Inks for Japanese and Chinese brush painting (sumi-e in Japanese) and calligraphy are made from soot combined with animal glue. These core ingredients create subtle tones within blacks, ideal for creating poetic lines and washes. Rapeseed oil, when burned, produces a fine carbon soot for a deep, dark black. Pine sap creates a soot that is translucent with less intense black to bluish-gray tones. Synthetic oils usually produce blacks with brown undertones. Traditionally, these mixtures were dried and compressed into solid sticks, which the artist would grind with a little water on an ink stone (suzuri) to make liquid ink. The finest ink sticks are handmade in China, Taiwan, and Japan.
1. Hukaiwen Ink Block
Hukaiwen, an ink factory located in Huangshan City, has been creating handmade ink since 1892 using traditional Chinese ink-making processes. This ink is made from pine soot and produces a deep black ink with blue undertones, for rich gradations. The stick is easily ground on a suzuri stone to create a fine ink that has a pleasant earthy smell. The three golden characters on the stick translate to “No exchanging even for gold.” This handmade ink is priceless for creating expressive lines.
2. Easyou Hukaiwen Ink Block
Easyou’s colored ink sticks offer the subtlety of sumi-e ink in a rainbow of colors, perfect for artists of all ages who want to create a spectrum of beautiful lines using brush and ink. The 12 vivid shades come from natural minerals that have a bright luster, and the colors are glorious and rich. The ink is similar to watercolor but is permanent once it dries. The inks are all natural and have a pleasant earthy smell when mixed with water. A little ink goes a long way, and the sticks will last a long time. They are packaged in a compact and attractive wooden box.
3. Wancetang Hukaiwen Ink Stick
Wancetang’s Hukaiwen ink sticks offer smooth, rich black ink at an affordable price. The ink grinds smoothly and evenly but requires patience: Mixing the ideal black requires approximately five minutes of even grinding on a stone with water. But the process is relaxing, and the ink stick has a unique earthy smell. The ink is made from pine soot for a rich black which creates exquisite lines. The ink may be a little gritty, but it’s an affordable option, ideal for beginners.
4. Paynan Chinese Ink Stick
The only cylindrical ink stick on our list, this option fits comfortably in the hand for optimal meditative ink grinding on a suzuri stone. The result is a rich, deep black ink that reflects the top quality of this pure pine soot tool. This handmade ink stick, which features an elegant embossed logo, delivers smooth, exquisite blacks with a subtle luster.
5. Yasutomo Sumi Ink Stick
Artists seek out sumi-e inks for the subtleties of their undertones, and Yasutomo’s produces a deep black with undertones of gray. The ink works best when ground with purified water, key to creating the most gorgeous of blacks and the most refined, subtle grays. Yasutomo’s ink is great for practicing, offering a full range of lights to darks at an affordable price. The ink has an earthy scent once it is ground with water.