The differences between inks

Usually you associate a pen holder with an inkwell. In fact ink has been made and used by man for 5000 years. The Latin word tincta can be translated as “colored water”. In the old days ink was made from graphite or soot ground with water and mixed wit gum arabic to thicken it. Another centuries-old recipe that’s still around today featured gall nuts and iron salts. This ink is permanent, but it is corrosive and damages the paper it is written on.

Inks based on water contain color as chemically dissolved dye. They are thinner, usually not water-proof and not lightfast, they dry with a more transparent look, They are available in many different colors. When your calligraphy has to last for many years, you usually use pigment-based ink. When pigment-based ink is mixed a binding agent, it can be made lightfast and waterproof this way.

Pigment-based ink (also called: China ink, India ink, drawing ink) contains color pigments as well as a binding agent like shellac or acrylic. They are thicker, denser and dry opaque on the page, they also don’t fade or change color over time. Those inks can not be used in fountain pens(!), but only with dip nib pens, they can be used for documents, drawings or anything that has to meet archival requirements. Usually this type of ink is available in less colors.

When do I use which ink?

  • For practice you can use any kind of ink, for very fine, thin lines you might prefer dye-based ink as they are thinner. Dye-based ink can be used when it’s not important that the result is lightfast or waterproof, and you can use it with either fountain pens and with dip nib pens.
  • Pigment-based ink is used for documents or certificates – or just for other pieces you want to hang on your wall. Not every pigment-based ink is waterproof or lightfast though, so you’ll have to pay a bit of attention. You should only use pigment-based inks with a dip nib pen only, if you fill it into a fountain pen, it will dry up and ruin the pen forever.

Calligraphy Inks in review


These are mostly inks you can get over here in Germany. I’ll try and add more “international” inks over time.

  • Standardgraph Zeichentusche:
    Pigment-based ink, thick, opaque, steady flow. Inexpensive. My go-to-ink for a lot of projects. Only disadvantage: the smell. Good for beginners. Lightfast, waterproof.
  • Lefranc Nan King China Ink:
    Pigment-based ink, a bit difficult to get onto the nib due to the eyedropper, but also good writing characteristics. Waterproof, lightfast.
  • Rohrer & Klingner Zeichentusche:
    Pigment-based. Slightly more expensive, available in many colors. I find it a bit too thin for my style of calligraphy, it tends to “jump” from the nib and leaves puddles. Smell is better than that of the two above. Waterproof, lightfast.
  • Koh-I-Noor Zeichentusche:
    Pigment-based shellac ink. Available in many colors, and in small containers (good for testing). Rather thin, an even-looking result is hard to attain. Waterproof, lightfast. The small container makes it difficult to get the ink out of it.
  • Deleter Black Ink No. 1:
    Pigment-based. Not too thick, writes good, opaque. Good ink for beginners. Broad ink container. not waterproof, probably not lightfast
  • Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink
    Pigment-based. A good, slightly more expensive ink. A bit thinner than the above. Lightfast, not waterproof.
  • Pelikan Tusche A
    Pigment-based. In many colors available, slightly transparent ink. Comes in small containers (10 ml), good for testing purposes. Lightfast, not waterproof.
  • Rohrer & Klingner Schreibtinte:
    Dye-based ink. Very thin, good for fountain pens, many colors. With a dip nib the nib often “jumps” and leaves ink puddles. Not lightfast, not waterproof.
  • Diamine Fountain Pen Ink:
    Dye-based. Many colors to choose from, beautiful ink for fountain pens, inexpensive. Not lightfast, not waterproof.
  • Pelikan Ink:
    Most Germans will remember this ink from their school days (we actually learn to write with fountain pens over here). Good, inexpensive ink für fountain pens and dip nib pens that is easy to get everywhere. Not lightfast, not waterproof.

How to change the consistency of ink

There are a few tricks to change the consistency of ink.

  • If your ink is too thin: add gum arabic. Fill your ink in an extra container, add a small dollop of gum arabic (available in art supply stores, usually amongst the watercolors). Gum arabic thickens more and more after some time, you’ll have to dilute it again with water.
  • If your ink is too thick: add a few drops of water. It’s best to use a separate container for this too, and to use an eyedropper.

Often you can change the writing characteristics drastically with these methods.

Try it out for yourself

Ink should be chosen depending on the intended use and the writing utensil. The nib and the paper play a part too. As many tips as I can give you here, you’ll have to test out a few inks for yourself to find one you’re comfortable with and that works nicely for your calligraphy.



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