Does this ever happen to you? You’re sitting at your calligraphy desk, writing along with your pointed pen, when all of a sudden the ink just stops flowing. No warning, no obvious reason, it just stops.
You pick up your pen and look at it. It looks fine. Nib is full of ink. You are certain you are holding the pen properly—after all, it was working fine 5 minutes ago.
You check out your inkwell. Yep, that looks normal too. You just filled it with fresh ink, but to be sure you didn’t do something wrong, you pour it out and start again.
Same problem. No flow.
“Hmm…” you think, “has my ink bottle gone bad? Maybe I should add some water.”
You add some water. No luck. Well, some people say to use gum arabic, so you try adding a couple of drops of that, and it still doesn’t help.
“THIS IS SO FRUSTRATING. Why did I even get into calligraphy in the first place? Everyone makes is look SO EASY.”
I know how this goes, because I’ve been there. Way too many times. Even as an experienced calligrapher, I can overlook some of the basics sometimes and feel that frustration myself.
This exact scenario happened to one of my students at a beginning pointed pen calligraphy workshop I taught recently to the Birmingham Calligraphy Guild. After personally helping the student check out his pen, ink, and paper situation, a light bulb turned on in my head about what the problem was. He was missing one of the key items on my supply list—and it was probably the cheapest item!
Before I tell you exactly what the culprit was for this particular ink flow problem, I want to encourage you that if you are learning calligraphy on your own, or you are thinking about it, there are a handful of important matters you need to know to avoid this kind of frustration.
Calligraphy does not have to be aggravating! And while it is certainly possible to teach yourself with free online calligraphy resources, you will spend your valuable practice time hunting down things like “how to get ink to flow” and sorting through random people’s advice hoping to figure out what your problem is.
After learning this way myself and getting tired of dealing with the headache of not having proper instruction, I wanted to find a better way to help out new calligraphers. In my virtual art and calligraphy education platform, Kalli Camp Academy, we have a beginner copperplate calligraphy course called Copperplate with Jane, that takes all this mystery and aggravation out of learning calligraphy.
The instructor Jane Matsumoto, with her gentle voice and expert teaching skills, breaks down the process of learning calligraphy step by step. She teaches you every nuance of dealing with ink and nibs and paper so you can spend your practice time learning to write beautiful letters instead of throwing your hands up and blurting out expletives at your inkwell.
If you’re ready to ditch the frustration, head over and enroll in a Tier 2 membership to get access to the Copperplate with Jane course. Enrollment closes May 1, 2023.
Oh yeah! You wanted to know why my student’s ink wouldn’t flow. Are you ready for this?
He wasn’t wearing a glove.
Yep! It was that simple. A $1 cotton glove was all he needed.
I can hear you already. “How in the world would a cotton glove affect the ink flow?”
You might not ever think about this, but your skin has oils on it—even very dry skin like mine. When you are not wearing a glove to absorb those oils and protect your paper, things may go well in the beginning. But after you’ve been writing with your bare hand resting on your paper for a while, an invisible layer of oil begins to form on your paper.
Most calligraphy inks you’re likely to use, like Moon Palace Sumi, Higgins Eternal, and Walnut ink, are water-based inks. We all know—oil and water don’t mix! So when you put that water-based ink down on an oily surface, the ink is repelled from the paper, and your ink JUST. WON’T. FLOW.
If you don’t have a glove, you can just lay another piece of paper down under your hand and move it down as you go. Or you can pick up a pair of cotton gloves at the local music store and cut the fingers out for an inexpensive alternative to the SmudgeGuard two-finger glove found at the calligraphy supplier. Here is a set of gloves you can get right now on Amazon.
I cut out the thumb and first three fingers just above the hand so all that’s left is the last finger for my pinky. Bonus tip: using this glove with Procreate for digital calligraphy on the iPad is an absolute necessity! The screen will never get confused about whether you touched it with your finger or the side of your hand.
But back to our calligraphy student. To test this out, I had the student switch to a fresh piece of paper, and his ink flowed smoothly. Problem solved!
Step-by-Step Method for Troubleshooting Ink Flow Problems
Next time you are troubleshooting your ink flow problems, here are a few things you can do. With the assumption that you are already wearing a glove, I will show you how to troubleshoot ink problems further. If you are not wearing a glove or using a paper under your hand, you will almost assuredly end up with ink flow problems.
- Have you removed the oily coating on the nib? I have a blog post about proper nib care here. Clean the nib off entirely. Water, microfiber cloth, then alcohol swab. Be sure it is squeaky clean. Before trying again, you can save time by doing steps 2 and 3 first. If those are not the problem, try the nib again. Then move to step 4.
- Inspect the tines with the nib still in the nib holder. Is one of them bent? Ink can’t flow. Do they meet together, or are they separated? They must nearly touch, if not touch altogether. Without a magnifying glass, they should appear to be touching. It may be possible to bend slightly to get the nibs back together, but usually this is not possible and causes me to throw out the nib.
- Is one tine shorter than the other? It may be worn out. You can use some micro-mesh sandpaper 12000 grit (sort of like a nail buffer), rub the longer tine on it gently, and bring it to where it matches the other one better. Be sure not to push the nib point toward the sandpaper, but instead pull away from it.
Rarely are either step 2 or 3 the problem. Most of the time, it’s the next step.
- Is your ink too thick? Water evaporates out of ink even while you are sitting there using it. Try adding a few drops of distilled water (not tap water, or else it will mold), mix well, and see if that helps. Be sure to always put the lid on your inkwell tightly before you leave your calligraphy station for the day.
- This next tip may be a little advanced, but there is a certain synergy between paper, ink and nib. Not all combinations work well together. This warrants another whole post. My best advice without more detail is to switch out one variable at a time to see if the problem is the nib, the ink, the paper, or if it is the combination in general.
- Lastly, be sure you are holding your pen properly, with the tines in the appropriate direction to the paper, both touching the paper simultaneously, with around a 45-degree angle to the paper. This angle can vary, but it’s possible that a pen manipulation could be the only fix you need. And this is the sort of thing that is difficult to teach in writing, and easier to teach in person or in a video.
If you want straightforward calligraphy education that takes all the guess-work out of your ink troubleshooting, proper pen-hold, and everything other detail of learning calligraphy, hop on over to Kalli Camp Academy and enroll before it closes.