The White Stuff

OK I’ve spent a lot of time recently drivelling on about myself. I’m going to stop that for a bit and talk about pen stuff. If you’re here for neuroanatomy I don’t think it’s going to creep into this post but WHO KNOWS?

Fountain pen ink comes in an astounding variety of colours and different levels of saturation, wetness, sheen, levels of feed friendliness, FRICKIN SPARKLES! and many other things that you can try to talk about with a non pen person and you’ll get a delightful blank look out of them. I know this from experience. A lot of experience. However, one thing that you can pretty much always say is that it’s some level of translucent. Even with ink that uses finely ground pigments rather than liquid-based dyes, it’s not completely opaque. There’s no need for it to be opaque, right? You’re just going to be writing a stern letter of complaint to the local paper about those nasty little vandals who keep making lots of noise at 10pm and spraying graffiti under the railway bridge. Really what is this place coming to? And you’ll be using white paper. Maybe cream or pale blue Basildon Bond. The available ink will work fine on that.

Actually I’m not really being fair here (no really?). Although many of the manufacturers of the pens themselves are distinctly underwhelming when it comes to choices of ink colours, specialist ink manufacturers like Diamine and J Herbin and That American Dude do like to bring out new and exciting colours for you to write sparkly pink letters to your friends about that awful man who won’t stop sending letters to the local paper. But those inks are also translucent. This is because fountain pens are actually fussy little beasts. Capillary action can be affected by all sorts of issues with the alignment of the feed and nib; the orientation the pen has been stored at; the angle you write at, the temperature of the room; how much ink is in there; the fact that you just picked up the pen in order to jot down a phone message from someone who is speaking too fast (won’t start. Will not ever start). And then you throw inks into the mix and can find out that certain pens hate certain inks, others will never dry, some cannot be cleaned out of a pen EVER, and occasionally an ink may melt a pen entirely from the inside out leaving only a smoking chasm leading to the Underworld.

So you can understand why manufacturers play it safe. Fountain pen feeds rely on many teeny tiny channels that can get blocked easily, and then nothing is coming through. This puts a limit on the concentration and size of solid particles that you can put in. Diamine shimmer inks generally sit on the right side of the line (although most of us are quite cautious about them anyway) but Nemosine shimmers will give you a stunning sparkletastic display that blocks the feed within two words. It was fun while it lasted.

Whenever you see a completely opaque ink, especially one that can show up beautifully on paper that’s darker than itself, it’s usually a calligraphy ink that absolutely cannot be used in a fountain pen. Calligraphers are well aware of this and regularly write crazy flexy white words on a black background because it looks amazing and because they hate us  fountain pen users and want us to suffer. That last bit’s an assumption. PROVE ME WRONG. Both Diamine and J. Herbin make amazing dip pen inks for calligraphy and drawing. Both of them make truly metallic-looking inks (as opposed to the more subtle lustre of the fp-friendly shimmers) and both of them make white ink.

Actually, white ink is a bit of a pain generally. It doesn’t mix well, which is annoying when you’re using it for art.  I do use it in my art but have to use it sparingly because it can totally mess up the effect of other colours. If you want a lighter shade it’s almost always better just to water the other colour down a bit. For bits that really require a little white added, I leave it to the very end and hope for the best.

I’d always understood that you can’t put white ink into fountain pens. Fountain pens do not like opaque ink, and white ink obviously has to be opaque.

Enter De Atramentis. I have heard a great many good things about De Atramentis, but I’d never got around to buying any of their four billion different varieties of ink before. They’re a bit pricier than Diamine (but then who isn’t?) and they’re not known for their unusual properties or pretty bottles. Yes, I am a sucker for a pretty bottle. They do come in nice thick sturdy glass bottles, but they’re not really impressive looking. De Atramentis is a German brand, and as far as I’m aware it’s basically one of these “one human in a shed somewhere” brands of ink: the human in question being Franz-Josef Jansen. He’s well-known for having lots of colours and many, many types of scented ink – if that’s your thing – but also good permanent inks. And he does white ink that’s suitable for fountain pens. Wait what?

So I bought a bottle from The Writing Desk. Being excellent people they sent me a couple of other De Atramentis offerings as samples: dark green and orange. The green was a pretty standard offering. The orange was, if not completely opaque, definitely considering an opaque career move. How odd. I grabbed Lord Dippington IV and dip tested the De Atramentis alongside a more run of the mill orange from Diamine. It looked slightly milky on the page, and when I rinsed Lord Dippington off, a milky swirl definitely came away.

Why is our friend Franz-Josef putting opaque pigments into orange ink? I tried again on black paper and here the milkiness was clearly evident. It wasn’t exactly a look you’d go for but it’s definitely there: the De Atramentis was legible and the Diamine almost totally disappeared.

The milky pigment did nothing to improve the ink so I don’t know why it was in there, but it was. This however made me consider the fact that this white pigment, if really fountain pen friendly, could probably be mixed in with other inks to make THEM opaque, with various interesting effects. A shimmery one could be particularly fun.

I started to play. Initial tests with Lord Dippington IV proved promising.

Just laying down some truths with my buddo there.

This stuff plays well with dip pens. So far so good. But wouldn’t it look nice with a bit of flex? Yes it would, because flex improves everything. Which shall I put it in then? My vintage Waterman, my vintage Montblanc, or my vintage Conway Stewart?

I’m just kidding. I’m not saying that I don’t trust Franz-Josef when he says this stuff is fine. I’m just saying… well, there have got to be limits. Besides which you need a really clean pen if you’re going to start filling up with white ink, and none of these lovely vintage pens are all *that* easy to clean. Likewise, it’ll be a pain to get all the white ink out after. I settled on a cheapy Fountain Pen Revolution pen with what they call a flex nib. It’s not a patch on the magnificent flex of Flappy, Will or Monty, because it’s steel.* But it is fairly soft, and if you mash it you can get some decent line variation out of it. It’s not a VERY fun writing experience, and I wouldn’t want to write pages and pages like that, but if you want something quick and pretty it does the job. Incidentally it’s about as flexy as the pens made by That Other Brand, but it doesn’t stink and it costs a bit less.

So here we go. Not bad, huh? I can see fun happening with this stuff. I may post an update later after it’s had enough time to destroy my pen and either has or hasn’t.

* FPR have, apparently, introduced 14K gold flex nibs now. I have no idea if they’re any good.




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