Can You Really Paint With Fountain Pen Ink?

Art is expansive. I think we all know that. Yet this freedom can be intimidating and, let’s be honest, expensive. Thus, as pretty as those fountain pen inks look in the stores, is buying them for painting worth it? Can you even paint with fountain pen ink?

You can paint with fountain pen ink. It is an ancient art that has expanded thanks to modern pigments. Now, with a variety of tools, from various pen nibs to a plethora of brushes, to devices that straddle in-between, painting with ink is more versatile than ever before.

Before plunging ahead with the new color medium, it is good to appreciate what has been done before. Also, fountain pen ink comes in two main types, and they have advantages and disadvantages, depending on the project. There are also knacks to keep in mind when trying different painting tools with ink.

When Did Painting With Ink Begin?

Ink and Wash painting, also called Shui-Mo Hua, began 1,400 years ago during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China. This artform was considered one of the “Four Treasures of Study,” referring to the ink brush, inkstick, paper, and inkstone used in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

Liquid ink is a relatively modern medium, which came about during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). Until then, ink was made by rubbing an inkstick on an inkstone with water until the desired consistency was achieved. The earliest inksticks dated back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and were made for calligraphy.

At the beginning of ink wash painting, it was an esteemed profession of men. It was brought to light by poet and paper Wang Wei, who favored making landscapes with colored inks. However, monochromatic only rose to popularity during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  It was not until around the 14th century that the art took hold in Japan and Korea.

Ink and Wash, Sumi-e, tended to use ink derived from pine or oil soot mixed with animal glue. High-quality inksticks often contained incense to make the ink smell more pleasant. Once the ink was prepared, it was then applied by brush to silk or a fine, soft paper, known as Xuan paper. Done, in its purest form, the art leaves little to no room for error.

For those wanting to try this art form, check out the following links:

  • Arirang Culture has a YouTube video on ink sticks, which requires a five-year aging process. 
  • Scribble has a YouTube video on handling inksticks and a grinding stone.
  • Tutorial Bin has a YouTube video giving an introduction to bamboo painting.
  • VidBrats has a YouTube video hosted by Joan Y. Koemptgen on the basics of Sumi-e painting.

How to Use Fountain Ink for Painting?

Before you begin, establish what type of fountain ink you have: permanent (pigment) and dye-based (water-soluble). If you don’t know, you can test the ink by spreading a bit on paper and allowing it to dry. Drying, depending on the ink, can take between 12-24-hours. Once the ink has dried, add a little water.

The permanent will not bleed or blend once dried, even with water brushed over the top. These inks are favored for line work and, by their nature, give a piece longevity. In addition, their colors tend to possess less vibrancy than dye-based, with a flat finish. There are carbon black inks, however, that have a silky finish with a silvery sheen.

Special caution must be used pigment-based inks: they will clog and stain pens and other tools if allowed to sit too long. Thus, regular cleaning must be maintained.

Dye-based inks will bleed, blend, and, with enough water, wash away. These can create some wonderful art, however, and the color choices are vast and vibrant. But if you genuinely love a finished piece and want to preserve it long term, you will have to protect it, such as using a fixative; otherwise, even a teardrop will alter the art. They are also not recommended for line work, especially if you intend to use the lines for mixed medium projects with watercolor.

More on Fountain Pen Ink

Fountain pen ink is diverse within the range of permanent, pigment-based inks and dye-based, water-soluble inks. Other categories out there to consider:

  • Bulletproof inks. This is a Noodler Ink category that claims to resist “all the know tools of a forger,” from UV lights, bleaches, alcohols, solvents, and an array of industrial cleaners. It also claims to combine the positives of both pigment-based and dye-based ink. Thus, it is low maintenance, with sharp color, but permanent.

The ink works by binding with cellulose fibers, such as cotton. Thus, the ink is only waterproof once it has been absorbed into the paper and dried. However, any ink that dries on top of the paper, i.e., the surface, will remain vulnerable to water.

  • Freeze resistant ink. This is another Noodler Ink category and is often considered a subgenre of Bulletproof ink. But yeah, it isn’t supposed to freeze. So if you live in a cold climate with no heating or want to do ink painting outdoors in cold weather, this is for you.
  • India Ink. This is more of a calligraphy ink, so don’t stick it in your fountain pen. But it could be fun to play with, especially with a dip pen.
  • Iron-Gall Inks. This type of ink was popular in the Middle Ages and could easily be found up to the early 20th century. The ink is water-resistant and has the fascinating effect of darkening as it dries, which can be great for shading.

Original iron-gall inks had a significant downside: they destroyed pens and paper due to their corrosive nature. Thankfully, modern iron-gall inks are safer. However, this does mean the water-resistant property is lessened, and the ink will grey out if it becomes wet. Also, while the ink is far less corrosive, it is still advised not to leave the iron-gall hanging around in your pen and to clean your pen after use.

  • Shimmer Ink. As the name suggests, these inks shimmer thanks to containing tiny glitter particles. They are considered safe for your pen, but you are advised to clean your pen regularly as you would with pigment-based inks. Also, when refilling your pen, shake the ink first, as the glitter particles tend to stick at the bottom.
  • Scented Ink. Traditionally, the upper classes wanted scented ink to take the edge of the natural odors, which were less than pleasant due to being bound by animal-based glue. Modern scented inks are simply scented for fun. The scent fades after a few days once the ink has been set to paper.

