You may have noticed that when fountain pen ink gets wet, it can sometimes separate out into different colors. This might happen when you’re cleaning your pens or just playing with some ink and water on paper. The reason this happens is because ink can be made up of different base colors. For example, green ink might consist of both yellow and blue dyes. In this article I want to explore fountain pen ink chromatography to get a better understanding of the colors that make up different inks.
What Is Fountain Pen Ink Chromatography?
Fountain pen ink chromatography is when you use liquid and paper to separate out the components of another liquid, which in this case is fountain pen ink. The reason this happens is that as the ink moves through the paper, the different dyes that are in it move at different speeds, which causes them to separate and become visible. Here’s an example of how it looks compared to a writing sample with the same ink:
This might look familiar if you took a high school chemistry class. In this example, I’ve used chromatography paper and water to separate out the dyes in the ink. You can see that while the ink looks green on paper, it is actually made up of two different colors… blue and yellow. This is much more common in more complex colors. For simple colors that are much more “pure”, like ordinary reds and blues, you won’t typically see any color separation (although you might be surprised at how often you’ll see colors that you didn’t expect to see).
Trying Chromatography Yourself
So do you need special paper to try chromatography for yourself? Fortunately, you don’t! Chromatography paper just makes it easier to do. If you don’t want to buy any, you can use a coffee filter or a paper towel instead.You can also achieve a similar effect using watercolor paper. This has become very popular with many fountain pen users lately. Artist Nick Stewart has been making amazing inky “landscapes” using watercolor paper, water and ink. This process also allows the dyes in the ink to separate and become visible. Many pen and ink enthusiasts, myself included, have taken inspiration from this process to play with water and ink and see what happens.
Why Chromatography Matters
I keep an ink journal of all of my inks and for each entry I also do a chromatography strip. When two colors look very similar but I like one more than another, looking at what colors make up the ink can help me see the color difference between the two. While it might not be extremely helpful when buying inks, it has helped me to be able to start seeing the differences between similar ink colors.
Chromatography can also be a fun science experiment you can do with your kids. Not only do they get to play with ink and water, but they also get to learn about color combinations and see that ink is more than just colored water.
How To Do Fountain Pen Ink Chromatography
To start, you’ll want to put a drop of ink on the paper you want to use. In order to get the most accurate results, I’d suggest a drop straight from the bottle. While you can simply touch your pen to the paper and let it suck out a bit of ink, I’ve done this in the past and found that my pen wasn’t as clean as I thought and had a bit of old ink end up in my results, which defeats the purpose of doing it in the first place. In order for chromatography to work, water has to be pulled through the ink sample, but the paper will pull the water via capillary action, which happens naturally
When I use the chromatography strips, I use a binder clip to attach the paper (which is already inked) to a popsicle stick. I then put the stick across the top of a glass with just enough water in the bottom so that it touches the paper. Remember, you want the water to be pulled through the ink sample, so don’t completely submerge the paper. I like to draw a line across the paper where I put the drop just to see how much progress the ink is making. To do this I use a Sharpie, which isn’t affected by the water and won’t alter the results. Once the paper is in the water, I wait for anywhere from 5-15 minutes, depending on how the ink is separating. I usually let the ink get close to the top of the paper, but you should be able to easily see it separating well before that.
If you use a paper towel or coffee filter you can use the same process, but you can also do it laying flat. Simply add a drop or two of water to the ink sample. This will cause the ink to spread out in a radial pattern, but the results won’t be affected. You’ll probably notice that the results aren’t nearly as precise as those using chromatography strips. This is because both paper towels and coffee filters soak up liquid very quickly, while chromatography paper is specially designed so that liquid is absorbed slowly and the dyes separate out much more uniformly.
If you’ve never tried fountain pen ink chromatography (or even heard of it), it can definitely be a fun experiment to try. While not all inks will be exciting, some will surprise you with the number of different colors that unfold from a single drop. Of course, this isn’t something that’s going to improve your handwriting or make the pens you buy any less expensive. It’s purely something fun and educational to do. I’m sure that if you give it a try you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results and will enjoy the process.
If you’re interested in trying out chromatography for yourself but don’t know where to get the paper, I get mine on Amazon. If you have a science supply store near you, they should also have it.
Hi, my name is John. I’m a Colorado-born professional photographer who recently moved back to Denver after spending 3 years in San Francisco. I’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for over 20 years. I got my first one in college when I got bored taking notes with ballpoints and pencils. Since then I’ve bought and sold hundreds of pens, but have consistency in my love of Esterbrooks.