‘Ink schmink’, I hear you say. Can inks and alcohol inks really be all that interesting? Well, yes, they surely can!

Artists have always worked with ink, while alcohol markers, or artist markers, as they are known today, are a more recent invention. Read on and learn all about this fascinating medium throughout history, right up to today.

Inks throughout History

History is full of ink. From Paleolithic cave paintings to parchment scrolls to printed books, ink has recorded human history for over 100 millennia. Even the Kindle makes use of e-ink (a reusable ink that sits just below the surface of the screen), reminding us all that ink is hardly a thing of the past. All inks are a means and method of communication – the first and longest-running form of information technology.

Maya Blue Ink

Distinct and bright Maya Blue background (released by Constantino Reyes into the public domain)

A distinct and bright Maya Blue background

Maya Blue is a vibrant, sky-coloured azure found on ceramics, buildings and written records across the ancient landscape of Mesoamerica.

First created around AD 300, Maya Blue melts together indigo from the local añil plant and the clay mineral palygorskite to form an ink that has endured in the archaeological record for centuries.

The ink was ritually made by heating the palygorskite and indigo together in incense burners. More than just something to write with, however, it was a critically important part of ancient Maya religion and ritual as it symbolised the rain god, Chaak, as well as being associated with other deities.

Because Maya Blue retains its brilliancy for centuries, few other Mesoamerican inks have offered archaeologists and art historians as much insight into the lives of the Maya.

It has been a strangely durable pigment that scientists have long studied to determine its makeup and (hopefully) reproduce this color (Fois, Gamba, & Tilocca, 2002). “Despite exposure to acids, alkalis, and chemical solvents, the color of the Maya Blue pigment remains unaltered” (Polette-Niewold, Manciu, Torres, Avlarado Jr., & Chianelli, 2007, p. 1958).

If you’d like to know more about these ancient manuscripts here’s a link to further reading for you.

Chinese Ink

For 5,000 years, artists and writers across Asia have used a glossy, dark black, durable carbon-based ink, first recorded in China’s Neolithic era, which is known colloquially as Chinese ink. (Chinese ink is also known as India ink and remains extremely popular for contemporary artists and writers.)


‘Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River’, written by Mi Fu, c.1095


Chinese ink has been used from China to Korea to India to South-east Asia, on Buddhist and Jainian scrolls as well as in traditional Chinese calligraphy. Conventional Chinese ink, unlike many other inks throughout history, was made to be stored in a solid form, only to be liquefied into ink when needed.

Chinese ink is traditionally comprised of animal glue, carbon black and water. The carbon pigment came from soot or another dark mineral like graphite, most of which was obtained from burning oils, bones or woods like pine. Egg whites or glues made from fish or ox functioned as the binding agents.

Some traditional manufacturers of Chinese ink added incenses and other elements to their ink recipes and a variety of other pigments offered more colours to artists than the traditional black. The glue and pigment were moulded together and left to dry into a hardened rock-like, easily transportable inkstick that could be re-liquefied when needed. Ink was made by grinding off a fine dust from the stick and adding water. The maker could control the viscosity and thickness with each batch, allowing every stroke of ink to reflect intent or to convey a particular cultural cachet.

In traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, the inkstick – along with the inkstone for grinding, a brush and paper – were the classic tools of the trade. The 11th-century poem ‘Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River’, by the Chinese artist, poet and calligrapher Mi Fu, offers a particularly artistic reading of the ink, where the calligraphied characters take on aesthetic design value beyond their simple drawing.

Iron Gall Ink

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, iron gall ink was one of the most frequently made and used inks in Europe – so much so that it was often referred to as ‘common ink’. It was made in batches by hand until the 18th century, when it was produced on a commercial scale. The ubiquitous rusty browns (and paper damage) of manuscripts written in iron gall ink make it one of the most recognisable inks in the world.

Image of Oak Leaves and Gall nuts.

At its most basic recipe, the earliest of which is found in Pliny’s original works, iron gall ink is comprised of four components: gall nuts, iron sulfate, water and gum arabic.

