Although both Sumi ink and India ink did see a decline in their popularity from the 1980’s to around the early 2010’s both ink types have started to make a come back in recent years with more and more people using them for their art work and tattoos. The excellent black tones of both inks, low price tags, and easy homemade recipes have made both Sumi and India ink common choices for modern art work again and their popularity only continues to increase.
Due to both inks being soot based, we constantly see people getting confused between the two or reaching out to ask about the differences so we have decided to publish our own Sumi ink vs India ink comparison article. We hope that it will be able to clear a few things up for any of our readers who get them both confused with each other as well as help you choose the ink that you should be using for your own needs.
Please keep in mind that there are a huge number of commercial India ink products on the market these days with more and more commercial Sumi ink products being released each year. Due to this, there are a wide range of different ink formulas available for both inks, each slightly different than the last so there may be some stand-out products on the market but our answers below will cover the majority of them correctly.
What Is The Difference Between Sumi Ink And India Ink?
We will not be looking at a few different key features of ink and the different strategies used for each feature in the formula for India ink and the formula for Sumi ink. Although some of these differences are only subtle, they are able to result in a surprising difference in the actual performance of each ink when used. This has been proven time and time again in side-by-side comparisons between Sumi and India ink for decades.
What Is The Binding Agent?
Although the name India ink leads many people to believe that it was actually invented in India, the origins of the ink are actually from China and go as far back as the 3rd millenia BC. Due to being such an ancient ink formula that has received little to no changes over the years, its recipe is extremely basic and often does not use any binding agent for the ink.
The base ingredients for the majority of India ink products on the market is soot, usually made up of extremely fine charcoal ash and water. Although there is a little trickery in the proportions of water to soot in making India ink to ensure that the soot is suspended in the water correctly to perform as well as it does as an ink, there is no need for a binding agent although some brands do sometimes add some glycerine to their ink.
Unlike India ink, Sumi ink does use a binding agent in almost all of its ink formulas with the key ingredients being soot, usually made up of pinewood ash and animal glue. Although the original recipes of Sumi ink did used to use all types of animal glue that could be harvested from an animal, the bad smell associated with some of them has forced ink producers to refine their ingredients list to only using gelatin.
Although this is a slight modification to the original recipes, it does seem that gelatin made up around half of the total animal glue used in ancient Sumi inks anyway so there is minimal change in the consistency or performance. On the flipside of that though, the animal glues that were historically harvested from the animal skin tend to smell very bad where as gelatin tends to remain scentless offering users of modern Sumi ink a better experience when using it for their work.
What Kind Of Soot Is Used?
As we touched on above, both India ink and Sumi ink do use a slightly different type of soot. The majority of the time, India ink will use charcoal ash where as Sumi ink will only use pinewood ash as its coloring agent in the ink formula. This tends to make the India ink being slightly darker and duller than Sumi ink but we doubt that this will be noticeable to many people.
Although some recipes for Sumi ink do use the soot of burnt lamp oil instead of pinewood ash, this is rare in modern commercially available Sumi ink products. As some people do make their own homemade Sumi ink, some people do tend to use burn lamp oil soot and this gives a similar shade and dullness as India ink when used.
Although the traditional names for each variant of Sumi ink tends to have been lost over the years with both inks made from pinewood ash and inks made from lamp oil being referred to as Sumi ink, they do have their own individual names that are still used in Japan. Yuenboku is the rarer type of Sumi ink that is made using lamp oil and Shoenboku is the name give to the more popular type of Sumi ink made using pinewood ash where as India ink is usually just called India ink no matter the changes in its recipe.
Color Variations Of The Inks
When it comes to India ink, the ink is always dark and will be black the vast majority of the time, especially in the commercially produced Indian inks that you can buy online or in your local stationary stores. This sticks to the traditional use of the ink for general art, writing, and tattoos that all required a pitch black ink.
With homemade India ink becoming increasingly popular, there are a number of different ingredient lists that give you slightly different colors but perform slightly differently due to the additional ingredients in each. In this day and age, you can make your own India ink with pretty much any tint shade you require but the more of a tint you add, the less it will look like India ink on your paper or canvas.
Although the majority of Sumi ink is also black, especially in the west, there are actually different colored variants of Sumi ink available. Chaboku has a slightly reddish tint to the ink and Seiboku has a slightly blue tint to it when used with the strength of these tints being stronger or weaker depending on the lighting in the room.
Although both Chaboku and Seiboku are common in Japan and some other parts of Asia, they are both hard to find in Europe and North America with the Sumi ink you can purchase online or in your local photography store almost always being matte black. Although there are tutorials on YouTube on how you are able to tint your own Sumi ink, it tend to be a waste of time as it can ruin the texture of the ink when used and potentially cause issues with your utensils too.
Techniques For Using The Inks
Although both India ink and Sumi ink are pretty much interchangeable when it comes to both their drawing, writing, and painting techniques for optimal performance these days, there are some historical advantages to each for different types of work. India ink tended to perform better with western drawing and calligraphy techniques where as Sumi ink tended to be better for wash painting techniques.
Due to the consistency of Sumi ink usually being considerably watery it can be a nightmare to use it for shading due to the lack of consistency in it and its lighter colorings than India ink. India ink tends to have a much better consistency and performs better for shading or any other task where you need a nice and even consistency from your ink.
Waterproof And Water Resistant
The modern ink formulas for both Sumi ink and India ink do tend to be available in both a regular and waterproof variant of the ink allowing you to get the perfect ink for your needs depending on what you are going to be doing with it. That said though, traditionally, Sumi ink was water soluble and had no waterproof or water resistant properties to the ink where as India ink was usually waterproof once dry.
That said though, there are some traditional Sumi ink recipes that were refined hundreds of years ago to offer some waterproof qualities when used but they tended to be rare and difficult to make. In the grand scheme of things though, the majority of people using either Sumi ink or India ink hundreds of years ago rarley needed their ink to be waterproof so it was not an important feature of the inks historically.
That brings our India ink vs Sumi ink comparison to a close and although both inks do look and perform in a similar way with their modern, commercially produced ink formulas, there are still some slight differences as covered in the article above. On top of this, Sumi ink does tend to be more expensive than India ink in the west as few western ink brands produce it so it is usually imported from Japan or other parts of Asia.