7 Other Ink Terms

The world of Fountain pen ink has a broad lingo. Here are a few terms to help you wade through the wide variety of jars, cartridges, and nibs.

  • Biocide: This is a chemical often added to ink to prevent mold and other unpleasant things from “blooming” in the ink.
  • Blotting paper: Fancy super-absorbent paper to soak up extra ink. While it is nice to use, especially when composing a letter, you will probably find it much more economical to use paper towels if you are painting with ink.
  • Bulb Syringe: It is true; you can find these in the baby-care aisle. But they are a great tool to flush out pens.
  • CA (cyanoacrylate): Do you know what superglue is? Then that’s good enough.
  •  Ferrogallic Ink: A fancy word for an iron-gall ink.
  •  Halo: A specific ink property that causes separation of dye components producing a highlighting “halo” effect.
  • Wet Noodle: This is a flexible pen nib. The original makes are valuable.

How To Use Only Four Fountain Pen Inks?

Many an artist dreams of being the Smaug of art supplies. But the reality is, most of us will never be as rich as the dragon in the Hobbit nor have the room for an endless stash of colors. Also, when traveling, carrying a crate of supplies is cumbersome and impractical. Thankfully, like paint, you can mix fountain pen ink.

Nick Stewart has a color wheel tutorial and advises using blue, magenta, yellow, and black. In addition, he suggests ink with low chromatic behavior that are reactive to bleach and has a “low sludge content.”

You will also need a mixing tray, eyedroppers to transfer the ink, a paintbrush (he prefers a No2 rigger), a set of compasses, a dip pen, and bleach. Your paper should be of good quality, cartridge or watercolor.

Once you’ve finished the color wheel tutorial, he then has a blog post to start you through some painting exercises using your four inks and their blends. You can find that here.

What Tools to Use When Painting with Fountain Pen Ink?

  • Fountain pens. Fountain pens come in a variety of brands and nibs. Some artists like to draw with water-soluble inks, then carefully brush the lines to cause the colors to “shade” as they run in the water. However, you will need to use permeant ink if your fountain pen sketch will be done on top of or overlaid with watercolor.
  • Dip Pens. Dip pens come in a large variety, and one of the biggest trends is writing in glass. Artists enjoy using these because you can dip it into an ink, use, clean and wipe, and then dip into a new ink. Fountain pens need to be filled, so switching inks is tricky mid-project. Plus, it gives you the option of trying to draw with a glass nib. Check out this quick YouTube video of glass dip pen art.
  • Brush pens. These pens give a more traditional effect often seen in Far East monochromatic pieces. You can read a review of fountain brush pens here.
  • Paintbrushes. Some artists dip their paintbrushes into the ink, although most don’t recommend doing it straight into the bottle. Thin and soft is typically advised for beginners.
  • Water brushes. These can be used in two ways. The first is to draw with water-soluble ink, then use the water brush, filled with water, and brush over the linework to provide that shading and blended look. The other method is to fill the water brush with ink. If you try the latter, it is recommended you stick to water-soluble ink, as permanent can clog the brush.

Regardless, even water-soluble ink can stain your water brush, although not always. But it may be wise to keep your water brushes you fill with ink separate from the ones you fill with water.

Here is a YouTube video where the artist plays with the water brushes, including with ink. In the video, he mentions clogging, but this blog post has some suggestions on how to fix that, along with other tips.

8 Tips for Painting With Fountain Pen Ink

  1. Have lots of paper towels ready. You will be using them for drying brushes, your workspace, your hands, to provide some control of the ink’s spread on your project, and to mop up extra water.
  2. Have lots of water ready. You may want more than one vessel and pot. You will need it for yourself, your tools, damping your paper, diluting colors, and creating washes.
  3. Play and pre-mix colors. Yes, you can paint straight from the bottle. But ink, like paint, can be altered in a palette, from changing its consistency to mixing and creating new shades. See further up on this post for more info on mixing inks and creating a color wheel.
  4. Experiment with inks. There is a big world beyond standard pigment-based and dye-based. Different sheens, flows, and concentrations of color can be found in different brands and formulas. Other inks to try, such as iron-gall, can take your shading in new directions.
  5. Try various tools. Soft brushes are often easiest when first starting out. But it is good to experiment with the different pens, nibs, pipettes, sprayers, sticks, brushes, and water brushes. They all carry the ink differently, including how much you can load up for a single stroke.
  6. Start simple. Look to the great masters in the Far East. Many of their stunning works are created using deceptively simple lines. Sometimes in art, less is more, and this is often true when working with ink.
  7. Experiment with paper. Quality hot-pressed watercolor paper is often favored when it comes to painting with fountain ink. But there are others to try, including canvass, cold-pressed watercolor paper, matte inkjet paper, rice paper, and one artist enjoys using board that has been prepped with gesso. You could even give blotting paper a go.
  8. Don’t box in your ink. Yes, when making line art, you want your ink to be precise. But this is painting; so, let the medium flow. Again, look at the work of the Far East masters. Their deceptively simple lines work precisely because they learned to work with the flow of ink rather than fight against it.


Using fountain pen ink in painting can be an art form all on its own or add a new dimension to other forms, such as watercolor. The options are wide, from a variety of inks to tools to paper. The important part is to enjoy experimenting as you discover new ways to create.

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