Sumi ink painting is one of the oldest forms of art because Sumi ink and other carbon black inks have been around for millennia. Does this traditional Chinese ink make the best modern greys? And is this inexpensive sumi drawing ink from Daiso Japan a good introduction to Sumi-e (black ink painting)? Watch for more.

Reviewing Sumi Ink

Vishal: Hello and welcome to Stationery Test Drive where every week we take the common and uncommon and turn them into something artistic. I’m Vishal.

Samir: I’m Samir.

Minjal: This is Minjal.

Vishal: And today we are looking at Sumi drawing ink. This is from the Daiso brand and this well-worn can, bottle of drawing ink is one of my favorite tools. We have tested some of our favourite tools and you can watch those tests – we did the Rhodia Pad, Ecoline Inks, pencils that we love and now finally my favourite – Sumi Ink.

This, eight-year-old bottle is the only Sumi ink that I’ve ever bought and still more than about half is left. I’ve used it extensively, so this is less of a test drive for me at least. I think you’ll haven’t used it as much and Minjal, maybe you haven’t used it at all before, this particular type of ink?

Minjal: Calligraphy artists, especially a lot of Asian calligraphy artists really love using the Sumi drawing ink. I’ve never really managed to get one over here. Thanks to Vishal who gifted a bottle to me, I finally have some ink to test. I love the Ecoline inks but as far as the greys and blacks are concerned there is probably nothing even close to the Sumi Ink.

Kupa river in Ladesici
Sumi-e (Suiboku-ga), Ink and wash painting – Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vishal: Speaking of tests, let me show you what I usually do, I have this Sakura Koi Water Brush, which is a wonderful tool in itself and which we should test out. But what I’ve done is use it kind of like a brush pen or a marker where I filled it with Sumi Ink and now I can just use it whenever I want.

It takes a little while to go, this brush is quirky and dry and but it works well for my kind of application, which is mostly kind of graphic stuff and lines. And really honestly, even off-screen you can just dab a bit of water or saliva on it and get the thing going really quite well.

Samir: That’s an old painter’s trick.

Vishal: And yes you can then use this in a little bowl and get very nice lines. Samir, first of all what is Sumi ink?

What is Sumi Ink and How is Sumi Ink made?

Samir: Sumi as I was saying before is one of the oldest kinds of ink that we have, that we have records of was based on kind of a metal mineral color, so things like red rock and things that were iron related were some of the first inks made from those pigments because you didn’t have to do anything you just had to powder the rock and mix it in with the right amount of water then you had kind of a red ink.

Sumi ink and other carbon based inks were kind of the second thing that we probably invented and that was by a sort of destructive distillation of wood. So you would burn wood with less oxygen, which is the process used to make charcoal, and that carbon that you would get from that process is what you would mix with water and other ingredients and you made a carbon ink.

Vishal: So you can’t have Sumi ink until you invent fire in some ways or control fire.

Samir: No you can’t, because Sumi ink and other carbon inks started off as a an ink based off soot and the initial soot would have been made from actually plant oils.

Vishal: We are NOT talking about the TV show SUITS, these are SOOT which is the soot you get from a lamp.

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Gabriel Macht at a promotional event for the TV show Suits. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Minjal: Is Sumi Ink made in Japan? Was it invented in Japan?

Samir: Sumi ink has kind of become popular as a Japanese product in modern times. But, no. It was invented in China. Its history goes back at least two or three thousand years BC in China. The first recorded example of it being manufactured in Japan is only 300 years AD or something. So it was around for thousands of years in China before we have records of Japan.

Minjal: So maybe when paper was around?

Samir: Probably at the same time.

Vishal: I’m extrapolating here but I’m guessing that the concept of taking the soot left over from the nightly fire and pasting it on the walls might be as old as pre-history or at least it’s prehistoric.

Samir: Yes, I’m guessing digging into the embers of your campfire and using those as kind of charcoal sticks on cave walls was probably tens of thousands of years old.

Vishal: If not hundreds, if not before humans, technically. And we’ve talked about old tools before, we did a wonderful episode on the Reed Pen. And that one as well you can use with Sumi Ink. But I think should we get on with showing off our test drive, Samir? Samir you used a Reed Pen this time.

Bird Illustration with Sumi Ink

Samir: Yes, I used Sumi ink and only a Reed Pen. And in keeping with the natural nature of everything that we’re testing I thought this was the appropriate subject.

