JUMPSTART is a collection of Joan Lokís tips and know-how on sumi-e materials and techniques.  Joan Lok has been creating exquisite sumi-e artwork for over 30 years and is a popular workshop teacher.  She writes a technical column in SUMI-E, the quarterly magazine of the Sumi-e Society of America.

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© 2012 Joan Lok, www.joanlok.com, all rights reserved worldwide

Many of my students are confused when told certain sumi-e inks are blue while others are brown.  Isnít sumi-e ink supposed to be black?  The answer lies in the ingredients the ink is made of.

Typical sumi-e ink used for painting and calligraphy are made from grinding an ink stick against an ink stone with a small amount of water.  The ingredients used in ink stick are soot from burning wood or tree/vegetable oil and specific combinations of animal bone glue, water and fragrance.  The process includes burning the wood or tree/vegetable oil in a moderate flame and allowing the smoke to deposit as soot on the chimneys.  The soot are then collected and blended together with animal bone glue, occasionally fragrance, and kneaded to a dough-like consistency.  Kneading is repeated for a number of times with the gradual additional of ingredients.  The dough is put into molds and left to dry very slowly for a few months to avoid breakage.  The ink stick is then cleaned, polished, and decorated before going to the market.

Still, what is blue and brown ink?  They refer to the very slight tone of blueness and brownness when the ink is dried on rice paper.  Since ink stick is made of soot and glue, the color comes from the carbon particles and how they are suspended by the glue.  Brown ink contains very fine carbon particles in smoother clusters, thus producing a more intense blackness and a slight shine due to light reflection.  Most calligraphers prefer brown ink because of this subdued luster.  Blue ink contains bigger particles and does not reflect as much light.  When diluted with lots of water, it produces a very beautiful bluish-grey.  Painters enjoy using it for background washes.  The particle size is determined by the ingredients used.  In general, carbon particles from burning wood are heavier than those from burning plant oils.  Thus, many artists believe that ink made from burning oil is superior to ink made from burning wood.

This may not be true.  Regardless of burning ingredients, the position where the soot is collected from the chimney affects the quality.  Heavier particles are collected at the bottom of the chimney while finer ones are collected from the top of the chimney.  In addition, the formula of making ink stick has always been a top secret highly guarded within families and manufacturers.  The unique combination of wood chips (mostly pine with paulownia) or plant oils (mostly rapeseed with paulownia and sesame) also affects the fineness of the carbon particles.  A research by scientists of University of Maryland and the Smithsonian conducted in 2003 shown that the kind of animal glue used as the binding agent also placed an important role in the quality of the ink.  The binding agent alters how the particulars are suspended.   

To find out if your ink is brown or blue, reading the label would not provide much help.   Paint layers of ink in full strength and gradual washes on rice paper and let it dry.  Examine and compare the results and decide which tone you like better. 

Whether brown or blue ink is better is totally a personal choice.  Some artists believe that brown ink should be used for calligraphy and blue ink for painting.  I, however, combine the usage of both inks in my art.  I like the intensity of darkness of brown ink for rocks but enjoy the softness of tones produced by blue ink for clouds.  As for flower paintings and calligraphy, I prefer the brown ink because I like the warmness of its tone.  However, when doing an ink-only painting, I like blue ink more because I love its subtle and cool tones.   

Take a look at your ink and find out if it is brown or blue?  If you canít tell, just say it is black.  Happy painting.  Joan Lok

© 2012 Joan Lok, www.joanlok.com, all rights reserved worldwide