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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.