Let’s Talk About Sepia Ink

A Little Background

At every pen show I’ve worked, at least one person will ask about a particular ink color. It’s almost always sepia. They ask me to help them pick out a “good sepia”. This is inevitably a loaded question because sepia is a moving target. It’s like asking someone to recommend a good movie, book, bottle of wine, a brand of beer or the best coffee. Inevitably, everyone defines the characteristics a little differently. You might prefer a chardonnay over a merlot. I might prefer a period drama over an action film. Someone else might think their coffee’s tangy roast with an astringent hint of lemon is more appealing than dark roast with a buttery finish. Similar problems occur when someone asks about a “good sepia.” They might even pronounce it differently.

Cuttlefish (Broadclub Cuttlefish) - Sepia latimanus - P6042161
(Cuttlefish (Broadclub Cuttlefish) – Sepia latimanus by Jan (Arny) Messersmith (via Flickr)

What exactly is sepia? Well, it depends on who you ask. Sepia is a genus of cuttlefish. It’s also the name of the color of ink derived from the cuttlefish (of the same name)’s ink (you know, squid ink?) used by many from the ancient Greeks and Romans up until the 19th century. Sepia is also the name given to the photographic toning process that creates a brownish tint to photographs and utilizes sodium sulfide, thiourea (or ‘thiocarbamide’), or polysulfide toners. All three of these processes were used on traditional silver print photos. Today, sepia toning is done digitally using a duotone process.

(“Mr & Mrs Sepia, Cuttlefish Kingpins of Nebraska” via Photographic Print Toning on Wikipedia)

Why does this make it so difficult to select a “good sepia” fountain pen ink? Well, representations of all of these different types of sepia colors are mostly seen in reproductions today and have faded over time or have been modified by digital means. Not to mention that even original sepia inks would have had variations depending on where they were created and the diets of the cuttlefish, etc.

(Moses Harris’s The Natural System of Colours via Wikipedia)

So, if you are on the hunt for your perfect shade of sepia, please help us help you by coming armed with more information than just a “good sepia.” Any pen shop owner (or clerk) will be much better able to help you, if you give them more information to go on. This can apply to more than just sepia inks too. If you have a photo, a clipping from a magazine, a bit of fabric (Yes, Mike Vanness’ latest polyester supersuit counts) or ribbon. Anything can help determine the color you are looking for.

Also, being able to describe the color you are looking for with words like: warmer (more red, orange, yellow) or cooler (more green, blue), more saturated (brighter), less saturated (not so bright, duller, smokier) can help a lot too. Using tried-and-true fountain pen ink words like “shading ink”, or wet ink, dry ink, “sheening ink” etc will also help.

Warm Cool Color Wheel
(Warm and cool colors on color wheel via ColorPsychology)
Warm and Cool Grays
(Warm and cool grays via Wikipedia)

Sepia Inks

Sepia

After a thorough scouring of online sources, I found more than 17 inks that had “sepia” in their name. I picked these 17 as a good representation of the range of variation. (Yes, I know there are others.) The sepia inks show above all have “sepia” in their name. As explained, depending on how the ink maker was defining sepia, or which specific species of sepia cuttlefish or region it might have lived (if they were actually trying to mimic squid ink) or if they were just using the word “sepia” to describe the color as being brown-ish may have determined how they arrived at calling their ink sepia. Or they might have chosen the word arbitrarily. Unlike ochres and umbers which are named for natural pigments, sepia has become essentially a fancy word for brown.

Sepia quote

These ink colors, when laid out next to each other, range from a greenish olive through yellow-browns (both warm and cool) in to warmer, darker browns into a plum. Clearly, there are some wide definitions of “sepia.”

If you were to ask me, which of these colors were the best representations of “sepia” as defined by the previous section, I’d have to decline responding. I’m more inclined to describe any or all of these colors as being some other color: warm browns, cool browns, golden wheats, olive and plum. DeAtramentis Standard Sepia Brown is a deep chocolate to me. The two Kobe inks are deep coffee browns. I’d describe the Stipula Sepia as a very red-orange brown and the Visconti and a reddish-ruddy brown. Both the Diamine and Leonardo are almost honey-colored and might be similar to Robert Oster Honey Bee, KWZ Honey or Franklin-Christoph Honeycomb. As for those outliers, the Organics Studio Green Sepia and DeAtramentis Beethoven Sepia, those are playing fast and loose with the definition of Sepia altogether.

How do you describe sepia? Do any of these inks look like what you think of as sepia? Are you ready to use a different word to describe your perfect brown-ish ink?

(To note, the samples used taken from vendor web sites. Links and details are provided below. However, YMMV regarding actual color fidelity in final use. Large swatches like these provide the range of color variation but once in a pen, color can often appear darker or lighter depending on ink wetness, opacity and nib width. Also, as we all know from experience, what we see on screen may not be the full range of color seen in person. The human eye can see a far greater range of color than can be displayed on your laptop, monitor or mobile phone.)

Sepia Inks (in order, top to bottom and left to right):


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8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’ve never dissected a cuttlefish, nor made ink from it. The squid ink I’ve handled is most similar to a carbon black, but I haven’t tried to make it into a “real” ink. I suspect the chemistry involved would change things. But my guess is the darkest off black colors are closest to a “true” sepia.

    Most of the historical brown inks I’ve run into in actual art are walnut inks, and they hit around Diamine Sepia for color, or a bit darker. Weird given the way actual walnuts behave but ink chemistry is often weird.

    So far my favorite brown for drawing is Diamine Terracotta tho. As the name implies it’s a reddish burnt sienna sort of color.

  2. Thanks for this list: I love sepia/brown inks, and now I have a checklist — gotta catch ’em all!
    An addition to your list, perhaps: Yard-O-Led Sepia, which is terrific (though I don’t know how available it is outside the UK).

  3. Thank you for this post! I too have only dealt with squid ink, not cuttlefish ink, so in my mind any “sepia” ink I look for will be closer to black-brown. I like the look of the R&K Sepia and will have to check that out.

  4. Noodler’s Ink Manjiro Nakahama Whaleman’s Sepia actually aims to be like cuttlefish ink I believe. I like its purple undertone. It has some difficult characteristics though which can be tamed with dilution or adding a lubricant. Robert Oster Smokescreen is very similar in color and shading. (And no bad behaviour)

  5. Wow! I didn’t know Sepia referred to a sort of cuttlefish! I’ve only heard it used in regards to photographs. It explains a lot. I like every shade of sepia represented here. I just hate when people pronounce it with a short “e” sound, lol.

  6. O.K. – I’m old. I have processed photographic prints and used a sepia process* to give them an ‘antiqued’ look. None of these colors are even close to what I remember.

    Take a black and white print, dissolve out the silver (black) particles, take the now white paper and dip it in a clear toner which fills the microscopic voids left by the departed silver and reacts with the paper to produce a brownish shade image.

  7. What a fascinating post! Organics Studio Foggy Bottom comes closest to my idea of “sepia,” but now that I’ve read your post, I can’t defend it one way or another. Are there other ambiguous hues you are asked to recommend at shows? I’d love to see more posts like this! How about “a good black”? I’ve heard people ask that.

  8. In my world, “sepia” has always meant one or the other of two things (which happen to be quite similar):

    Sepia diazo print.
    Conté de Paris “Bistre” crayon – which looks different based on whether the paper is white or toned.

    Based on that, there are four inks among your examples that fall within the range I normally think of as sepia: the l’Artisan Pastellier, Organics Studio, Califolio, and Papier Plume.

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