The Art Medium Ink

The development of ink truly revolutionized human life. Long before Gutenberg simplified the printing process, ancient cultures in Egypt, Greece and Asia used ink for creating handwritten manuscripts, religious and political documents and works of art. Ink provided people with a permanent means to keep records, create manuscripts and document the world around them. Ink as a sophisticated artistic medium developed sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries in China, where a range of subjects, from religion, history and daily life, were illustrated using brushes fashioned from animal hair and feathers. Applied to scrolls of paper or sheets of silk, these detailed works of art were forerunners to the approaching development of pen and ink drawings.

By the Renaissance, new tools were developed to enhance the precision and detail afforded by ink, such as wooden styluses and sharpened metal shards, known as metalpoint. Because of its permanence, ink drawings demanded practice and perfection. For this reason, many artists used this medium for their studies. Leonard Da Vinci created many detailed studies of human anatomy, mechanical inventions, as well as figure drawings, which exemplify the range of results possible with fine ink drawing. Nicolas Poussin’s “Bacchanal” and Honore Daumier’s “The Connoisseur” illustrate the shades, highlights and precision possible in ink drawings. Ink was also used with other media, such as pencil, graphite, watercolor and chalks, and soon washes and highlighting techniques developed, providing additional effects to ink drawings, whether quick sketches or elaborate compositions.

Along with watercolor, ink was one of the mediums used for block printing. Printmaking began through the process of relief, in which a design or image was carved into a surface, and a liquid medium was applied to its raised surface. Then a piece of paper or fabric was positioned on the carving to create a print. Eventually, metal plates joined wooden blocks as carving surfaces, as their metal surfaces offered sharper images. Some artists created numerous prints from the same base. However, many others chose to create single prints of a work. Albrecht Durer brought a renewed attention to woodblock printing with his many wood block sequences, which include the detailed and dramatic compositions of “Apocalypse.”

Ink has been used for centuries to create meticulous compositions. In addition, realistic diagrams of the anatomy helped early doctors in the study of the human body. The printing of books advanced literacy and promoted language arts. As an artistic medium used by masters, such as Rafael, Rembrandt and Picasso, ink is a versatile medium that provides a permanent record of an artistic statement.