What is your favourite ink colour?

Last month I received two questions from actual readers of this blog (no, I am not so desperate for topics that I am making up questions). I am away on holidays so I prepared answers ahead of time.

The first question was, which do I prefer, blue or black ink? My answer is why limit yourself to just blue or black. Thanks to modern chemistry there is a whole spectrum of ink colours to choose from. While not all of them may be practical or appropriate for an office setting, there is something to be said for going for a distinctive shade. Here are some options:

Black

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Black is a very traditional colour for ink and is sometimes required for use on forms. It is a very common colour for pens so I was able to round up a lot of them for my comparison. I was a bit surprised how much black inks vary in tone, some are much darker than others. I couple of these pens I have discussed before (Sharpie and Pilot FriXion). The Pelican Techno-Liner and Staedtler pigment liner I use more as drawing pens even though they write very well. The big surprise for me was the Papermate Inkjoy gel pen. I have tried the Inkjoy ballpoint pens and while they are fine for cheap pens, really nothing special. The gel pen version of this line is great. The barrel is a bit on the fat side but the writing is smooth and the ink very dark.

Blue

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I was surprised at how few blue pens I had in my stash as generally I think of them as very common. I have given my opinion on the Sharpie and Inkjoy before and really there is not much to say about the Pentel RSVP. It is a very basic ballpoint stick pen with a nice rubber grip but not much to write a blog about. This one is a medium (1.0 mm point size) and writes fairly smoothly but like most ballpoints there is some unevenness in the line.

Turquoise

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I wondered about including the Staedtler fineliner as I use it as an extremely fine marker more than as a pen but it does write well and the slightly triangular shape of the barrel stops it from rolling around. The Zebra Z-grip and the Inkjoy I have discussed before but the real find here is the Pilot Vpen. It deserves a blog of its own in the future. It is a disposable fountain pen which would be great for anyone who wants to try out a fountain pen without shelling out a lot of money. The colour of the ink is dark enough that I would consider this the only one of this group that could be taken seriously as a pen.

Brown and orange

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The paleness and lack of gravitas of the orange pen make it pretty obvious why there are not a lot of orange pens out there but I was a bit surprised at how few brown pens there are. Brown was a traditional ink colour (think of ancient manuscripts) and can be quite readable but just doesn’t seem that popular.

Green

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I had so many green pens to include I could hardly fit them all on the page. I have no explanation for this as I wouldn’t have thought it would be that common a pen colour. In its darker forms, green is a very attractive and readable ink. I liked the smoothness of the Pentel Slicci but the thinness of the barrel makes it less comfortable to write with. The Pentel Energel was more comfortable but slightly less smooth to write with. The metallic sheen of the gel pen puts it into the novelty pen category but it is still very readable.

Purple

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Purple is another colour I think can be taken seriously as an ink providing it is dark enough. After all, it was good enough for Byzantine royalty to sign their edicts with. I actually use the purple Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint all the time at work and have had no indication that people are laughing behind my back because of it.

Red

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I rarely use red because it reminds me of teacher’s pointing out mistakes so I was surprised at how many red pens I was able to round up. Of these pens, the Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint provides the deepest colour and smoothest line.

Pink

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Pink is a nice cheery colour but it just seems too childish to be taken seriously as an ink. The Bic pen is a novelty pen that originally had four colours, turquoise, purple, light green, and pink. Of course, the turquoise and purple got used up first because what do you want to write in light green and pink?

If these pens were people they would be a mass of humanity. Different colours, strengths and weakness but really as they are all pens they have more in common than differences.

A shout out to Neil for lending me a number of his pens (including the wonderful Vpen) to include in my tests and to Deirdre and Jasmine for the question.

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Speedball Crow Quill Pen

For those who consider fountain pens new-fangled, there are dip pens. Dip pens have a nib with a small reservoir that must be dipped into ink before writing. They started pushing quill pens out of favor sometime in the early 1800s and they were continued to be used in schools right up into the 1950s and 60s. These days they are mainly used by calligraphers and comic book artists.

I have a few dip pens and the smallest one I have is the Speedball Crow Quill. I got this pen and ink set at a bookbinding workshop I took at the Provincial Archives of Alberta a couple of years ago. The name “crow quill” reflects the history of dip pens when they really were made of feathers. Only the five feathers on the wing tips could be used for pen making. Right-handers used feathers from the left wing and lefties used feathers from the right wing. Swan and goose feathers were usually used but for really fine lines, like the ones needed for mapping, crow feathers were best. Alas, feathers are not very durable so when metal manufacturing improved in the 19th century, pen nibs began to be made of steel. I like how crow quill pens have kept their name though.