Gall nuts form on oak trees as a defense against the irritant of hatching insects and are the source for the ink’s tannins – the biomolecules used for tanning leather and dyeing textiles. The iron sulfate came directly from iron mining, or was acquired as a by-product of alum manufacturing. The gum arabic served as the binding agent, making the ink more viscous, ensuring the pigment particles stayed properly suspended in the water, as well as binding the ink to its intended writing surface. Some iron gall recipes call for additional ingredients, like sugar or honey (plasticising agents), pomegranate rinds as another source of tannins, dyes or pigments to enhance colour and preservatives like alcohol or vinegar to prolong the ink’s shelf life.

The Book of Kells (the four Gospels of the New Testament) is upheld as one of the finest manuscripts produced in early medieval Britain. It was written in Ireland (and, possibly, Scotland) on 340 parchment leaves around the year AD 800.

The neat biblical verses were penned in iron gall ink, with the distinctive rusty hue as a clear indication of the ink used, although many other ink colours are also found in the book’s text. 

While historically pervasive, iron gall ink is also inherently corrosive. Once put to paper, parchment or vellum it bites into and eats away at the surfaces – anything that the ink recorded is slowly eroding its own page away. The permanence of iron gall ink to the historical record is undercut by the ink’s very chemistry.

You can make your own Iron Gall Ink – here’s a link to a YouTube video on how to proceed.

And I found a recipe for making Iron Gall Ink – here it is if you are keen to make your own:

  1. Break the galls into pieces. approximately 5g worth.
  2. Add water to the ground galls.  1 / 1
    (Gallotannnic acid is extracted by heating or just soaking for a few days.)
  3. Filter the gall and water mixture.
    (Traditionally, the ink was filtered twice, and this is best achieved through filter paper in a funnel.)
  4. Add the ferrous sulphate.  1 / 1
  5. Add the gum arabic.

Printer Ink

The opening of Genesis in a Gutenberg Bible (Library of Congress).

When Johannes Gutenberg introduced mass printing to Europe in the 1440s, the technological breakthrough was more than just a metal, moveable type press. A whole new kind of ink had to be developed, too.

In the centuries prior to Gutenberg’s press, books and codices written out in longhand used water-based inks. (Korean printing presses, predating Gutenberg’s by a century or two, used the water-based Chinese ink in their woodblock presses.)

Water-based inks are well-suited for writing on parchment or vellum (or even printing with wooden blocks), but they simply oozed off the metal of Gutenberg’s moveable typeface. Consequently, the new metal presses would require an ink with a different base to give the liquid a viscous, thick consistency that would stick to the typeface.

Gutenberg developed an oil-based alternative using oils similar to those used by contemporary painters, giving the ink more in common with a varnish or a paint than with the water-based inks used by scribes. In 1455, Gutenberg completed printing approximately 180 copies of the Bible.

The smooth, even black ink associated with Gutenberg’s Bibles contains carbon, with small reflective grains of graphite, as well as high levels of copper, lead, titanium and sulphur, giving the ink a reflective sheen as well as an intense and even colour. In some early printed versions, Gutenberg experimented with the idea of printing in more than just one colour and trying to use red for the beginning and ending of certain verses. Ultimately, however, the polychrome printing was abandoned in favour of the efficiency that printing in just black afforded.

The revolutionary story of Gutenberg’s press and its importance for the production and distribution of books across Europe for the subsequent centuries would be incomplete without its ink!

Inkjet Ink

In 1968, the Japanese company Epson built the first electronic printer; 16 years later, Hewlett Packard released the first laser jet. By the late 1990s, inkjet printing was inexpensive enough to be ubiquitous in personal computing. Such pervasiveness, however, has come at a steep social price as inkjet ink does not last well – it fades quickly – and it has become synonymous with corporate price-gouging as it is ludicrously expensive for the amount of ink purchased.

Inkjet printing propels drops of ink onto a surface by continuously pumping ink from a reservoir through a very small nozzle. 

The inkwell reservoir comes in the form of a cartridge and most inkjet printers are fitted with four ink reservoirs in total – cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These can be combined to offer as many ink shades as required. The inks are water-based (rather than oil) with colour created from pigments and dyes and bound in their suspension with glycol. Many inkjet printers use a heat source in the ink reservoir to generate an ideal temperature for the ink’s viscosity and have a microchip in the cartridge to let a consumer know when the ink is running low.

