How To Make Your Fountain Pen Inks Look Their Best

John BosleyFountain Pen Ink 14 Comments

This morning I was writing with a pen in a few different notebooks and noticed how different the ink looked in each one. I immediately thought of emails I’ve received and comments I’ve seen on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit where people say that the ink that they’re using doesn’t perform like photos they’ve seen online. In this post I want to go over some of the ways to get the most out of your fountain pen inks and coax out qualities that may be lacking such as sheen and shading.

Influencing Factors

There are two main factors that will influence how an ink looks… the pen that you use and the paper that you write on. While this may seem fairly obvious, there is actually quite a bit to take into consideration. For example, will a fine or broad nib give you better sheen? What about a wet fine versus a dry broad? Let’s see if we can figure it out.

The Paper

Let’s start with the paper, as it will have the biggest impact on how your inks look. It also serves as a base (literally) for comparison between different nibs. If you’ve read my post on how paper affects sheen, you’ll have a good idea as to how much of a difference paper can make when using a sheening ink. To briefly recap (and greatly simplify), papers that have longer dry times generally show better sheen. This is due to the fact that the dyes in the ink are not immediately absorbed into the paper fibers and instead dry on the surface of the paper. When light refracts off of these dyes, they may show up as a different color, which we know as sheen.

krishna jungle volcano fountain pen ink sheen

Krishna Jungle Volcano has a nice green sheen.

So to get sheen we just use paper that has long dry times? Not exactly. Some paper brands are better at showing sheen than others. Unfortunately, this is not something that you can tell by the packaging or any of the paper specifications. Fortunately, you can always take a look at my paper ratings chart and sort by sheen, dry time or any other factor that I test for. This should help you find a paper that will deliver exactly what you’re looking for.

getting fountain pen ink sheen on different papers

Although they have similar dry times, the OK Fools paper (Left) has less sheen than Black n’ Red paper (Right).

What about shading? This is another feature that can be greatly influenced by the paper that you use. Similar to sheen, papers with longer dry times typically show more shading, and for much the same reason. When some of the ink in a pen stroke soaks into the paper and some pools on the surface of the paper, you will see two different shades of ink when it dries. This is known as shading. All other things being equal, papers with longer dry times usually show greater shading, but there are many more exceptions to this rule than with sheening.

fountain pen ink shading kwz honey

Choosing the right paper will bring out the best shading in your inks.

One thing that I have noticed in some of my paper tests is that some papers seem to be what I consider “high contrast”. This means that the ink looks even more intense on them than on other papers. Shading is stronger and the colors look more saturated. One great example of this is Cosmo Air Light. When you compare writing on Cosmo Air Light to the hobby-standard paper Tomoe River, you’ll immediately notice a difference in how writing looks.

Yamamoto Cosmo Air Light compared to tomoe river

You can see the ink on Cosmo Air Light (left) has more pop than on Tomoe River (right).

Nib Selection

While paper selection is fairly straightforward, nib selection is much more complicated. Every nib performs slightly differently, so each pen that you use will give different results in terms of ink performance. I’ll try to find some general assumptions that you can make, but keep in mind that for best results you’ll want to try your own pens and see how they perform.

The main difference between nibs is the size of line that they write. Factory nibs usually range from extra fine to double broad, including flex and stub nibs. Custom nibs can be even more fine or broad. While a fine nib on one brand may be different from a fine nib on another brand, for this post we’ll just assume that fine is a smaller line than medium, which is a smaller line than broad.

In general, you can assume that broader nibs are better for showing off shading and sheen than finer nibs. Why is this? With paper, when more ink is on the paper surface you get more sheen and shading. With a broad nib, you have more nib surface area making contact with the paper, which in turn creates more ink pooling, which gives better sheen and shading. One exception to this is stub nibs. I have found that while stubs lay down a very wide line of ink, they don’t always produce the best sheen or shading. I think the reason for this is that, due to the wide and flat shape of the nib, they scrape excess ink off of the paper as they write, which doesn’t create the same ink pooling that you’d get from a similar-sized non-stub nib.

