Homemade Calligraphy Ink

A few days ago, I attended my second Calligraphy Meetup. There, I met a very inspirational young man. He took up calligraphy 3 years ago as a way of learning how to stabilise his hands. I’m not sure if it’s a medical condition, but his hands are extremely shaky. If you met him in person, you’d notice that his hands just can’t stop trembling. Yet, despite this obstacle, he was able to master both Islamic and Western calligraphy! After three years of regular practice, once he has warmed up his hand sufficiently (after an hour or so), his hand will stop trembling, and he is able to glide his pen across the page like a breeze.

But even if he hasn’t warmed up, what’s remarkable is the fact that he can still write so well, that you wouldn’t even notice any trace of shaky hands in his works. And yes, he can still glide his pen across the page, drawing beautiful elaborate circles and flourishes despite the tremble in his hands. Amazing! You can check out some of his works here: https://instagram.com/ruaddin/

But my amazement doesn’t just end there. He’s so passionate about his craft that he has learnt to make his own ink. He brought his own handmade walnut-brown ink. It is a very lovely dark brown with light reddish-brown hues where the lines are thin. Perhaps the right term to use is: shades of sepia. The colour of the ink reminds me of those old scripts written during the Renaissance period. Very very beautiful!

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this homemade ink is the fact that he has made it viscous enough that he is able to practice calligraphy on very thin paper. Most inks would just feather and bleed through thin paper, requiring you to spend extra money on thicker paper for practice. Imagine that! It’s so practical!

Out of curiosity, and a burning desire to make my own ink as well, I asked him how he made his ink.

His reply was stunningly simple. Just buy the ink crystals and arabica gum from the art shop, and mix them into a bottle (or jar) with water.

So easy? This I had to try!

A few days later, I went to the art shop, known as Straits Arts (not to be confused with Straits Pens), located at Bras Basah (opposite the National Library). This shop carries a lot of amazing calligraphy supplies. (You should check it out when you have the time!)

So there, I got my walnut ink crystals and my arabica gum. (They also sell glass jars for about $2)

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Arabica Gum (SGD$5.90) and Walnut Stain Crystals (SGD$8.00) from Straits Arts

It’s a good thing there are instructions on the walnut ink crystal bottle. It says:

Dissolve 1 part Walnut stain in 2 parts water, and add 1/2 part of gum arabic medium, shake well. To reach the desired shade, additional water or stain can be added in. To make waterproof ink, substitute gum arabic with Polyurethane Dispersion.

Looks easy enough! I got some glass bottles and added the ingredients according to the instructions. In the end, I added extra water and a little bit more of the gum just to get a shade and consistency that I like. It’s viscous enough that the ink does not seep through extremely thin paper, and it still writes very nicely.

For the fun of it, I wrote my own labels with my own homemade ink, and stuck them to the glass!

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Homemade calligraphy ink, ready for use! Yes, the bottles are in the office as I’ve taken it upon myself to use a dip nib for daily work, like filling up forms and taking notes.

Here’s a writing sample:

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Oops! I made a mistake with the letter ‘d’ in the word, “unexamined.” Wanted to re-write this, but I couldn’t re-create the beautiful capital ‘T’. So we’ll just have to make do with this.

The results are lovely, aren’t they?

Here’s a close-up of the words:

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A close-up of the words. Notice the varying shades of brown?

Notice the varying shades of brown? It’s so beautiful! This opens up a new dimension of in calligraphy for me. Now, it’s not just about the thick and thin lines, it’s also about applying the dark and light shades at specific parts of the words. Wow! There’s so many areas to explore and experiment!

I think there’s something really empowering about this experience. I’m now also keen on exploring how to make other coloured inks. I might pop by Straits Arts again to see if they have other colours that I can play with.

There’s another person I met at the Calligraphy Meetup. She’s very passionate about making her own inks from flowers and fruits. In fact, she does it like a chemistry experiment, describing her process as involving the use of acids and alcohols, and how the ink must stay within the range of pH2-3 so that the colour remains stable. A very technical process! She even brought a box full of ink vials containing inks of various colours which she made at home. She’s my second source of inspiration!

Let me first try to make inks from materials at the art shop first. Once I’ve gotten the hang of this, I shall try to make inks from flowers and fruits!