How do you dilute ink? Are you supposed to dilute ink?

Reader Question: How do you dilute ink? Are you supposed to dilute it, and why?

If you're working in pen and ink, whether or not you dilute the ink depends upon:

  • what kind of pen and ink you are using, and
  • what you want to achieve with your pen and ink artwork.

In general, diluting ink can make the ink lighter in color. For instance, you can dilute black ink to make various shades of grey ink or dilute red ink to make pink ink, instead of going out and buying new bottles of ink in lighter shades. 

When you dilute ink to make gradations of color, you open up a whole range of expressive possibilities for your pen and ink artwork. Many artists like to paint "washes" in their pen and ink drawings to add dimension, shading, and other elements of interest. To do this, you draw your image with waterproof ink (using a pen, brush, quill, etc) and then after the ink is dry, apply washes by diluting the ink in distilled water.

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It is highly recommended that you dilute your ink in distilled water, rather than tap water, especially if you are using India ink or fountain pen ink (also known as calligraphy ink). Tap water is not good for ink, because the minerals and fluoride in typical tap water can disturb the ink's chemistry and cause it to separate. Distilled water is inexpensive and can be easily picked up from the grocery store, so it's worth picking up a jug, because it will go a long way!

Here's one more reason why you might want to dilute your ink:

If you've had a bottle of ink for awhile, some of the moisture in the ink may have evaporated, making it thicker and harder to manage. In this case, adding water will help return the ink to a more useful state.

Two types of inks that are often diluted are fountain pen ink, calligraphy ink and Sumi-e ink:

  • Artists who use calligraphy ink or fountain pen ink commonly dilute the ink to increase the ink's fluidity. When the ink is diluted with water, the drying time is also quicker. The most common formula is mixing 2 parts ink to 1 part distilled water. Calligraphers using cartridge pens achieve this by injecting the little calligraphy ink cartridge with a carefully measured squirt of distilled water. Calligraphers who use bottled calligraphy ink can squirt the right amount of ink and water into another bottle or a small dish or cup.

    If you use calligraphy ink or fountain pen ink, read the label on the ink bottle to see what type of pen it requires (dip pen, calligraphy fountain pen, etc) because these inks are not compatible with all types of pens. For instance, on Winsor & Newton's website, they state that their calligraphy ink can be used in fountain pens and dip pens (, although some calligraphers recommend using cheap fountain pens with this type of W&N ink rather than expensive or vintage fountain pens. Of course, read all labels carefully to ensure you are using compatible supplies and follow recommended cleaning procedures to ensure the life of your pen.

  • Sumi ink, also known as Chinese ink, comes in both liquid form and stick form. Both can be diluted with distilled water. If you use the stick form of sumi ink, you will need to rub the ink stick against a grinding stone called a suzuri. The suzuri has a little well where you can pour a small amount of distilled water. As you grind the stick against the suzuri, particles from the stick will fall into the water and dissolve to create sumi ink. It's actually a pretty cool, meditative process that can focus your mind and body on the task at hand and the art you are about to create. Keep a small cup or dish of water handy to rinse brush and further dilute the ink, if need be.