We Need To Talk About Sepia Ink — The Ultimate Guide To Choosing Sepia Ink

When you think of sepia, what comes to mind? For me, it’s grainy, Old West photographs; the coffee-stained faux-antique pages of my 4th-grade history project; the world through the lenses of my dime store shades, and the autumn leaves strewn along the footpaths of my hometown.

All these things have a reddish-brown hue, but believe it or not, sepia is actually an incredibly diverse range of shades as opposed to a single entity, which is why there are a plethora of distinct sepia inks available to us. 

Sepia can incorporate yellows, greens, grays, purples… you name it!

And this isn’t just a modern development either — Variation has been a major defining (or should we say, undefining) quality of this color tone from its very genesis.

So, today, we’re putting sepia ink under the microscope and acquainting ourselves with its multifaceted nature.

When Looking For A Sepia Ink

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me to aid in their pursuit of a “good sepia ink” at a pen show, I could straight up dominate the duke box at my local watering hole (Curious about glass pens? See our ultimate guide here).

However, this question often leaves me a little lost for words, as, due to the depth of variation in sepia tones, what distinguishes the good from the bad is a matter of personal taste and personal objectives.

In other words, I don’t know what a good sepia ink is… only you do.

It’s not that I don’t want to help, because I absolutely do. In fact, it’s the reason I’m writing this guide.

All I’m saying is that if I’m going to serve as your sherpa up sepia mountain, I’m going to need a bit of background first.

Asking for my opinion on a good sepia ink is akin to asking me what my favorite movies or wines are.

Just because a night in watching Ex Machina whilst drinking a full-bodied Malbec is my idea of heaven, doesn’t mean it’s yours.

You might be more of a Chardonnay kind of person with a penchant for Stallone flicks, or perhaps you’re a beer buff and silent movie savant.

It’s all subjective, and this is precisely how impossible the “good sepia ink” scenario is. But fret not, as I’m about to make it all a lot more probable, starting with a bit of background on the tone of the hour.

What Is Sepia?

Sepia isn’t just nebulous in shade, but in meaning as well. Depending on who you ask, sepia might refer to the common cuttlefish, or indeed the ink derived from the cuttlefish since the times of Ancient Greece.

But sepia may also pertain to the traditional photographic toning technique involving the use of sodium sulfide, thiourea, or polysulfide, or the digital sepia tone utilized in the now via duotone modification.

The common thread that links all of these disparate points of reference is the color associated with the word sepia, but, as mentioned earlier, sepia is harder to pin down than you might think.

Traditional Variations Of Sepia

When sepia tones were first produced from the ink of cuttlefish, there was a lot of unintentional variety.

The shade and undertones changed dramatically depending on the location of production, the methods of production, and the diet of the cuttlefish from which the ink was harvested.

The anchor hue was always brown with a subtle redness, but even within this limited hybrid shade there was massive potential for diversification, and as time goes on, the sepia category grows ever larger to accommodate more and more variations.

Sepia Etymology

Nobody is entirely sure of the historical context of the word sepia. We can trace its roots back to a certain point, but we’re not convinced that the end of our investigation leads us to the true seed of the word.

What we do know, however, is that all the oldest recorded uses of this word refer to the humble cuttlefish.

For example, the Italian word seppia, the Latin word sepia, and the Greek word sēpia all mean cuttlefish.

There have been some assertions that sepia might in some way be connected to the word sepsis, which has a root meaning of “to make rotten”, but even though this seems semantically possible, formally speaking, the theory doesn’t have much weight.

Certain etymologists have reason to believe that the word predates Greek, but beyond that, the specifics of sepia’s origins are lost to the sands of time.

Is Sepia Ink Vegan?

I’ve mentioned that, traditionally, sepia ink was harvested from cuttlefish, but before the vegan stylophiles out there kiss this type of ink goodbye, it’s worth noting that almost all sepia inks are synthesized these days.

The smarty-pants in stationary-focused laboratories around the world are able to recreate the natural hues of cuttlefish ink with incredible veracity. 

And because of the pinpoint accuracy of their methods, they’re also capable of getting a little experimental, pushing the shades into new and exciting places without sacrificing the essence of sepia.

However, as impressive as the range of sepia inks is, it only makes choosing a sepia pen ink even more of a challenge, as a wicked case of option paralysis is inevitable — I’m convinced this is what lies at the root of the what’s a good sepia ink question.

How To Help Us Help You Find Your Perfect Sepia Ink

We Need To Talk About Sepia Ink — The Ultimate Guide To Choosing Sepia Ink

Okay, so that’s the story of sepia covered and your problem well and truly outlined. Next, let’s get down to business helping you settle on a sepia ink.

There are a number of ways you can either increase or decrease the possibilities, and I’m going to break it all down right here, right now!

Exposure

The key to finding the right sepia tone for you is first to expose yourself to the options available.

