You might wonder what a Japanese or Chinese black ink stick really is. As you may know, the ink for Japanese calligraphy is not in liquid form. It is a solid stick, a compressed mixture of vegetable soot and glue that the calligrapher grinds with some water on a special ink stone to produce liquid ink.
Until recently Chinese and Japanese calligraphers never had liquid ink, they always had to make fresh ink. Now we can buy bottled ink, but the quality is always inferior to fresh ground ink. A calligrapher that wants to brush a serious artwork will always make her/his own ink.
The quality of an ink stick depends mainly on the type of wood that is used for the soot. Good ink is made out of fine soot and a small proportion of natural glue. It is compact -there is no air between the soot and the glue; its texture is homogeneous and the surface feels smooth.
A fine-grained ink stick adheres naturally to the ink stone and is easy to grind. It gives homogeneous luminous ink with an oily shine.
How to make ink?
Place the ink stone in front of you and pour some water in it. Keep the ink stick upright; hold it with the thumb on one side and the index and middle finger on the other side.
Press the ink stick on the ink stone very lightly and start describing circular movements with the stick. After a while the ink becomes blacker and thicker. You can add some water during the grinding if necessary.
You have to grind the ink stick until the ink is thick and deep black. To know when the ink is thick enough take one drop of ink with the stick and put it on the rim of a white saucer. When the ink does not run down the saucer, it is ready for your session of Japanese calligraphy.
If the ink is too thick, the writing will not be fluent, because the ink does not flow smoothly from the brush. On the other hand if the ink is too thin, the ink will flow down too fast.
Only with practice will you learn to determine the perfect thickness of the ink that you want. The type of paper you use, the style of Japanese calligraphy, your brush, the pressure you make on the paper, and even the weather are factors that should be considered when judging the thickness of your ink.
How to take care of the ink stick
If you want to take good care of your ink stick you should never let it in your ground ink or soaking in water, because it can crumble and get damaged.
Sometimes you are not aware that your ink stick is damaged. When your brush stroke shows an uneven outline it means that your ink stick is useless. It is true that some modern calligraphers use spoiled ink to achieve certain effects, but you should know the difference.
An ink stick is alive; it is very sensitive to changes of weather and you should protect it against extreme fluctuations in temperature or humidity. Otherwise it might crack and it will be rendered useless.
After making your ink, dry your ink stick with a piece of absorbent paper or a cloth. Store it wrapped in paper in a wooden box until the next time you want to use it.
Is bottled ink an alternative?
Technically, fresh ground ink is still superior to bottled ink, in spite of efforts by Japanese to manufacture a commercial liquid ink of the same quality as fresh ground ink.
Remember to add enough water to liquid ink, because it is very thick and it can impede the free movement of your brush.
Bottled ink contains so much synthetic gum that it does not permeate the paper well. The ink remains on the paper and there is no union between ink and paper, which is one of the special elements of the interplay of the four treasures of Japanese calligraphy.
Moreover, if you want to mount your Japanese calligraphy, make sure that the ready-made ink does not bleed, because many of them tend to do it. This can ruin your artwork completely.
Ready-made liquid ink is fine for exercises. Especially when you want to practice larger calligraphies it saves you a lot of time-consuming grinding. But as this ink lacks life and inner radiance it is not suitable for genuine Japanese calligraphy.
You cannot use bottled ink for monochrome sumi-e either because it does not produce the soft black gray shades so distinctive of this kind of ink painting.
The Chinese and the Japanese ink stick
Chinese and Japanese inks have a different hue. The Chinese ink is reddish brown, whereas the Japanese has a bluish glow. It depends on your personal taste and on the effect you want to obtain. The Chinese ink radiates warmth and the Japanese is cooler.
I encourage you to try different types of ink sticks. You will see that each ink stick has its own luminosity and hue depending on the ingredients. Some ink sticks contain minerals, special natural glues or herbs, which reinforce the radiance and hardness of the ink stick and preserve the ink for many generations. No wonder that some ink sticks have been compared to pure jade!
Buying an ink stick
At this reliable company you might find the ink sticks and the natural pigment colors you are looking for. For exercises you will also find good quality Japanese liquid ink.
Buying Premium Quality Bottled Ink
In the last years Japanese manufacturers started to produce premium quality liquid inks. Some of these bottled inks have more than 30% genuine soot, which results in a liquid ink that is less sticky, flows more smoothly from the brush, is livelier and has a pleasing presence.
If you are looking for a premium quality liquid ink or bottled ink in larger quantities, please check my selection of Japanese liquid inks below.
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