Think About Ink

We are all likely familiar with ink as a medium. It has wildly expressive and versatile qualities that bring a uniquely free flowing element to your artwork. Though, Ink is not a new medium to the art world. This medium has actually been used for thousands of years, and has a rich and fascinating history. Unsurprisingly, many argue that the first uses of ‘ink’ date back to the original cave paintings, the oldest found in El Castillo, northern Spain which has been dated more the 40,000 years ago. During this era, ‘ink’ was formulated with red, ochre and black dyes created with natural resources that included plant sap, animal blood and lampblack, which is a black pigment that is made from soot that would have been collected from a burnt out fire.

A formula of ink that we may find slightly more recognisable today has been found to be invented in both Egypt and China around the same time (perhaps more than 4500 years ago). In China, plants, animal derivatives and minerals such as graphite were ground with water to create pigmented fluids. India ink was also first cultivated in China, though materials were often imported from India, which is the reason for the name. The traditional Chinese method of making this ink was to grind a mixture of hide glue, carbon black, lampblack and bone black pigment with a pestle and mortar and then leaving this in a ceramic dish to dry. A wet brush would then be applied with this mixture until fluid. Ancient Egypt, a civilisation well-known using ink to write and draw on papyrus, used red and black inks that included iron and ocher (an earthy pigment, typically derived from clay, containing ferric oxide which makes ink colours that vary from light yellow to a reddish brown). They would also use components such as phosphate, sulfate, chloride and carboxylate ions to generate their ink formulas.

The Romans then came to develop their version of ink that would be used consistently for the next millennium. They discovered that by mixing a base of ground iron, combined with tannin extracted from gallnuts (a tannin-rich substance that hardens to form a gallnut, excreted by oak trees, that they use as a defence against parasitic wasps), you could create an ink that lasted longer than anything that had been made previously. The use of these iron based inks were used consistently though the Medieval period, though the desire to find longer-lasting inks was always at the forefront of ink production. Because of this ink formulas were experimented on, by using scorched hawthorn branches and boiled wine which resulted in a more durable ink. The solution for a permanent ink, however, wasn’t found until the 19th century. And it was actually found by accident by an English chemist, William Henry Perkin in 1856. Perkin was trying to find a way to make quinine, a chemical substance found in the bark of the cinchona tree, which was the best treatment for malaria at the time. His project for the cure was not going to plan, but as he was cleaning out a beaker he noticed that when the bi-product of his experiments, a dark brown sludge, was diluted with alcohol, it created a vivid, fushia-purple blemish that stained the glass. Perkins saw potential in his findings and moved forward with patenting his formula and went on to open his own dye-works shop in London.

Though processes and ink formulas have advanced, we can still see ancient influence on its production even today. As far as components go, ink is still formulated with two main components: the pigment (what is used to colour the ink) and the carrier (the vessel in which the pigment is blended to transfer it into a fluid medium). Though today, ink is often coloured and can be found is a vast array of different hues, contrasting from ancient inks that often used naturally occurring pigments which made their inks black or earthy tones. As technology has developed, pigments are now chemically produced rather than naturally occurring, so a broader range in colour and uses has been created for our artistic and writing benefits. Ink bases also differ depending on the uses for the inks. Bases that are used in the inks we know and love today vary between a multitude of different substances such as alcohol, oil, water and even liquid plastic. Inks are now produced with the consumer in mind and just like any manufacturing process, new technologies are always being sought after to produce the best possible supply we can establish.

But even as technologies develop and change, the need for ink solutions endures. And though formulas and processes have advanced, at the heart of it all the ancient process of ink making remains true.

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