I’ve done my best to communicate the vast range of sepia options with words in this post, but the only way to really understand what I’m talking about is to see the diversity with your own eyes.

To begin with, let’s take a look at a selection of colors I’ve gathered that I believe show just how diverse sepia tones can be…

Each of these colors is sepia in spirit, yet they’re all distinct.

Some are more yellow than others, reminiscent of antique photographs, while others have a chocolaty element that adds richness and depth to the core principles of sepia.

Green is often present in modern sepia tones too, as you can see in the top left-hand corner of the swatch above, as well as the righter most bottom three shades.

Olive greens share the most synergy with baseline sepia tones, but sage greens are a close second in popularity.

Gold undertones form the basis of another popular variation, and orange or gray notes drive the unique qualities of other shades. 

Bear in mind that this is really only scratching the surface of sepia. Between each of the shades listed above, there are many more.

Explain What You Want Without Saying Sepia

Would I consider all shades in the comparison image above to be sepia in a traditional sense?

No, not really, as many of the formulators have clearly taken some creative liberties in order to make something unique and interesting.

For instance, the Organics Studio’s “Join or Die” shade isn’t just breaking boundaries but perhaps a few rules as well.

I mean, I can see that brown does play a part in the composition, but it definitely takes a back seat to the olive hues.

But it’s not that clear outlier that can be distanced from the classical idea of sepia, as, in all honesty, you could refer to every single other shade on the swatch with different, more specific descriptors.

Let’s break it down from top to bottom moving left to right…

  • “Classique Sepia” — Oat-brown, with some dull maple notes
  • “Sepia Black” — Dark, bitter cocoa
  • “Sepia” — Golden wheat
  • “Diamine Sepia” — Nutty brown with a pale honey accent, weak coffee
  • “Brun Sepia” — Watered-down hot chocolate
  • “Stipula Calamo Sepia” — Melting milk chocolate
  • “Callifolio Sepia” — Walnut… dusty twilight
  • “Papier Plume Sepia” — Earthy… wet earth washing down the drain
  • “Visconti Sepia” — Warm brown with red undertones
  • “De Atramentis Standard Sepia Brown” — Rich, dark chocolate brown
  • “Rohrer & Klingner Sepia” — Cool gray brown
  • “Marla Montessori Sepia” — Cool barky brown
  • “Kyuu-Kyouryuuchi Sepia” —  Deep coffee brown
  • “Ginza Gold Sepia” — Coffee brown with hints of caramel
  • “Ludwig van Beethoven Sepia” — Muted plum

So, next time you’re hunting for a good sepia ink and you ask for help, mention some of the specific tones you see in your mind’s eye.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t mention sepia at all, but use it only in a general sense before elaborating with more descriptive language.

The person helping you will get way more of an idea of what you’re looking for if you’re being a little more creative with your adjectives.

Saturation

A bit of language you can use to make this inky conundrum a bit easier on yourself and whoever is lending a hand is “saturation”.

High saturation means a richer, more vivid color, while low saturation leaves you with a paler, smokier finish.

Generally speaking, the higher the saturation, the more eye-grabbing and concrete the color will be. The lower the saturation, the more subtle it will be.

You can kind of think of the extremities of the saturation scale like different types of paint.

High saturation inks are bold and blocky, kind of like acrylic paint, but low saturation inks are quite timid and nuanced, like watercolors.

Warm Vs. Cold

Establishing a point on the warm-to-cool spectrum is another fantastic way to help an ink-maker or pen shop employee find your perfect sepia tone.

Warmer colors contain more yellow, orange, and red undertones, while within cooler colors lurk blues, greens, and purples.

If you’re a bit confused as to how warmer and cooler colors present themselves in a color or full image, I’d recommend using the temperature tool on your smartphone to edit one of your photos.

How Will You Use Your Sepia Ink?

We Need To Talk About Sepia Ink — The Ultimate Guide To Choosing Sepia Ink

You should also factor in what you plan to use your sepia ink for, as different properties and shades will suit different applications. 

For instance, will you be using your brown ink purely for bullet point planning, or will you be doing some sketching too? Will it be for line work or for shading?

Certain page colors may push you in one direction or the other, as well.

Say, for example, you’re using a yellowed page, you’ll need a darker sepia to break through the existing color. Remember, though, the page tint will change the way your ink appears on the page.

If you don’t have a specific application in mind, simply meditate on the qualities you’re after in your sepia tone.

Try to picture it in your mind’s eye, then be as descriptive as you can with anyone trying to help you finalize your decision.

Provide Examples

It’s not uncommon for people to take a color sample to the home store when they’re looking for new paint, so there’s really no reason we shouldn’t do the same when seeking out a very particular shade of sepia.

This of course is predicated on you actually having such a reference point, so it won’t always be possible.

But, if you do have something physical that you can bring in-store with you, it’ll be a massive help.