The name Speedball, not to be confused with the illicit drug, also reflects some history. In the early part of the 19th century, speedball meant someone who was really fast (other slang originating from that time included dingbat and goof for a silly person and hoosegow for jail). The C. Howard Hunt Pen Company joined forces with an expert letterer, Ross George, to improve their dip pens and the result was nicknamed “Speedball” because it was said to cut working time in half. Alas, the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company is no more but the Speedball brand lives on.

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You get a very fine line with these pens but as the nib is split, when you press a bit harder you do get a slightly thicker line. Down strokes are definitely easily to write than up strokes. Writing with a crow quill pen has a scratchy feel and works better on smoother paper. I like the very black ink that came with it. As is suitable for something I got at the archives, it is acid-free and archival quality.

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 If crow quill pens were people they would come off being a bit abrasive and old-fashioned but once you got to know them you would see that they have an artistic side to them too.

Zebra Z-Grip Ballpoint Retractable Pen

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I got an unusual request via my daughter. A woman she only referred to as a “friend” asked if I take requests of pens to review on the blog. Never having had a request before, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. Plus, as the Zebra Z-Grip only cost $.75 CDN, it was well within the MPP2P budget. I went ahead and purchased what the manufacturer calls the teal and violet colours.

The anonymous requester is left-handed and loves the Z-Grip because it doesn’t smudge. Lefties have many challenges in a right-handed world including, as the Handedness Research Institute has studied, handwriting. The Zebra Pen Corporation itself promotes its rapid dry ink as being a boon to lefties and claim on their website “this is something left-handed people have been dreaming of since 3000 BC when writing on papyrus scrolls and reed pens was fashionable. Progress takes time, but it’s worth it, thanks to the innovators at Zebra pen.” Their corporate blog even includes posts like “5 Fun Facts About Lefties”. I’m not left-handed myself but I like it when companies consider the needs of minority groups.

Although these pens are made in China, the company was founded in Japan in 1914 by a Mr. Ishikawa. He had big plans for his company and wanted a name that would work in the export market so he picked up a an English/Japanese dictionary and opened it from the back, Japanese style, and didn’t get too far before he stopped at Zebra. Their website says it appealed to him as a name because zebras are gentle animals with a strong family herding instinct, just like the type of business culture he wanted to nurture. He also found zebras visually appealing because it “looks like it is decorated with large calligraphic pen strokes”.

Now about these pens in particular – they are ballpoint pens but are a step up from stick pens in that these are retractable. This is nice if you have a habit of losing pen caps or find it relaxing to repetitively click on the end. They have a comfortable rubbery ridged grip and a clear barrel so you can see if the ink supply is getting low. Unfortunately there is no way to refill them so into the landfill they go unless you have access to a pen recycling program, but they do get points for coming without packaging. The tip of the pen has a diameter of 1.0 mm which is on the larger size (you can get pens that are half that). The larger the diameter of the tip, the more ink flows out so smaller tips give a finer line and larger tips a bolder line. The more ink flowing out also means larger tip pens get used up faster (I could already see a noticeable reduction in the ink level just from testing the pens) so an argument could be made it is more economical and eco-friendly to go with fine line pens. The ink is oil based which is why it resists smudging.

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Personally, I quite like the feel of these pens but I don’t consider them exceptional. The purple (violet) is a very nice colour but the turquoise (teal) is a bit dull and doesn’t write as smoothly. I was wondering if it was just me who was underwhelmed by the performance of these pens, so I asked a few other people (including two lefties) to try them out and give their impressions. Alas, no one was particularly impressed but I do think these pens are good value for the price.

If a Zebra pen was a person it would be a bold and colourful individual, accepting of all types. This person has nothing to hide and is easy to get hold of but keep in mind they are budget conscious so don’t plan an expensive outing.

The Social Life of Ink

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The Social Life of Ink:  Culture, Wonder, and Our Relationship with the Written Word by Ted Bishop has been on my must-read list since it was published a few years ago. I really wanted to like this book as it was written by a local author and it is about a topic I am truly interested in. Unfortunately, his meandering style just didn’t appeal to me. The book seemed an excuse for his travels (funded by his Social Sciences and Humanities Research council grant and aided by having a sabbatical from his job as a professor at the University of Alberta). Often I just give up on books I can’t find any enthusiasm for but I did learn a few things that kept me going. The book is divided into four sections and, to spare you from the dull parts, I will give you an overview of the highlights.

