Just starting to dabble in calligraphy? Wondering what inks to buy? Don’t want to spend a ton of money on a giant jug of sumi black? Lovelies, I have just the thing for you! Here is a little chart I lettered up today, so you can see the differences between a few of the most popular brands of black and navy inks.
First up is Speedball’s Ultrablack. Of the three black inks, Ultrablack is definitely the most opaque. It’s also totally waterproof and dries pretty quickly – this is my go-to ink on papers that are prone to feathering. The drawback is that it has a tendency to pour out of a nib unexpectedly, rather like paint. Despite this annoying habit, it seems like the little ink pot lasts a very long time, which is always good!
Noodler’s black ink is a pleasure to use; it flows beautifully right out of the bottle. It’s waterproof as well, but expect this ink to take forever to dry in heavier strokes. Like Speedball’s black ink, it is also very opaque. However, unlike the Ultrablack, Noodler’s black is a cellulose ink. This means that it reacts with the surface of most papers & becomes permanent/waterpoof. Great for envelopes!
The least opaque, and most ‘antique’ looking black is made by McCaffery’s. This effect is most visible in hairlines and areas of lighter coverage, where the ink becomes transparent. Depending on your project, this may be desirable. This ink also has a really bad tendency to crackle as it dries into in an alligator skin, if it’s allowed to pool too much. See the swatch up there? Gross, right?
Onto our blue friends… The funny thing about navy ink – a good one is hard to come by. It’s very difficult to find a navy that is dark, opaque and truely blue! Some store bought inks come close; Ziller’s midnight ink is a true blue, almost cerulean. It’s waterproof as well, which is nice.
Like their black version, McCaffery’s indigo gets more opaque in thicker strokes and more transparent in thinner areas. It makes for a very vintage look, especially on creamy paper stocks. This ink has an almost reddish-purple sheen. If you like a traditional grey-blue, this is not the ink for you.
The truth is, when I need an opaque navy ink I often prefer to mix my own! You can do this too. Plain ‘ol white gesso is a great base; it gives opacity to the final ink. A little bit of water is added to thin the gesso so it flows out of a calligraphy nib, and gum arabic is added by the drop to stabilize the blend so it doesn’t crack as it dries. Pigment can come from dry powders and paints, or as often happens in my studio, other ink. I reach for the McCaffery indigo a lot, as you can see below.
Unfortunately there’s no easy formula — if you’re mixing your own inks, it is best to start with small batches (1 tablespoon at a time) and to experiment ‘by feel’. Dip your nib into the ink and see how it writes, then adjust your ingredients as needed to get the consistency and look that you like best.
So, fellow letter-lovers, do you have any recommendations for bulletproof black or navy inks?