It doesn’t matter what this reference is; it can be a piece of cloth, another ink, a ribbon, a cutting from a magazine, a t-shirt, a dress… whatever, really.

Any shop assistant will be over the moon to have such specific guidance.

Consider Chromatography

For those ink-heads that either like to really analyze the constituent parts of their ink, or get super creative with their planning, sketching, or writing, paying heed to the paper chromatography of ink is a must.

What is paper chromatography? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a means of separating ink on paper into its various components, giving you an under-the-hood understanding of the way your ink was created and works.

To give a spot of chromatography a shot, you’ll need your ink, a piece of paper, a beaker, and some form of solvent.

Mark the paper with your ink, then dunk the very end of the paper into the solvent.

As the solvent travels the length of the paper, it hits the ink mark and drags part of it along. It then drops them off higher up the paper, but they won’t be the same color as your ink anymore.

Instead, they’ll be the colors of the ink’s constituent parts.

The higher up the paper they settle, the more the molecules were attracted to the solvent, which is what gives you the fascinating gradient effect of chromatography.

It can be stunning in of itself, even if it’s just executed on sample paper, but it can also be utilized with intent to elevate writing or art on the page.

You’ll find that some sepia ink contains the usual suspects, such as browns or reds, but others may shock you with gorgeous teal blues or hot pinks.

So, if you’re hoping to get weird and wonderful with your ink, be sure to ask for a few samples before you pull the trigger and purchase it, as you’ll want to make sure it has the impact you’re looking for when given the chromatography treatment.

Beyond Color: Ink Performance

While shade is the most important factor when looking for a sepia ink that suits you, performance also plays a pivotal role in how it feels to use and what it can be used for.

Let’s take a look at the two key non-color aspects of ink you should consider before buying a vat load of the stuff.

Drying Time

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the faster the drying time of your sepia ink, the better, and while there are benefits to a fast-drying ink, it’s not always beneficial.

For most writing applications, fast-drying ink will indeed be best, as wet ink always poses a smudge hazard.

However, if you’re doing a spot of calligraphy, a wet ink will look far more flowing and facilitate more elegant shade variations.

Dry ink doesn’t sit on the page very long, which limits the expressive qualities of the writing. In other words, dry ink is all business, while wet ink is a bit more flowery and nicer to look at.

Wet ink’s starting to sound pretty good, ay? But before you decide which ink type is best for you, you should know that lefties are far more smudge prone than righties, so if you’re a lefty… beware.

Ink Flow

The wetness or dryness of an ink in part determines the feeling of the flow, as does the type of fountain pen you’re using, but other factors come into play as well.

Certain elements within an ink may thin or thicken it, impacting the rate at which it leaves your nib.

What constitutes too much or too little flow comes down to the task at hand and your personal writing style.

If you write quite slowly but with a medium-to-heavy hand, a flowy ink will bleed out all over the shop, whereas a faster writer with a lighter hand will find it just right.

Likewise, a slower-flowing ink will benefit a slower hand and will work against those with a faster hand.

Experimenting With Home-Altered Sepia Ink

More of a hands-on person that likes to test out different shades on the page before settling on the right one for a project? Me too.

I feel a few tests are absolutely essential if you want your writing or drawing to look the way you envision it in your head.

And, good news, there is a way that we perfectionists can give ourselves a bit more control over sepia ink shades if we’re not set on what we want just yet.

The trick is to treat your ink like a painter treats their paint. Start off with a very pale sepia tone, such as the golden wheat variety on the color comparison chart we discussed earlier.

Next, find a small container, decant a few drops of ink, then, using a paintbrush, mark a sample on a sheet of paper — This is your baseline color.

Now comes the experimentation… grab some more inks and add very small amounts to your base ink, painting a sample on the paper with each change.

Beneath each new sample, note down the augmentation, so when you find a shade you like, you can recreate it in the future by following the steps laid out on the paper.

This way, you’re in the driver’s seat, figuring out which way the color should go in real time.

Add in reds, greens, browns, grays, purples, black, white… any color you think will take you closer to the one in your head, if you have any concrete color in your head, that is.

This method is all about seeing where you end up rather than aiming for something pre-defined. Who’s to say you should even stick with sepia?

If you feel your creativity steering you elsewhere, follow your muse and see what happens.

And should you forget to map out the changes you make to the base ink as you go, why not use a spot of chromatography to trace your steps in order and recreate your new ink before it runs dry?

Final Thoughts

There you have it — Sepia ink can be troublesome if we underestimate its range or become overwhelmed by its range and don’t know where to start.

But hopefully, after reading my sepia deep dive, you’re much more clued up on what you’re looking for and how to find it. In short, it’s all about the details.

The more you can give an ink-maker or pen shop assistant, the better job they can do suggesting some inks.

Alternatively, if you’re not quite sure what you want, permit yourself to experiment until you stumble across something that pleases the eye.