Part 1. The Craft of Ink

In this section, Bishop tells the story of the invention and promotion of the ballpoint pen and, in an only tangentially related episode, an account of his attempt to make printers’ ink. He manages to visit Hungary, Argentina, France, Switzerland, as well as Texas and Utah in the United States to “research” this. It may be that my prior knowledge of this slice of history lessened my interest in reading about it but James Ward managed to tell the story of the ballpoint pen much more succinctly in just one chapter of his book, The Perfection of the Paper Clip, and with considerably more flare. I did learn that Argentina claims the inventor, Lazlo Bíró, as their own (they celebrate his birthday on September 29 as Inventors’ Day) while he is virtually unknown in his country of birth, Hungary. Argentina reminds me of Canada in that way; both countries embrace immigrants that succeed.

Part 2. The Art of Ink

Bishop travels to China and Tibet for this section. Again, it covered a fair bit of ground that I am already familiar with. I did learn something about how Chinese inksticks are made though (the soot mixture is pounded, pressed into molds, dried and then carved).

Part 3. The Spirit of Ink

Uzbekistan is his destination in this section where he saw the world’s oldest Qur’an and discusses Arabic ink and calligraphy. This is the shortest part of the book and the part I know least about. I think Arabic calligraphy is truly beautiful and I would like to learn more about it.

Part 4. A Renaissance of Ink

The travel grant must have run out by this point as he seems to have researched this section by phone. It covered a grab bag of topics including the renewed popularity of fountain pens, specialty inks, tattoos, and teaching cursive writing. One person he interviews is Nathan Tardif of Noodler’s Ink. He came across as a real character. I didn’t know that Noodler’s Ink was as controversial as it seems to be. I have been having problems with the fountain pen I purchased in Mexico earlier this year and thought that was what I got for buying an inexpensive, no-name pen. Now I am wondering if it is the Noodler’s Ink that I use in it that is causing the problems. I gave the pen a thorough washing out before I filled it the last time and it seems to have helped so maybe the ink was clogging it.

If you knew nothing about ink and were looking for a travel memoir through the eyes of a middle-aged white man, The Social Life of Ink might appeal to you. I just wish it had been more about ink and less about the author.

Chinese Calligraphy

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I have been interested in calligraphy for a long time and a trip to China in 2008 expanded that interest to include Chinese calligraphy. I was so fascinated that I purchased some calligraphy supplies while I was there.

One aspect of traditional Chinese calligraphy that I really love is the respect shown for calligraphy tools. They even call them the Four Treasures. These treasures are the brush, ink, paper and ink stone.

Brushes:  Calligraphy brushes are traditionally made with animal hair. As with paint brushes, different kinds of hair have different properties that affect the brush stroke. White hair in brushes is usually goat hair and are a bit softer so are good for large characters. I didn’t know anything about brushes when I bought mine in China and I actually like the slightly stiffer, brown haired brush (the one on the far right of the photo) I got when I took a Chinese calligraphy course from the Confucius Institute the following year. The course was advertised as being for all ages so I was a bit dismayed to discover most of the students were Chinese children. As I sat on my tiny chair I reassured myself that even though I may not understand Chinese like the kids did, I can sit still and listen like a pro so I had that going for me.

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Ink: Ink sticks are generally made of soot that is mixed with glue and then pressed into a mold. The type of soot (pine, oil, charcoal, etc.) and other additives create different inks. Ink sticks are often decorated, as mine is, on both sides. Liquid sumi ink works well too.

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Inkstone: The inkstone is a shallow dish (with lid) used to grind the ink stick in a small amount of water to make the ink. This process takes about 15 minutes (depending on how dark you want your ink) and is considered an important meditative step to prepare yourself for creating calligraphy or to paint. Not all inkstones are made of stone, mine is ceramic, and many are beautifully decorated although I like the simplicity of mine.

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Paper: For calligraphy, the best paper is slightly absorbent. I have some rice paper that was bought locally but made in Japan. For practice purposes my calligraphy instructor suggested using paper towels like the type found in public washrooms or newsprint. We were given thin paper with guide lines printed on them for learning the characters in class.

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There are other treasures too, like the seal and the seal ink. Seals (sometimes called a chop) are used like signatures. Typically made of stone, they are used with a thick paste-like red ink. I bought mine from a street vendor in Xian, China. It is supposed to be a translation of my name but I am not sure how well she understood me. There is something very aesthetically pleasing to me to have that small addition of red to the black and white of the ink and paper.

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If the Four Treasures were people, I image them as four ancient Chinese sages with long beards and silk robes that will impart their wisdom to anyone who will take the time to listen.