The Best Inks for Calligraphy
Best might not be, well, the best word to use here. After all what one person thinks are the best inks, the next person might disagree with, or they might be second best rather than top of the list for others.
I’m Louise, a calligrapher and member of the Cult Pens Customer Service team. I have been practising calligraphy both for work and in my own time for close to 10 years now and I’ve built up quite a collection of inks in those years - working at Cult Pens and being a keen stationery addict is highly dangerous, I can’t resist a new calligraphy pen or ink colour! In Customer Service we get lots of questions about inks so I’m going to share with you some of my favourite tips and inks for calligraphy practice in particular.
One of the first and most important things to consider with calligraphy inks is what calligraphy you’d like to practise, as this will determine what pen or nib you’ll need to use and in turn, which ink. For example, for modern calligraphy or Copperplate type scripts (handwritten letters are scripts, not fonts which are digital), we would recommend a dip pen and a flexible nib. Indeed a flexible nib is crucial to achieve both the thinner hairline strokes and thicker downstrokes on these scripts. You can achieve a similar style with a non-flex nib of course, a fine or medium fountain pen nib for example, or even a biro or pencil, but it won’t look quite as good as nibs which are designed to achieve both thin and thick lines. Alternatively, are Old English and Gothic scripts more your thing? If so we would recommend the Pilot Parallel Pen for this work, which is a fountain pen – this time we can safely use the word ‘best’ as it really is the best pen for these scripts.
Dip pens and fountain pens use different inks so understanding which you’ll be practising is key. Of course if you fancy both then great, more excuses for ink shopping!
The second most important thing to consider is the paper – not all inks work well on all papers. Even if the paper you use usually works well with your fine, medium or broad nibbed fountain pen, or ballpoint/rollerball, nibs as found on the Parallel Pen are much wider than standard nib sizes, so will put down a lot more ink and therefore you might find they don’t work as well on your usual paper. Dip pen inks are much thicker than fountain pen inks, so again they might start to bleed or feather on your usual paper.
So let’s dive into some recommendations on what I would use for each style.
Modern Calligraphy / Copperplate
For dip pens, as we would recommend for these scripts, you’ll need a thicker ink than fountain pen inks. Fountain pen inks are water-based dye inks and as such are quite watery. You can get thicker and thinner inks, depending on the brand, but generally speaking they need to be thin to be able to flow through fountain pen ink feeds without clogging the feed. The majority of fountain pen inks are too thin to use with dip pens, they will just slide off the nib into a puddle on the page, or otherwise they’ll flow so quickly they’ll write one letter perfectly fine then blob on the next. Some inks will be so thin they don’t stick to the nib at all. Of course there are always exceptions, some colours or brands will work great so if you have some at home feel free to give them a test and see how well they work on your dip pen nib, but we wouldn’t invest in buying new ones specifically to use with dip pen nibs as you might find it a wasted investment.
What we would recommend investing in, though, are calligraphy inks. It might sound obvious but as stated above calligraphy inks aren’t always suitable for all types of calligraphy. Calligraphy inks are thicker, especially designed for use with dip pens. Being thicker they will sit on the nibs nicely, without pooling on the page (assuming you haven’t over-dipped of course) and will flow at a better speed. Calligraphy inks are not suitable for fountain pens, they are too thick and will clog fountain pen feeds, they are only suitable for dip pens and brushes.
Top tip – brand new dip pen nibs often have oils on them from manufacturing and handling, which can affect the ink flow. Be sure to clean nibs thoroughly before use to ensure they are free from oils. I use a flame to ‘burn’ the nib which removes oils but we’ve heard sticking the nib into a potato has the same effect, or you can just clean it with some soapy water.
Some of our favourite Calligraphy inks are these:
For coloured inks Diamine Calligraphy and Drawing Inks are some of the best. Great value and a nice bottle size which lasts and is easy to fit most dip pen nibs into.
Black and White
For Black and White colours my favourite are KWZ inks, a little more pricey than Diamine but as Diamine don’t offer a white and it’s quite a popular colour among wedding calligraphers in particular, or for writing on darker papers, it’s a good option to have in your arsenal.
Metallic inks are another popular choice among calligraphers. I use Gold a lot for wedding calligraphy, weirdly Silver is hardly ever requested, but Herbin have both options, as well as Copper, for good measure:
Old English / Copperplate Scripts
You can buy dip pen nibs for Old English and Gothic scripts as well as for modern calligraphy and Copperplate scripts, if so, the calligraphy inks above will work just as well for Old English as they will for Modern Calligraphy. If, however, you’re using a fountain pen like the Pilot Parallel Pen or an italic nib fountain pen, you’ll need a fountain pen ink. As previously mentioned, calligraphy inks will not work in fountain pens and can cause considerable damage to them. This makes it easy to advise on; as you’ll know if you’re a Cult Pens fan, we have A LOT of fountain pen ink available, so it’s really down to what brand or colours you like the look of.
Again it’s got to be Diamine, they offer the widest range of colours available, from standard to sheen to shimmer inks they really do have something for everyone:
- Diamine fountain pen and drawing inks, made in Liverpool
Now, this is not to say that other inks are low quality, but some ink brands do tend to be a little too watery, which can give the impression of low quality. Watery inks are also more likely to bleed and feather on cheaper papers. Pilot Iroshizuku Ink is very high quality – they don’t offer as many colours as Diamine for example, but each and every one they do offer is the highest quality and really well saturated to achieve the best colour possible:
If you follow us on social media you’ll probably have seen some of my calligraphy letters or monthly banners posted online, using the Pilot Parallel Pen and a mix of different ink colours – when you have as many inks as I do, why just use one? One of my favourite things to do with my calligraphy is to dip the nib of the Parallel Pen into one colour, write a bit and then dip the nib into a different colour to create a watercolour-type effect. You can create a really beautiful finish with this, creating a truly unique colour that you won’t find anywhere else. Ecoline inks are great for this, they are liquid watercolours so they mix wonderfully but be warned, they are only suitable to dip the nibs in – they are not fountain pen inks so cannot be inked in the pen itself:
The final point to consider is paper; as mentioned some papers will not work well with thicker calligraphy inks or nibs. Certainly try whichever paper you use or have at home if you have some handy, but don’t be too surprised if it causes feathering or bleeding. I like to use Rhodia papers for practice, which are usually good enough quality for most calligraphy inks. Otherwise I’ll opt for a watercolour paper for final pieces I’d like to sell/frame, which is much thicker and designed to take more ink/paint than most papers. I’ve found the Goldline Watercolour Pad below from Clairefontaine a recent favourite, it’s nice and big with lots of sheets and has a little bit of texture to it as well which I like:
I hope this has been a useful read for those keen to get to grips with some calligraphy. Playing with inks is lots of fun but it can be frustrating when the ink you have isn’t doing the job you want. Hopefully this will help narrow down your choices. The best advice I can really give, though, is to just get stuck in and have a play! Try some inks you have at home, order some new ones if you feel it’s needed or wanted, give them all a go. There are no rules that must be followed really (other than don’t put calligraphy inks in fountain pens!), just guidelines, and it’s quite fun to break them if you can!