(Ink for inkjet printers is inexpensive to manufacture, but does not come cheaply to consumers. Inkjet ink is incredibly expensive for us to purchase for our home printers.  I wrote a blog about the cost of this ridiculously expensive liquid.  The link to that blog is here.  In USA the current cost of a gallon of inkjet ink at $8,000 per gallon!)  Apparently there’s a way to avoid the high cost of inkjet ink by adding your own dyes into the cartridges.  Let me know if you want me to research this and tell you about it.

Voting Ink

Indelible ink has left a stain on the nails and cuticles of more than a billion voters and has ever since its invention in the 1960s. Since its invention, this ink has communicated a single social act – namely, ‘I voted.’  Here in Australia, we don’t use this system, when we attend a polling booth we merely have to identify ourselves and get crossed off the voting register.

Indelible voting ink was invented in 1962 by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi, just before the third election in a newly independent India, to help combat voter fraud.

The ink is made with silver nitrate, an inorganic compound commonly used in early photography; it is soluble in water, allowing the silver nitrate to bond with the liquid component of the ink. Once applied, the silver nitrate reacts with salt present in human skin, forming silver chloride, a compound that cannot be removed with any sort of soap or chemical. To this is added pigment – generally violet, black or even orange, as was the case of Suriname’s 2005 election.

Once the indelible ink is applied to voters’ skin, the pigment will hold fast until the inked skin cells die and slough off – anywhere from a couple of days to up to three weeks. Certainly not the same day!

From India to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Ghana, voters’ ink-stained fingers has become a cultural shorthand and symbol of fraud-free, democratic elections.

Alcohol Ink

Alcohol ink has only been used in fine art creation for just a short time; the first documented account being in 2006.

I have been teaching working with the medium and loving every minute of it.  The inks can only be used on nonporous surfaces because they soak in and evaporate too quickly for many traditional substrates.

The main surfaces used are Yupo paper, vinyl, glossy card stock and ceramic tiles. What is Yupo paper you ask?  Well, Yupo paper is a recyclable, waterproof, tree-free, synthetic paper.  Its often used for packaging and labelling.  It is extruded from polypropylene pellets and is super smooth, you can’t tear it either.  Its been popular with watercolour artists for ages, but only recently with alcohol ink artists.  There are loads of brands of Yupo paper, but I prefer the heavier stock to the flimsy stock.  For my intermediate workshop you can work with the Yupo paper on board – see the images here.

Available in many different colors from several manufacturers, the most extensive collection of ink hues, tools and accessories comes from Ranger Ink, a craft-oriented manufacturer based in Tinton Falls, NJ.

Alcohol-based pens and permanent markers are also used seamlessly with the liquid inks. Other manufacturers include Jacquard – Piñata, Copic and Spectrum Noir and others.

In my workshops, I use a combination of Ranger Alcohol Inks and Piñata Alcohol inks.  In my beginners workshop we play with these inks on photographic paper, white yupo paper, and on glass as well.  To find out more about my fabulous beginners workshop in Alcohol inks – click here. Absolutely no experience is necessary, and a wonderful result is pretty much guaranteed … as well as having a lot of fun, naturally!

Thank goodness we can purchase a huge array of amazing colours already mixed and in these little bottles all ready for us to dilute with alcohol and mix and match together on the Yupo paper.

Each of the pigments come in a dropper like container and you just add this to the isopropyl alcohol and mix them on the smooth surface of the Yupo paper and voila! – fun art for adults – happy days!

Images from my alcohol inks beginners workshop is in the gallery below.  I hope this encourages you to come along, turn off the real world, and enjoy!

Creating with alcohol inks is fun, liberating and an exciting adventure!

Click here to find out everything you could want to know about getting yourself into our Alcohol Ink 101 workshop – and create breathtaking abstract images of your own – all of the images above are from my beginners workshop!

Sometimes people come to my studio a second time (after they’ve done this beginners workshop) and create fabulously large Alcohol inks.  Click here to find out about my “Intermediate Alcohol Ink workshop”, which is available if you’ve done the beginners workshop first.

Recently I’ve been adding some of my Alcohol Inks designs to a variety of household decor and clothing objects on my Redbubble store.  Look below and see what you think? Click here to find out more about this very popular design.

Alcohol inks are the next big wave in art. Our studio is perfectly designed exactly for this type of group activity.  So come alone or come with your friends (4 in total) as it’s a small safe space upstairs here in 550 Swan Street.  If we don’t have dates that suit you and your group please let me know and we’ll create a date just for you all.

See you soon! jenie


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