Ink Chromatography

By Jessica Coles

There seems to be a time in the middle of summer each year when the new inks just aren’t coming out as quickly. Spring announcements have passed and we aren’t yet starting into the holiday selling. Plus, with no pen shows going on at the moment, I’ve tried to look for ways to enjoy my current inks even more.

Color is endlessly fascinating to me. I also love taking things apart to see how they work (as a kid I rarely put them back together, though) and combining these two things is even better.

Enter, chromatography. Before I start down this path, though, let me issue a warning: I am no expert at this in any way. I have a method here that works for me and explanations that may or may not be fully correct. I’ve made lots of mistakes but hope is that you learn something here and find another way in which you can enjoy your inks!

There are so many ways to explore the colors that make up each ink – I can’t talk about all of them today, but I will share a couple of methods. The photo above is of chromatography strips. I purchased a small package of them from Amazon a while back – as far as I can tell, they don’t lose their chroma magic over time.

Chromatography paper is incredibly absorbent, thinner than blotter paper, and a bit rough to the touch. Because it is so absorbent, it wicks up water easily. With ink chromatography, a small amount of ink is applied to the paper, one end is placed in water, and as the water works its way up the paper, the various colors of the ink are revealed.

This is all possible because ink is water based and made up of various components that have different solubility and/or densities. the water carries the color components up the paper different distances.

These photos show some of my first attempts at chromatography from several years ago. My methods have changed slightly since then, hopefully for the better!

In the chromatography strips method, you will only need a few supplies:

  • Chromatography strips
  • A container for water
  • A way to suspend the strip in the water
  • Ink

I have seen plenty of methods of suspension used. Some include using a rubber band and a skewer or paintbrush. I enjoy using a clip of some sort (paper clip, binder clip) that is wider than the opening of my container.

I use clips because they are easy to find in my desk and usually require less fiddling on my part.

What are the requirements with this suspension? The bottom of the strip should not touch the bottom or sides of your container

One big tip here: measure this BEFORE putting the strip into the water.

Speaking of water, what kind should you use? I only use high grade super quality distilled water. Just kidding. I’ve never had a problem using plain tap water with this method – we are not aiming for highly scientific results. If you live in an area with lots of minerals in your tap water, it is probably worth using bottled water or distilled water if you have it. I happened to be in a situation where distilled water was at my desk within reach.

Add a small amount of water to the bottom of the container. Make sure to measure that your strip will be in the water, but only the bottom 1 cm or so (less than half an inch).

Now, for the ink! I used Franklin-Christoph Honeycomb and Troublemaker Inks Milky Ocean in this post – you can use this with any ink you own. In the above photo I used a glass dip nib to apply a thin strip from edge to edge, about 3-4 cm (a little over an inch) from the bottom. Don’t apply a huge amount of ink – just draw a single line slowly across the paper. The paper will soak up plenty of ink as you do this.

Check to make sure this line of ink will be above the water level when the strip is placed in your container. This is important unless you want inky water.

Suspend the strip in the container and watch!

The pigments will start to travel up the paper at varying speeds. Sometimes the color combinations can be quite surprising.

But when should you take it out? When is it done? I’ve experimented a bit with time, but the best way to judge this (in my opinion) is just when the color stops moving up the strip. Or the water makes it all the way up to the top of the strip. I’ve seen it take anywhere from one minute to five minutes. For the purposes of this activity, I would suggest about 2-3 minutes.

The paperclip and tiny ink bottle are another favorite of mine. The ink and water can move past the paperclip easily and the setup doesn’t take up much space. Remember: don’t let the strip touch the bottom or sides of the container and make sure the water level hits the strip below the application of ink.

I’ve also enjoyed watching ink spread out on paper towels as I am filling or cleaning pens. I’ve heard many times that this is a good alternative to chromatography strips, so I’ve included results from that as well with the same inks. I applied a healthy drop of each ink to the paper towel then drops of water to the middle of the ink spot. I added a drop at a time until the ink stopped moving out. The texture and brand matter tremendously with this method – I used very absorbent paper towels that feel a bit like cotton cloth.

Milky Ocean is the ink used on the right and Honeycomb is the ink on the left. Paper towels are a good alternative if you can’t get ahold of chromatography strips, although the results aren’t identical.

After everything has dried, I label each strip with the name of the ink and keep them clipped together at my desk. They are fun to flip through as I’m trying to choose an ink for a new pen or just to inspire me to experiment more with ink!


DISCLAIMER: Some of the items included in this review were provided to us free of charge for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.


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7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Fascinating and colorful! Thank you!

    P.S. Don’t you think Ana should make a new Col-o-Ring containing chromatography strips…? 😉

  2. Fun things to do while we’re staying home a lot. Might just try this sometime! Looks like fun.

  3. Old fashioned cone shaped coffee filters work well too. Kids love to test sweeties in science classes for food colouring and of course ahem, eating some afterwards is a highlight!! Skittles chewy sweets worked the best for chromotography colour separation we found. It was years ago now, so I can’ t remember how we used the coffee filters or whether we cut them up or not. Just remember the results with some sweeties were pretty impressive. xxxx

  4. This is formally called “Paper Chromatography”:

    Here are 100% more (100 vs. 50) grade-1 paper chromatography strips for 18.7% more money ($8.89 vs. $7.49, ¢8.89/strip vs. ¢14.98/strip):

    You do not have to use expensive paper chromatography strips, just cut up some white paper drip coffee filters instead. As you mentioned, paper towels will work in a pinch but I find coffee filters work much better, plus I already have coffee filters on hand.

    In my experience the larger #4 white (not brown) cone-shaped coffee filters are better than the smaller #2 filters. The cone-shaped filters are better than the filters made for basket type drip coffee makers because they lay flat, which makes them easier to cut, but both types of filter shapes will work in the end. Here is an example of white cone-shaped filters on Amazon (they will be cheaper at your local discount store):

    You can easily cut 8 to 10 strips from one cone filter. Assuming a yield of 10 strips per #4 cone filter and $5.00 per box of 100 filters, you end up with 1,000 strips at a cost of ¢0.5/strip. Compare that to ¢8.89/strip for the purpose-made paper chromatography strips from Amazon, a savings of 1,778% (yay!).

    See this (he uses coffee filters): “How I do chromatography for the blog”, 8/6/14. Thanks to Michael Matteson of the Blog:

    The video has the real meat of the matter:

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