When I decided to write this post to share my experiments with alternatives to black ink it seemed like a great idea. Now I am actually collecting the images for the post I am afraid that the computer screen is not the best way to illustrate the subtleties of different blacks! Anyway, I am sure you will get the idea, and if the images don’t really do it justice you can always mix your own black inks and appreciate them in real life.

Break the black ink habit

I often get experienced printmakers coming on courses, and it is surprising how frequently people say ‘“I am terrified of colour – I prefer to stick to black”.  

Black printing ink is generally made from burnt plant material or animal bones – basically soot is mixed with binders and oil. Some printmakers go into great raptures and detail over the qualities of different blacks, and there certainly are a great variety available; the Gamblin Colours website has good information about this.

However, the message of this post is; when you want a black, don’t automatically reach for that pot of black ink. Mixing up your own ‘blacks’ could be your first step towards more a confident approach to colour….

Barry Rushton at Hawthorn printmaker with racks of coloured inks

Advice from a chemist

I am lucky to live in York where Hawthorn inks are based. I was chatting with Barry Rushton who devises all their colours when he made a comment which really surprised me;

“Never use black ink!” 

This caused a bit of mental re-adjusting, as my assumptions about black had to be spring cleaned. The essence of his advice was to replace black by mixing up your own subtle dark tones. Once I started experimenting with this it altered my prints, I think for the better.


The blackest black

Before I realised that black ink wasn’t necessarily the only black, I made the “Loom Weights” print.  

I wanted the background as dense and dark as possible and used carbon black on a plate made entirely from coarse carborundum paper. I put that ink on thick and didn’t spend much time wiping it off.

This worked; it was certainly black, very heavy and no doubt revealing my inner Goth. When I look at these prints now, I still like them, but they feel like pictures from a previous phase of my life (although actually I was never a Goth)

loom weights print; bright circles on dark ground

Multi coloured black ink

After my conversation (conversion?) at Hawthorns I experimented with mixing up a range of dark inks to use instead of black. The inks I used included umbers, French and Prussian blue, magenta and moss green. Basically, anything dark or complementary that I had to hand.

These inks are all transparent colours, although very dense. I find this means they have more depth; I think opaque colours could have appeared flat and muddy in these prints. Mixing them is a bit like cooking with spices – keep adjusting the mixture till it feels right for the print that you are working on.

The examples here are all mono prints, the dark ink rolled generously on to an acetate plate. The technique is described in the ‘successful leaf prints’ post.

section of a print with very dark blue black ink

Complementary darks

This series of prints all use leaves eaten by insects, and in order to emphasise the insect activity I made the leaves very bright, on a dense dark ground.

Because I was mixing my own blacks, I could tailor them to complement the leaf colours.

So, for example if I was printing a leaf in bright orange, I used complementary blues to make the black, this has the effect of enhancing the colours and making them really zing.

section of a print withe very dark blue black
section of a print with very dark red black ink

Remove the temptation to use black ink

I never put any black ink out for students – people don’t seem to notice this as there are plenty of alternative dark colours, and I don’t think anyone has ever asked for black.

My tin of Carbon Black has now become antique, resting at the back of the ink drawer along with its venerable companion Dense Black.

carbon black ink on the glass slab

So why not give your black ink a holiday and have a go at creating your own unique ‘blacks’?

Whether you are using them for intaglio, mono print, relief printing or anything else you may find they add a new dimension to your work.

carborundum print with dark blue ink and silver