Ink has been used since ancient times. Pine soot and oil soot inks are most common, but the craft that goes into making them is fairly complex. Carbon black and other naturally occurring black substances were probably used earlier.
Ink is a simple material yet it is also complicated, depending on how it is used.
“The five colors of ink” can be understood in two ways. The first is that “ink” can be divided into various shades, from black to grey. The second is that shades of ink can be used to express all the colors of the rainbow, from red to violet. Regardless of which definition is used, using simple ink to represent the five colors requires sensitivity, from a sensitive heart and eye to sensitive tools and paper.
There is merit in saying ink painting is “painted from the heart” or reveals one’s “true state of mind.” With black ink on white paper, writing or painting can gauge a person’s attitude, character, technique, learning, emotions. The pressure and speed of brush on paper, the movement and relation of one stroke to the next are all affected by a lack of resolve or courage. Unlike with oil paints or acrylic, it is hard to cover up uncertainty.
Li Tang (ca. 1070-ca. 1150) inscribed a poem on a painting, which reads: “Misty village in the clouds, floodland in the rain. It looks easy, but is hard to do. If I’d known earlier this would not suit people’s tastes, I would have bought more carmine and painted peonies.” These are the words of an earlier master writing both about the challenges of creating an ink painting and about the preference many people have for paintings with color.
As Li Tang points out, the challenge lies not just in creating but also in appreciating ink painting. Using black and white to create an image is not like painting with color, where red is red and green is green. The appearance of black, white and grey is not absolute. It has an abstract quality that can cause visual misperceptions and illusions. What one sees in a painting, especially with regard to light and shadow, convex and concave, flat and three- dimensional may differ depending upon the time, the light and one’s feelings. This is why ink painting so compelling. The phrases “simple but of lasting interest” or “never tired of viewing” apply to ink painting.
Water and ink are inseparable. Water is required to manufacture ink. When using ink, water is even more necessary to create many different shades. How much water to use? How use it? Not only the color of ink but also the texture of ink is influenced by water. Coarse or refined, bold or soft, with the feeling of mineral and rock or mist and rain, only when the special characteristics of water and ink and the relationship between them are understood can one become proficient and paint with facility and freedom.
Confucius said, “Before beginning to paint, one must have a blank surface.” The most common and traditional surface is handmade paper. After papermaking was invented, many places throughout China became known for the special papers they produced. Even when the basic techniques and processes for making paper are similar, differences in raw materials affect the quality of a paper. When writing or painting, the way paper absorbs ink and the smoothness of the paper surface affects the ink’s ultimate texture and the atmosphere of the work. Each type of paper has its own character. Paper made at the same workshop should generally have the same comparatively reliable reaction to ink. Studying papers and understanding their characteristics can reduce headaches and uncertainties when picking up the brush.