at some old ink recipes.
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