Ink: From Cave Walls to Canvas and Paper - An Evolution

Ink as a creative medium has been used since early humans painted on cave walls. This medium has now evolved into your ballpoint pens or the ink in your home printer.

The history of humans using ink is as complex as the story of civilisation. Even today, ink is used in calligraphy, sketches and designs.

So let's dive into a brief history of the origin and use of ink.

Ink, in its most primitive form, dates back over 4,000 years in ancient Egypt and China. The Chinese were known for creating ink from soot and animal glue, while the Egyptians used a mix of carbon, water, and gum Arabic to produce ink for hieroglyphic writing. Ink enabled people to preserve records, write manuscripts, and record their surroundings.

Liaoning Provincial Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Liaoning Provincial Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the seventh and eighth centuries, ink evolved as a creative medium in China, where history, religion, and daily life were depicted utilising brushes made of animal hair and feathers. These works of art were painted on scrolls of paper or silk sheets. They were predecessors to the development of pen and ink drawings.

It wasn't until the 12th century that a breakthrough in ink production was made by combining tannin extracted from oak galls with iron salts. When prepared well, this ink is stable and combines well with fibres of paper, preventing the erasure of marks.

Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance saw the emergence of ink-wash painting, a technique that used ink and water to create subtle variations in tone and depth. Wooden styluses and sharpened metal shards were among the new instruments used to improve the accuracy and detail offered by ink. In Europe, artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci used ink to create detailed studies of the human body and technical drawings.

Van Gogh used many different drawing materials, including ink. Through research, we know that many of his drawings contained iron gall ink. He also experimented with synthetic inks. While we might be familiar with his colourful paintings, he also did many ink drawings. Check out his interesting use of line below.

Vincent van Gogh, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Gogh, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Picasso also left a trail of sketchbooks basted in ink and washes.

As a result, techniques for washes and highlighting emerged, adding more effects to ink drawings, whether they were rapid sketches or intricate compositions. Many new pens were developed to use inks. Dip pens, reservoir pens, reed, quill, metal pens, fountain pens, markers, fibre-tipped pens, brushes and many more are popular among artists!

Quills & Dip pens

Today, in the modern era, ink is still a prominent medium in the art world. Ink is also used with various media, including pencil, graphite, watercolour, and chalk. Recently many people, not just artists, are rejecting the mundane screens and using fountain pens rather than reaching for cheap ballpoint pens.

Inks are also newly available in many colours made either from dyes or pigments. Due to its toxicity levels, sustainability, and environmental impact, it is becoming increasingly popular to reference historical influences for more natural ingredients to make colour in inks.

From the bold lines of comic book illustrations to the delicate ink drawings of contemporary artists, ink remains a versatile and enduring medium.

Have you tried it yet?

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