Guest post: Chinese ink sticks – a primitive beginning

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ks-01Entrepreneur, inventor, and QV friend Kenneth Schwartz is back today with a fascinating post about making ink from Chinese ink sticks.

I’m attracted to elemental forms of expression – having an understanding of the elements that go into creating something, particularly in my cooking, is an interest of mine. I also enjoy sharpening knives with waterstones – the simple creation of mud from stones is elemental to knife sharpening. So, with inks, it attracted me to try my hand at this primitive means of producing ink by rubbing an ‘ink stick’ to produce a slurry, suitable for making a black ink. This is an ancient technique dating back roughly 2000 years, used for brush painting. By controlling the ink’s density (these are typically made of lampblack and are thus a carbon particle ink), you have the flexibility of controlling the shading of the ink to an even greater degree than only controlling shading with your writing or painting instrument.

The ‘elements’ couldn’t be simpler – an ink stick, a stone ‘well’ or inkstone to make the ink, some water to make the slurry and a brush, or in my case a glass nib, to apply the ink to paper. The ink drawings and calligraphy have withstood the test of time with drawings having survived hundreds of years. An excellent discussion of this history and the relationship of the ink stick in Chinese culture to the scholar who used it in his studies is found here.

After the jump, learn more about Kenneth’s ink stick experiments.

Here’s a simple inkstone and ink stick:


Here I’ve made a slurry, simply by rubbing the stone in a small puddle of water to the desired blackness and thickness. It requires a bit of patience and it is easy to see how this is a time to get one’s thoughts together as to what you will create. There’s an element of premeditation in considering how much ink you are making as well.


Here I’ve drawn up some of this ink so you can see that it is quite dense. You can also see it still clinging to the swirls of the glass nib tip of a glass pen I’m using to scribble on a sheet of notebook paper.


Here I’ve decanted the ink into an old empty ink bottle. Again this is NOT an ink you would use in a fountain pen as the particles would jam the pen.


Here’s my scribblings using some of this ink. It’s obviously nothing that could be mistaken for art.


After I let the ink dry, I was curious to see how waterproof this ink was, so I ran the sheet of writing under the sink for several minutes.


I let it dry on a cutting mat afterwards. Other than wrinkling the paper, the ink was undisturbed from the rinsing.. I was quite pleased at this degree of permanence..


I’d love to learn more about this ancient art, dating back to the very origins of papermaking and writing.

3 thoughts on “Guest post: Chinese ink sticks – a primitive beginning

  1. Well, I’m afraid I don’t have extensive experience with this art form. While it’s normally used with a brush, I’m planning on using it with glass nibs and calligraphy nibs as well – but not fountain pens. I suspect it will work where you could use India Inks. I also suspect that you can vary it’s characteristics (density, etc) quite a bit. This is a bit different than regular ink, in that the density is constant and you get variations from the pen itself, whereas here you can control ink density dynamically by darkening the ink with a bit more rubbing of the ink stick. After I do a bit more experimentation, I’ll do a followup posting.


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