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3 steps to choose the right Chinese ink

During my ink painting workshops, I am often asked about the different qualities of ink that exist on the market. In this post, I am talking about inksticks and ink stones which are known to be part of the Four Treasures of the Study (房四宝 wén fáng sì bǎo).

'Ween fan' what? This expression encompasses the ink (墨 mò, in mandarin*), the ink stone (砚 yàn*), the brush (笔 bǐ*), and the paper (纸 zhǐ*). They are the four fundamental tools to Chinese art and culture.

Did you know? The name Four Treasures of the Study apparently originates from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589 AD). Still today, they are a strong symbol of Chinese culture and were used during the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.

1 - Back to basic, the ink stick

Originating from China (third century BC), it is also known as ink cake. The high quality sticks you buy in specialised art stores are made of soot and animal glue. This mix is kneaded, cut, poured into molds and pressed.

Which inkstick to choose?

There are various types and shapes of ink cakes, and in a sense, it all comes to the quality and type of soot these are made of. Choose a stick that is easy to handle, this will reduce the time for ink preparation.

Before you buy your very own inkstick, know that they can be divided, mainly, into two main categories: - inksticks made of lampblack (mandarin characters below*) - inksticks that are pine soot based (*)

You can also, more rarely, purchase lacquer soot ink (which is made from the soot of dried raw lacquer). It has a shiny appearance and is most suitable for painting rather than calligraphy. Charcoal ink is also available in some case and is made using ordinary wood charcoal. It has the least amount of glue and so spreads on paper more than other inks. It is mainly used for freestyle painting and calligraphy.

The soot is produced by hypoxic burning and in the case of lampblack, Tung oil (or vegetable oils, seed oils, even lard) is burnt while pine soot is made from pine branches and roots.

Generally speaking, for traditional Chinese practice, painters will use lampblack. Otherwise, for paintings that require a mat finish, they will use pine soot.

If you are the experimental type rather than a traditionally trained calligrapher/painter, perhaps you might like to try one of each and see by yourself the different outcomes?


So there are two main types of ink stick, but how to differentiate one from another? To know if an ink stick is made from pine soot or lampblack, either read the characters (!) that are embedded on the top of the cake or observe its bottom part. If it looks matte and dull, you most certainly have an inkstick made from pine. If instead it is glossy and smooth, it is made of vegetable oil soot.

To hold the soot, a small percentage of animal glue is used as a liaising medium. It can be made from fish bones and skin, egg white or ox hide. Traditionally, inksticks are produced in winter, when the glue is less likely to spoil. To improve the physical aesthetics of the inkstick, and to help preserve it, incense and herb extracts from traditional Chinese medicine can also be added.

The ingredients are mixed together to form a dough that is kneaded (by foot or by hand) until smooth and even. It should develop a luster. The dough is then cut and pressed into a wooden mold and let to dry slowly, for one month up to two years, in a totally dry and dark environment. Finally, the surface is polished with clam shells.


Old ink feels lighter (weight wise) and looks darker than newly made ink. It is also less sticky. That said, today’s technology is able to quicken the production process while preserving (to a certain extent) the quality and attributes of the ink.

If you still have some doubts on which type of ink to choose, look at this inkstick review, this should clarify things.

How to differentiate a good ink stick from a bad one? A good inkstick is said to be - as hard as stone, with no crack, no flake - smooth and free of flaws to avoid any damage or scratch to the ink stone - black like lacquer with a sheen that is blueish-purple for pine soot inkstick or that is a bit shiny and has a brown-black hue for vegetable oil inkstick

If in reflected light the stick has a black sheen, it is not so good quality and if white, it is bad. Any surfaces with lumps or wrinkles show a poorly kneaded dough and must be avoided.

Listen! By gently tapping a well dried inkstick against one another, you will hear a clear metallic sound. When grinned, thanks to the fineness of the high quality soot, the best inksticks are "quiet". If on the contrary, it makes a loud or scratchy noise, you are using an ink of poor quality with a grainy soot.

Beginner's tip If you are new to ink painting consider purchasing a student range inkstick. Industrially manufactured petroleum soot provides a lower cost alternative than the professional ranges. Note however that the ink will be less expressive.


Professional tip Ink stick quality can vary within one same factory. Depending on the quality of the components supply, the smoothness of the production process, the quality of kneading and the drying conditions, all influence the end result and from one series to another the final product might vary greatly. So check carefully before buying!

2- You have bought an inkstick, now what?

You, the calligrapher/painter need a grinding surface to use your inkstick. This surface is called ink stone and there are as many types as they are inksticks, so what should you be looking for?

Here is what to look for before choosing the ink stone that will last you forever (literally) The ideal ink stone is usually made of fine grained whetstone like slate. It can also be made of ceramic. Its most important feature is its grinding surface quality. Chinese say that the stone should feel like "frozen butter", Japanese say it should be smooth and warm like the skin of a baby’s face... In any case, look for scratches and chipping. If you are already in possession of an ink stone, submerge it under water, for the stone colour to turn darker and the flaws (or their absence) to stand out.