The Art of Interpreting Ink Droppings
Complied and written by ©Claes G Lindblad on January 2, 1997.

1. Young high class ink
2. Older high class ink
3. 'Adultered' low class ink
4. Too much glue.

I am slowly beginning to grasp the special Chinese version of 'paper chromatography', the method which can be used to determine relative age, maturity, kind of soot, latitude or 'depth' of blackness and adulterants used in ink sticks. (Our normal Western way of doing paper chromatography - by dipping a piece of paper with a dried ink spot into water - is based on using capillary forces to separate the ingredients.) The Western method only works with inks made from water soluble dye stuffs. Since Chinese and Japanese ink sticks are based on animal glue, dry stick ink spots are relatively waterproof. For this reason, we have to test stick ink before the ink spot has dried. Here is one way to do it:

How to make Ink Droppings

Take a piece of uncoated, very absorbant paper (Chinese so called rice paper is excellent). Place a piece of felt or an old magazine under the paper; do not let it rest on a flat desk (if so, the ink may creep in wrong directions).

Now, make a little concentrated ink from the stick you are interested in. Take a brush and 'fill' a sharp object (for instance a very pointed steel pen nib) with this ink. Hold the nib vertically over the paper, continue to fill the nib until the drop gets so heavy that the drop falls onto the paper. This is the first, most concentrated drop. Observe the time it takes the centre to dry - this is a relative indication of if the glue is fast- or slow-drying.

Clean the nib. Now, take two drops of clean water in a small well. Take a full brush of the concentrated ink from above and mix with the two drops. Fill your dropping nib with this diluted ink and make dropping #2.

(repeat->) Clean the nib. Go on, by adding two additional drops of clean water to the already diluted ink (no concentrated addition this time!). Fill and drop next drop a suitable distance from the previous one. Try to load the nib with approximately the same amount each time, this will make it easier for you to make comparisons with different sticks. Also try to hold the nib at about the same distance from the paper for all your droppings.

Repeat the previous step 9 or 10 times (i.e. each time just adding two drops of clean water), or at least for as long as you see that the drop leaves a grey shade.

Then leave the paper to dry completely. Make a note on the paper which ink stick you used for the test.

How to Read Ink Droppings

OK? Now comes the tricky part: How to interpret the droppings. Please note that the thoughts below are just my semi-educated guesses... The third or fourth dropping normally shows the ink's properties best. You will see two - or three - concentric circles.

Centre: The centre, where the drop landed, shows the ink's maturity. A very sharp border around it indicates a young, immature ink (see picture 1, above). Picture 2 shows an ink which is more mature - and if the centre is not visable at all, the ink is fully mature..

2nd circle: The radius of the second circle shows how far the soot particles travel, i.e. an indication of their relative particle size. Note, however, that 'large' drops will produce wider circles than 'small' drops.

3rd circle: If you do NOT see a third circle, it's good! Normally, just pure, filtered water travels outside the second circle, and this water will leave no trace when the dropping is dry. However, if you see a third circle (picture 3, above), the ink stick most certainly has been 'adultered' or 'improved' with a dye stuff, which will discolour the paper much further than the soot in the second circle will.

Colour:  The nuance of the second circle shows which soot was used as the main ingredient (brownish-black = vegetable oil soot; blueish-black = pine soot). Unfortunately, these shades are too delicate to show on the computer screen.

Latitude/Depth: Since the droppings are made with gradually diluted ink, it is fairly easy to determine the ink stick's latitude, or its 'depth' of blackness.

Glue/soot ratio: Picture 4, above, shows a very odd behaviour. This is the first, most concentrated dropping in a series! The centre is very black - but the blackness does not spread with the water. This indicates that too much or too strong glue was used then making this ink stick and/or that the soot particles are far too coarse. Actually, it is the worst ink stick I have ever seen - and a gift from a scribe in Canada, who was concerned about why it did not work. Now we know why it didn't...

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