Ink For Chinese Brush And Sumi-e Painting


A comment from Yuebing about the ink in my Stillman & Birn Sketchbook review prompted me to do a little research on the brand and where to order it. Whether for Sumi-e or Chinese brush painting, any bottled ink of this type will do though professional quality is best. Pinching pennies on student grade might be short-sighted since you never know when a masterpiece might flow from your brush.

Chinese Brush Painting Tools

Chinese Brush Painting Tools

Though it was sold to me for a Japanese calligraphy class, Yi-te Ke is a Chinese ink. It took a while to locate on the web, but I finally found it at Blue Heron. Yi-te Ke ink has been made in Beijing for over 140 years and is good enough for professional grade work. From the consistency to the musky fragrance, this ink makes me happy just to pick up a brush. However, the scent might be too strong if you are sensitive to such things. If not, it is an excellent ink for brush painting and calligraphy and a real pleasure to use.

My second favorite bottled ink for brush painting is Best Bottle. It is also suitable for professional grade work and more widely available in the U.S. The scent is milder and performance is excellent.

Brush painting ink is not for use in a fountain pen though some artists have used it with an aqua brush. My experience is limited to natural bristle brushes but even with that there is a caveat. The ink tends to work its way into the tops of the bristles and upward into the ferrule. Sometimes the ink will then work its way out at inconvenient times and into pale colored washes. To avoid this I keep a few brushes dedicated for use with brush painting ink and have a different set for work with color.

In theory Japanese ink is cool blue-black but it looks densely black to me. Chinese ink is a slightly warmer brown-black with a softer, more earthy appearance. Don’t be concerned if the inks appear identical. The difference is subtle.

For some artists, a more significant characteristic is whether or not the ink can be reconstituted. If it dries on the palette before being used up, some inks like Yi-te Ke can be re-wetted producing gradations of gray. Like most brush painting inks, Best Bottle cannot. Wasting ink can be avoided by keeping the amount in your dish minimized and by immediately using any leftovers for another project. A small painting or doodle on a scrap of paper can be attached to a journal page, a greeting card, or turned into a bookmark. The ink can also be used to decorate blank stationery depending on the thickness and quality of the paper. It need never go to waste. Just be creative!

There is nothing that compares to using rich ink with a supple brush on high quality paper but that’s the painter in me talking. As a writer, using a fountain pen with the right ink and paper can produce a comparable experience. Both are fabulous fun.

Black Fantail

Black Fantail


  1. Start a new sheet of paper to practice the leaves. When painting leaves it is important to continually change the brush pressure. Think of the brush as a dancer, with the very tip of the brush being the dancer’s toes. Start the leaf by having the dancer up on the tips of her toes. As you paint the leaf the dancer comes down flat on her feet and then gradually rises up on her toes again. In this way you will get the beautiful thin point at the beginning and end of the leaf, and the thicker part in the middle. Practice a whole circle of leaves this way.


  2. What great advice! I always wondered how to get that effect.

    I think I’ll stick to fountain pens, but it’s fascinating to see other uses for ink.


    • Ink for brush painting is thick and flows smoothly from a brush. It can also be used with a reed cut at an angle and dipped in ink. For small calligraphy, it is best to dedicate a single brush for the task. Then let ink dry in the bristles to keep them stiff for writing a verse on or signing a painting.

      A fountain pen is soooo much easier.


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