Another factor that comes into consideration with nibs is how wet or dry they write. A wet nib lays down more ink, while a dry nib lays down less ink. For better ink performance, you’ll typically want a wetter nib, as more ink means more sheen and shading.

fountain pen ink shading blue ink

In this page from my ink journal, you can see the difference in how the ink looks when using a wet or dry nib.

To complicate things even further, some inks are more wet than others. This means that they tend to flow more easily than a drier ink. You’ll often see it suggested to use a wet ink in a pen that writes dry, or a dry ink in a pen that writes wet. So that gives even more combinations for different inks and pens. Strangely enough, while it may show more sheen, a wet ink in a wet pen may actually show less shading due to how much ink is getting put onto the paper.

iroshizuku syo ro fountain pen ink in twsbi

The wet nib shows no shading, while the stub nib shows shading.

Finding Balance

After reading this post, you may be tempted to get a pen with a broad, wet nib, fill it with some wet ink and write on some paper with long dry times, but for most people this is a nightmare scenario. Unless you have lots of time to wait for ink to dry and don’t mind if the ink smears if you touch the paper, this probably isn’t a good idea. Everyone is going to have different wants and needs in their writing setup, and some compromises will need to be made.

If you have a pen and ink that are wet writers, you might want to use a paper that is slightly more absorbent. If you only have Tomoe River paper (which has long dry times), you might want to use pen and ink combinations that don’t write extremely wet. While all three factors (paper, nib and ink) combine to create more or less shading and sheen, you don’t have to have the extreme of each one for your ink to look great.

iroshizuku syo-ro on tomoe river paper

This nib and ink are what I would consider to be normal wetness, but still shade and sheen on Tomoe River paper.

mnemosyne paper sheen

This nib and ink are what I would consider to be wet, but still shade and sheen heavily on Mnemosyne paper.

Comments 14

  1. Great read! I love all of your experiments, and it really makes sense how a stub could scrape away some of that pooling. This xmas, I will be going to sheen city with a Tamenuri Studio nanako cigar w/ 18k BB Bock nib, some tomoe river 68gsm on a new Taroko Enigma, and a bottle of Emerald of Chivor. I’m super excited to put the three together! Also just got a tiny bottle of Colorverse Supernova and it has some serious sheen.

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  2. Thank you, John. Great post—potentially expensive for me! I have been very, very tempted by the aquamarine Studio; seeing it here isn’t helping mw avoid it. And while I usually don’t have paper on my wish list, the Cosmo Air Light now seems like a must-have!!

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  3. Very interesting article — thanks so much for taking the time to share the results of your experiments. I’ve often noticed a huge variation, not only in sheen or shading but in actual color, between an ink I receive and swatches others have posted on line (a good example is Diamine Sherwood Forest — it’s supposed to be a forest green but mine is decidedly turquoise unless it is allowed to pool in huge volumes — which, of course, is not the way most of us write!). I definitely think it’s worth the time to identify which pens/nibs and inks one has that tend to be wetter or drier — that makes it a lot easier to pair them appropriately with the best paper to bring out ink qualities. In any event, it’s a lot of fun to play around and see what each ink and pen has to offer!

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      Thank you for reading, Charlene! I suppose as long as there are different combinations of ink/pen/paper for all of us to play with, we will always be on a quest to find the best combination of each!

  4. This is a great post, everything covered, succinctly.
    I’ll need to bookmark this to share when this question comes up in FB groups. It’s important to remember all these points … not just one.

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  5. Nice post John. As a confirmed stationery junkie with a new birthday gift pen from my wife (Faber Castell eMotion) with some graphite coloured UK Diamine ink I am on the hunt for higher quality notepads and paper, although it seems like it writes very well on my go-to Molskine books.
    Keep posting.

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  6. Great write up, John! One thing I’d like to add that many people overlook when it comes to sheen and shading: writing style! Writing in print, on average, gives more of each, when all other things are equal. When writing, the nib actually stops and remains in contact with the paper each time you “lift”. Although it’s only for an extremely brief moment, it’s enough to cause the ink to pool just that much more. Since you lift more when writing in print, you get more pooling, and therefore more shading and sheen.

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      Thanks, Zach! This is a great thing to point out and something that I do mention in my blog post about how to increase shading. I guess I overlooked mentioning it here, though. I may go add a new section for it at some point. Thanks for the suggestion!

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