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Vishal: That is superb. I love nature and bird illustrations and using that kind of a wedged- brush for it is unusual. You have not gone for the grey, you’ve gone for the black.

Minjal: This would have been a lot of black, right?

Samir: I mean I would say that it’s a bit of a meditative or masochistic practice to try to fill out the entire black shape with a Reed Pen because it can’t really hold too much ink. But it’s a lot of fun because and we spoke about this in the Reed Pen episode, there’s a certain sort of scratchy nature to it.

I don’t know if this shows up on camera but because it’s not a brush, this black as even as it looks on camera, as even as it would look if I reproduced it for print, it’s full of texture. It’s kind of as primeval as you can get as far as making art is concerned.

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Vishal: Speaking of primeval marks, Minjal show us your test drive.

Japanese – Inspired Abstract Art with Sumi Ink

Minjal: These are Japanese inspired abstract art pieces. I’ve used an automatic pen for the same. This is the first time I used the Sumi ink and yes while the blacks are very impressive, it is actually the greys that I truly love!

minjal sumi IMG 3732

Vishal: Yes, the greys! We should talk about the packaging of this as well.

Samir: I think most Sumi ink is now kind of standardized in this kind of bottle because it’s so easy to dispense.

sumi IMG 3743

Vishal: It’s very easy to dispense, it does not over dispense, you can literally use a drop of and sometimes that’s enough for a for an a4 drawing certainly. But yeah the greys you’ve gotten, I love the variation, the gradation that you have on all of these, and it dries fast.

Portrait Painting with Sumi Ink

Vishal: So for my test drive, which is not a tester because I kind of did it quickly and just fell on my usual subjects that I do, which is portraits. I didn’t want to overthink this, and I don’t know what to say other than this is my favorite ink, I’ve used it pretty much every week, every day.

vishal sumi IMG 3738

Minjal: You have a series on Instagram, right? Where you’ve done similar portraits?

Vishal: I had a notebook, a sketchbook called Pocket Faces where I’ve done a lot of Sumi Ink portraits.

Samir: Here’s a link to that video on YouTube. It’s fantastic.

And we really need to address what we started this video with, which is that, yes, Sumi ink is known as a black drawing ink and obviously it’s a great black drawing ink but the the greys that you can get out of it purely by diluting it a little is really one of its strengths. And you can’t get this kind of flat characterful grey with anything else.

vishal sumi IMG 3739

Vishal: If you use and dilute fountain pen inks they never look quite as nice.

Samir: The reason that we are telling you that Sumi ink is probably one of the best grey inks out there and we like the way this grey looks. And maybe part of that is what we were saying that we come from a design background and we like the fact that this grey is so graphic and flat.

What we are talking about as a strength in this grey, the reason that you get these kind of splotchy, sky looks and the reason that you can get this very beautiful brush effect. There’s no shading in the grey here, it’s a very minute shading, there’s no gradation.

minjal sumi IMG 3735

Vishal: It almost looks like a film negative.

Samir: And believe it or not the this grey is the reason that a lot of far eastern art went in the direction of Sumi-e. The sort of diluted grey, Japanese and chinese ink painting, because of the character of this grey. But a lot of modern illustrators actually dislike Sumi ink because of this.

So it depends on your views entirely because the fact is that you can’t really use Sumi to make a gradation of grey, it’s just not good at doing that. You can make kind of overlapping shapes of gray, but you can’t make a gradation of grey with a Sumi Ink.

MangAzur 2011 Sumi e Samedi 16 avril Palais Neptune Toulon P1090529
Mang’Azur 2011 – Sumi-e, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sumi Ink vs. India Ink – Difference between Sumi Ink and India Ink

Samir: The closest sort of family to the Sumi ink is another sort of carbon black ink and very popular of course, India ink. And that’s one of the major differences between the two. Sumi ink is great at making these very flat greys, and India ink, while also being based on a similar soot and lamp black, originally a carbon-based that is highly fine in its nature. And these are all examples of India ink. India ink is actually much better at making a graded grey which is why it’s much more popular with illustrators.

Vishal: Yes, most comic illustrators and graphic artists use India ink.

Minjal: So India Ink and Sumi Ink, are they both waterproof?

Samir: I think this is a question that comes up in a lot of people’s minds because I know for the longest time I used to just call this India ink. Because I thought it was a black ink and it was carbon based and therefore everything that’s black ink and carbon based is India ink. So let’s go into the differences between what is a Sumi ink, what is India ink, and what the differences are?

