Where Does Ink Come From?

So many complimentary pairings are unforgettably seared to our minds—for example, chocolate and peanut butter, or music and dancing? For this community, fountain pens and ink are likely at the top of our list of memorable duos. Have you ever wondered how ink possess multiple visual possibilities or how different inks look when dried onto a sheet of paper? Let’s delve into that information, but first let’s briefly examine ink’s origins.

Prehistoric cave paintings in Chauvet, France

The first appearance of ink

The idea of ink has existed since human beings began to write on flat surfaces to either express themselves or to record a moment in time. Early writers became extremely creative while searching for the perfect material for writing and drawing. Ancient cultures as far back as the paleolithic era developed lampblack, a deeply pigmented carbon that was mixed into various liquid binders that allowed a smooth writing application.

Tyrian Purple was developed in ancient Rome from boiled sea snails and only used by royalty. Pages of illuminated manuscripts were dyed with the pigment extracted from the snails prior to scribes writing on those pages for royal patrons. The regal dye was so valued it was worth its weight in gold. Thank goodness that now we can fill our modern fountain pens from ink bottles and not snails.

Tyrian Purple originated from a snail.

What is ink made of?

It is nearly impossible to pinpoint exact ink formulations because so many companies produce their own inks using guarded proprietary recipes. What we do know for certain is that modern fountain pen inks are solutions of water colored with industrial dyes. Many ink solutions include thickening ingredients that control ink flow, antifungal components to prolong ink life, as well as additional additives to prevent damaging fountain pens. What makes all these combined elements special is when the ink flows magically through the feed and from the nib without clogging.

What truly makes fountain pen inks special are the various formulations achieved to create desirable properties. For instance, shading inks use lighter colored dyes to produce visible contrasts amongst written letters, especially when using a wet broad nib. Darker dyes and pigments can result in colorful sheen, which possesses a desirable metallic finish that can appear an entirely different color for the ink seen inside the bottle.

Shimmering inks contain amounts of fine glitter particles within the ink itself. These inks jazz up written words by leaving behind glitter deposits after the ink has dried on the page. Try inking a piston filling demonstrator fountain pen and enjoy watching the glitter swirl as you move your pen around.

To preserve handwritten words on paper, many fountain pen users reach for waterproof or permanent inks to get the job done. Permanent inks contain impenetrable pigments that embed into the paper material. Iron gall is another type of permanent ink that contains
oxidizing pigment particles, which are fade resistant. Iron gall ink has existed for many centuries and thanks to modern formulations, are much friendlier to modern fountain pens since they are less acidic than its ancestors.

How is ink made?

Although there are some ink manufacturers, like L'Artisan Pastellier, that use all-natural raw materials in their traditional ink recipes, most modern inks are made using industrial dyes, solvents, and surficants. Ink makers blend these liquids together in specific ratios to produce the broad spectrum of ink colors you see available today. There's a lot of trial and error involved in creating the perfect ink formula.

You, too, can make your own unique ink color. Thanks to brands like Platinum, you can mix your own special color to your liking. While you shouldn't mix just any fountain pen ink together, "mixable" inks can be combined to create new colors. Brush up on some basic color theory and you're ready to play and create your own ink color.

The finely-tuned ratio of ingredients that make up fountain pen ink gives our handwriting the exciting, personal characteristics that writers enjoy most. Ink properties like shading, sheen, and shimmer add an extra dimension to handwriting. Regardless of how your favorite ink is made, the most important aspect that ink possesses is its ability to create a signature style especially chosen for and by the writer.

Photos by Vanessa Langton


About the Author

Vanessa is an Art Historian with a passion for 19th century
photography history, mid-20th century street photography, Post
Impressionist painting, and fountain pens. When she’s not conducting
research, she’s writing with fountain pens and experimenting with
various inks and papers. Vanessa collaborates creatively with several
notable pen companies and distributors as well as creates YouTube
videos under the Pen Gangsta pseudonym.