How Is An Artist’s Oriental Ink Stick Made?

The Peony Girl Ink Stick and Ink Well

My materials are my fine art painting companions. They help me translate my thoughts to the painting surface.

When I decide to express myself artistically, my first step is not to make a decision about the type of painting - an oil painting, a classic Chinese painting, or a combination thereof. That decision is not clear until I pick up a material - an ink stick, oil brush, a piece of silk, or a piece of wood - some are soft, some are solid, some are fluid, and some are textured. Each one has its unique characteristics that will help to translate my idea into the physical world.

Today, I am going to talk about the oriental ink stick - how it’s made and how it magically produces ink. 

In Europe, most ink that you find in an art shop or a stationery shop is liquid in a bottle. In China, where I spent my early years that type of ink was to be used in a fountain pen for writing - usually homework! The other type of ink was produced from an ink stick - which one grinds in water on an inkstone. They are widely used for the classic paintings and calligraphy in China, Japan and Korea.

In the orient, good ink sticks and inkstones are collectables. Famous artists and wealthy collectors will go to extreme measures to source the finest ink sticks and inkstones that they can afford. 

As an artist, I know good ink will make a fine line very smooth and the black pigment is excellent for drawing gentle peony petals as the ink binds the paper or silk very well without any discolouring. And the ink stick becomes a constant companion as it can last for a decade!

So, how is an oriental ink stick made? There are five key steps:

Burn the pine

Surprisingly, the ink stick preferred for calligraphy and gongbi painting is made from pine soot. In other words, the burning of pine creates soot which is of course distinct from the ash.

Knead the dough

This is the most mysterious step in ink making. Dozens of precious medical herbs to improve the physical aesthetics of the inkstick are added into the animal glue (which may be from egg whites, fish skin or ox hides) which also may serve as a preservative.

Different ink masters have different glue recipes and that makes them unique and mysterious. As an artist, I do not know the magic recipe, but I can tell the quality of an ink stick from its weight, colour, the feeling of grinding it and the ink displayed on paper or silk. 

Mashing and smelting

The perfect combination of smoke and glue also requires repeated smashing, grinding, rubbing and pounding. Hard work.

Ink stick

After the intense smelting and quenching, the primal ink stick finally forms its shape, and their patterns come from the ink molds which were pressed on them. Poorly made ink sticks will crack very quickly.

Dry the ink

After several months of drying, the ink stick will be carefully polished and decorated meticulously. It will be as hard as stone and ready for use by artists.

Each ink stick is unique and given they have been used for thousands of years it is not surprising there are so many secret recipes. 

That’s how ink sticks are made. I hope after the summary above, you can understand the process even if you don’t speak Chinese.

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