They both are based on the carbon, the carbon forms the black color of both of them. Sumi ink used to be done with lamp black back in the day and modern versions of it mostly use a carbon that’s collected from burning of pinewood, specifically. India ink uses charcoal ash, so they’re a very similar process, they both use a destructive distillation process, but they use slightly different kinds of carbon. The other major difference is that India ink is purely a mixture of the carbon ash and water and that’s it, that’s all you need to make India ink.

Minjal: There’s no binder?

Samir: Nothing. These days when you put it in the bottle and you want it to last for months and years on the shelf, they often mix it with glycerin to stabilize it. Bu that doesn’t in any way add to the nature of the ink. Sumi ink on the other hand has always been a carbon and water and also an animal glue, traditionally. So ox-hide glue, fish gelatin, all of these kind of glues, which unfortunately made Sumi ink terrible to smell for thousands of years.

Because the glue would break down over time. And the weird thing is that when it was new and the glue hadn’t broken up, the ink was actually more difficult to use. So it would get easier to use as it got stinkier and stinkier. Thankfully these days there is no animal glue in these and it just uses artificial gelatin, so it’s perfectly smell free.

Vishal: It does have an interesting sort of carbony-smell that’s close to lamp black.

Samir: I guess some of the wood flavors still kind of stay in.

Vishal: And the carbon smells that you kind of associate with lamps and things like that. Specially as growing up in India oil lamps are a pretty common thing. And lamp soot is a common thing in the house.

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Oil lamp, Image: Wikipedia

Is Sumi Ink waterproof?

Samir: We were talking earlier about whether Sumi ink is waterproof and we never got to that point. I would say again that’s a difference between India and Sumi ink. India ink actually is more waterproof once it dries and it is also more lightfast once it dries because it uses just the carbon and water, there is nothing to break down over time, so India ink ends up being more archival and is also the reason why it’s used by more serious artists in the modern world.

Minjal: So any kind of exposure, a prolonged exposure to sunlight would kind of fade Sumi ink over time?

Samir: Yes. Now, I’m guessing modern Sumi ink is stabilized more and so there will be some change, in that it would have gotten better over the years, but it’s not going to be as waterproof or as archival as India ink. But I think that’s one of the reasons why, throughout history and now as well it’s something that you can get in a bottle this size because it is kind of a simpler, more casual medium.

Vishal: It’s just really fun to use. I’ve used it on professional projects, on casual projects.

Minjal: It’s not very easily available in India though I have to say that.

Vishal: Sumi Ink, no. I’ve seen it a few times for much more than this price that I got it at Daiso, Dubai. So in some ways that kind of put me off and also I’ve not needed it. I went to a stationary store recently and saw a Sumi Ink bottle which was about ten dollars.

Samir: The thing is that at ten or fifteen dollars you’re still getting a bottle which will easily last you 10 years, unless you’re extremely prolific!

Vishal: I mean if you’re prolific, great, go ahead! And, I’ve seen calligraphers in Japan literally use not brushes but mops with silk paper or some kind of tough paper laid out over an entire floor. I would love to try it.

Minjal: Calligraphers also use automatic pens which are pretty much a wooden holder / handle and at the top you have a metal nib.

Samir: So an automatic tool is kind of the original form of a folded pen which led to the development of something like the Pilot Parallel Pen!

Vishal: Whether you’re using a folded pen, a reed pen, which is probably how the first people used it, other than using their hands. It’s such a mind-boggling thing to think about.

Samir: I think the next step after finger printing was probably this.

Vishal: Imagine, a caveman, a proto-human, in fact, probably making art with the same tools! That is what we look for in Stationery Test Drive. The common, the uncommon, the historical and we will get back to more experiments. I’m definitely using Sumi ink. I hope, I’ve converted you’ll.

Minjal: Absolutely!

Samir: It’s just too good to not try it out and do something.

Vishal: But in the meantime do follow Minjal on the social links there on screen right now, in fact and also in the description. Follow Samir and me as well for artwork like this and other things. Please subscribe to the Inky Memo newsletter, it has more in-depth stories about inks and implements and things like that. And we will see you in a while.

Samir: And I think what you should also do if you liked this episode is to look at our episode about the Reed Pen because it was a fun episode and you should really have a look at it.

Vishal: And I used Sumi ink in that one as well! Until next time I’ve been Vishal.

Samir: I’m Samir.

Minjal: This is Minjal.

Get Sumi Ink

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