In this article I take a look at the printer inks I’ve tried. This is not at all comprehensive, and lots of relief printmakers will have other favourites.

Oil-based inks

Caligo relief inks for linocut printmaking

I started out with Charbonnel Etching inks, which are fine for relief printmaking. Absolutely nothing wrong with these. Then, tired of the clean up routine with oils, I tried Caligo Safe Wash relief inks, coming across them at Intaglio – the brilliant specialist printmaking supplies shop near London Bridge. They behave just like other oil-based inks with strong colour, slow drying time, and a pleasing depth and glossiness – but you can clean everything with soap and water. These are still the brand I use most of the time. I find the Extender very useful for making the colours transparent, which means you can get a third colour when you overlay one colour with another. Most inks have some kind of extender, and I find them very useful.

There is a pretty large range of colours, which is convenient, and they can also be easily mixed to create additional colours. Once dry, the colours look little different from when they are wet. As with many paints and inks, I find that the white is slightly more “thickening” than other colours.

I’ve also found, with Caligo, that the tubes are better than the apparently more economic tins. The tins get very gunky and hard to use.

Water-based inks

I decided to investigate water-based inks after a while as an alternative to Caligo. I wanted to be able, sometimes, to create a print without having to wait at least several days for each colour to dry before doing the next one. Prints in oil often remain slightly sticky for months.

Starter set of Schmincke relief printing inks.

First I tried a starter set of Schmincke linoprint inks. I was really pleased with these, and have since added additional colours to my set.

I don’t have access to a press and Schmincke inks are powerful enough to give reasonably good coverage by rubbing the back of the paper. As expected, they dried much more quickly than Caligo inks, which is useful for an impatient printmaker! The colours dry matt, almost chalky, which offers a different style to Caligo. I like the subtlety and variety of the colours from Schmincke.

I have found, though, that if you rub too hard to transfer the colour from the lino to the paper, you start to get the ink peeling back off again, especially once you are several layers of colour into the print. I also find coverage of ink reasonable, but not as good as Caligo. These inks need a lot more rubbing to cover areas of paper effectively, so are more tiring and time-consuming than taking a print with Caligo. Therefore, I generally use Schmincke now for experiments rather than an entire edition. I will be interested to see how Schmincke inks work when I next have access to a press.

Starter set of Akua relief printmaking inks.

After Schmincke, I decided to try a starter set of Akua Inks. I have found Akua to be similar in effect, and nearly as powerful in coverage and density of colour as Caligo oil-based inks – but with a much shorter drying time. They are good enough for my purposes for me to use as an alternate to Caligo. Akua inks work in an odd way. They dry less through exposure to the air than through sinking into the paper (like something greasy like margarine). This is fine in most circumstances but can catch you out. I discovered, for instance, that if you overprint a screenprinted background, done in acrylic screenprint ink, with Akua – the Akua will take months and months to dry – making it pretty impractical for this purpose. The moral is – don’t expect to use Akua inks on anything impermeable like oil paint or acrylic. I suppose this is true of any water-based paint, but Akua fools you because it goes onto an acrylic background quite happily, with no sign of being repelled. And then, weeks later, your print is still wet!

As mentioned with Caligo inks, white often behaves differently to other colours and has a thickening effect. This is very apparent with Akua’s white. It all becomes very sticky and turgid if you add a lot of white to your mixing plate. This can be ameliorated with the addition of extender, but it is a slight annoyance. Of course, perhaps I am not using the Akua inks properly and need to investigate further!

To me, Akua colours are the water-based, quick-ish drying alternative to Caligo. I have used them for many editions of prints, and sometimes combined them with Caligo – making sure the Akua colours are printed first. For anyone who is looking for the density of colour and coverage of oil-based inks, with the advantage of the speedy drying quality of water-based colours – Akua seems to be the answer.

Edit: I have recently come across an online blog complaining that Akua inks sometimes leave an oily halo around the edge of the print. This seems to be after several years. I haven’t seen any sign of this whatsoever, but I also haven’t got any Akua prints that go back more than two years. I will report back in a few years if I discover this problem for myself.

Of course, I’m sure there are many other relief inks out there I haven’t tried yet.

Previous articles in this series:-

Beginning printmaking with lino

Materials: Lino