Pen and Ink — The Renaissance

For me, getting ready for Inktober has led to a renaissance of sorts, a rebirth of my interest in pen and ink drawing, and a whole new appreciation for the art. Well, except for dip pens. Despite a lot of practice sessions, I’ve yet to develop any skill in using them and no real appreciation for them.

But, let’s look at the real Renaissance, that period of art history which saw a renewed interest in classical themes, and the development of artistic principles such as proportion, perspective, and foreshortening. The renaissance style began in Italy around 1400 and gradually spread throughout Europe, lasting into the 14th and 15th centuries.

During this time, artists worked with broad media such as charcoal and chalks, or with fine line media, using a stylus for metalpoint art or a pen for drawing with ink. One of the most famous works by one of the most famous artists of the Renaissance is Leonardo Da Vinci’s incomparable Study of Five Grotesque Heads.

Study of Five Grotesque Heads – Ink on Paper by Leonardo Da Vinci 1494

I don’t know about you, but I could look at this pen and ink drawing all day long. I’m fascinated by the different heads and by the many different techniques Da Vinci used in creating this. It’s simply too exquisite for words.

An earlier Renaissance artist, Cennino Cennini (1370-1440) is known not only for his drawings and paintings but also for the book he wrote about art. Il Libro dell’arte was a “how-to” book for the Renaissance style with information on pigments, brushes, drawing techniques, fresco painting, and painting on fabric, among other things. Cennini not only advised young artists on techniques, he also offered advice on proper living.

“Your life should be arranged just as if you were studying theology, or philosophy, or other theories, that is to say, eating and drinking moderately, at least twice a day, electing digestible and wholesome dishes, and light wines; saving and sparing your hand, preserving it from such strains as heaving stones, crowbars, and many other things which are bad for your hand, from giving them a chance to weary it. There is another cause which, if you indulge it, can make your hand so unsteady that it will waver more, and flutter far more, than leaves do in the wind, and this is indulging too much in the company of women.”  — Cennino Cennini, Il Libro dell’arte

According to this handy how-to book, apprentice artists should first practice with a stylus on a tablet for at least a year, or work with metalpoint or leadpoint before progressing to ink.

Gall NutsThe ink most commonly used at the time was made from gall nuts. These contain tannic acid and resin. When soaked in water — or wine — and strained, then mixed with iron sulfates and gum Arabic, the result was a black liquid that was ideal for drawing.

By comparison, my mixed berry ink was much simpler to make! Of course, mine didn’t produce the beautiful results the Renaissance artists got from iron gall ink. With the passing of time, however, just as my berry ink faded from magenta to blue-gray, the black inks of the Renaissance gradually faded to reddish-brown, giving drawings a sepia look.

Ink was usually applied to paper with a quill pen — similar to the dip pens I’ve tried to use. Ink lines could be very, very thin to very, very broad. Ink remained a popular medium throughout the Renaissance era and was used for everything from quick sketches to highly-detailed drawings. These drawings were generally on a small scale, though, since — like my dip pens — the quill pens had to be repeatedly dipped in ink.

Artists also diluted ink and applied it to paper with brushes in order to create different values. In addition to the iron gall ink used for drawing, this ink-shading was often done with a solution called bistre, obtained by soaking wood soot in water. The result was a brown wash that didn’t have the right consistency for a quill pen, but which worked well with a brush. Bistre was also used as an ink wash or as a medium of its own.

Another way in which ink was used was in combination with other media, such as chalk or metalpoint.

When I recently went shopping for ink, I was surprised by how many choices I had. I finally purchased a black India ink. Since that afternoon, I’ve learned a little more about different inks, and about the history of ink-making.

Drawing inks first appeared in China, with the date going back as far as 3,000 BCE. This early ink was made from pinewood smoke, lamp oil, and gelatin taken from animal skins. About 2,500 years later, the formula changed to include ferrous sulfate, tannin, and thickeners.

Inks can be made from a wide variety of materials. In addition to the carbon-based materials such as wood soot, ink has been made with berries, insects, cuttlefish, and crustaceans. I had fun trying to make my own ink, and for my next ink-making experiments I’ll stick with berries and forego the bugs and other creatures.

According to the research I’ve done only black and white inks (made from titanium dioxide) are permanent. Other inks contain soluble dyes, not pigments. Most artists prefer black India ink because it is both permanent and waterproof.

Colored waterproof inks are also available in a range of colors. These are sometimes labeled as artists’ drawing inks.

Ink washes can be made with black, waterproof ink, or with one of the colored inks — either waterproof or water-soluble. Needless to say, regardless of the type of wash you use, your original line drawing must be done with waterproof ink, otherwise those lines will run and bleed.

I’m looking forward to my next trip to the art supply store. Armed now with a bit more knowledge — and little bit more know-how, too — I want to browse the different inks and see what kinds I might want to try beyond the basic black.

And I want to spend a little more time browsing Renaissance ink art, too. It’s truly amazing to see what can be done with a pen and a bit of ink.



  1. Reblogged this on Litercurious and commented:
    Hello Judith, Thank you for joining me here on litercurious. I stopped by your site and I found this post. I have re-tweeted it and will reboot it. You make a forceful argument in defense of the Renaissance period in art. I am also passionate about this period. There were so many technical advances at that time that we have forgotten today. Those artisans fundamentally, changed the art landscape and influenced many artists who came later.

    I have a feeling that this is not the last artistcoveries article I will be reading.

    Why not head on over and read the compelling article for yourself. You can find it here:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Judith, I have re-blogged your article and given the link for others to head on over and read your impressive article about the Renaissance. I was really excited to see that you hold Cennino Cennini in high regard, as I do myself. I learned much about his techniques by studying his methods and observing his style.

    Thank you for sharing I really enjoyed you style of writing and the well researched narrative. I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    Best regards,
    Nemo of litercurious.

    Liked by 1 person

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