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Drawing Ink Comparison: Super Black vs. Ultra Black

A long time ago, Jimmie Robinson turned me on to Speedball’s Super Black Ink. At the time, we were both members of a Bay Area comics creators group that besides Jimmie and myself included Lark PienJesse HammDerek Kirk Kim, and Gene Luen Yang (congrats on the MacArthur!). There were others in the group too (like I think Jason Shiga was at one meeting I attended), but it’s been so long and I only made meetings occasionally that I forget now. But basically, the group supplied the members with support and Jimmie, maybe because he was one of the more experienced cartoonists in the group or because of his personality (probably both), made it a point to really reach out and help the members in any way he could. And so, we got to talking about ink one time and he told me about Super Black.

Speedball Super Black
When I first was learning to use a dip pen, the ink I used was Higgins Black Magic, which is probably one of the worst inks out there (but it’s in every store and it’s cheap). What makes Black Magic so bad is that it’s not really black; it’s a watery gray. Also, it bleeds on almost any paper. In contrast, Super Black is, as the name suggests, very black. It also flows from your pen like a dream. The one issue that I have had with Super Black over the years is that it feathers slightly at times. Sometimes, this is because of the paper. Sometimes it’s because of damp weather. Yet at other times, I have gotten the impression that it has to do with the batch of ink that is in the bottle I bought. Sometimes a bottle just seems waterier than a previous one. Because of this, no paper seems to keep it from slightly feathering. My frustration then leads me to other inks, my stand-by always being the Yasutomo inks. A few years ago, I discovered…

Yasutomo Ultra Black
Like Super Black, this ink is deeply black. The advantage of this ink, which also seems to be true of all the Yasutomo inks, is that it works on almost any surface. This ink just does not feather or bleed. And that, besides its rich blackness, is its greatest trait. Yet in order to achieve this, the ink is a bit thick. So that leads to its biggest drawback: it does’t always flow so well from a dip pen. I have had many moments with Ultra Black where I have gone to draw and nothing has come from my nib. So I’d dip it again, go to draw, and still nothing. This happens occasionally with every ink and usually indicates that you need to clean your nib, but it happens a lot with Ultra Black. And since I like to draw with quick little strokes, this results in a lot of frustration. Yes, I could add some water to the ink (and I have tried this), but that just grays the ink out, which kind of defeats the purpose of “ultra” black. In the end, I think this ink may be better suited to brush work than pen work. So while this is a good back-up, I always find myself returning to…

Speedball Super Black
Going back to it after enduring Ultra Black makes me fall in love with pen-and-ink all over again. It just flows so smoothly that mark making becomes a joy. In order to overcome the occasional feathering problem I do two things. One, I make sure I shake the ink bottle before I use the ink. You have to be careful when you finally unscrew the cap, but this makes sure that the ink is more uniform and no separation has occurred. Two, I pour the ink into my own inkwell. I do this for comfort, but also for dehydration. The small amount of ink in the inkwell sits in the sun in the room where I draw and so loses a bit of its wateriness. Obviously, if it gets too dehydrated, then it eventually becomes sludge instead of ink. Still, I’ve found this helps. Also, finding the right paper is key. Not all “bleedproof” papers actually are.

In the end, as much as I love Super Black I always end up trying out other inks when I get tired of its occasional feathering. But so far, there is no perfect ink. Solving one problem tends to bring out another. Like making an ink bleedproof makes it recalcitrant. Or making it flow well makes it gray and/or prone to feathering.

Here is a page of drawing ink comparisons, but the one category that the page overlooks is flow.


(written September 23, 2016)