Waterproof India Inks and Shellac-based Primers

We all get tripped up and surprised sometimes. Even the simplest description can set in motion assumptions that lead us to expect one thing only to be sitting there, moments later, head slightly tilted, a quizzical glance showing equal parts frustration and fascination. Which is where we found ourselves a few years back when testing a variety of inks and how they perform on our various grounds, pastes, and mediums. Among the ones being tested was the tried and true India Ink – richly black, shellac-based, and solidly waterproof. At least as far as the label said. And one would certainly think describing something as waterproof is straightforward and plain enough to avoid confusion. If you look at the many examples we show in the Just Paint article, Make a Mark, you can clearly see that the ink holds its own through a range of finger rubs and water washes, only becoming smeared when using rubbing alcohol. Which, after all, is the common solvent for shellac, so not all that surprising.

The curiosity comes when you attempt to brush over the India Ink with any of our mediums, gels, grounds, or paints. All of a sudden what was waterbased seems quite water soluble, the sharp edges of the wash or line becoming easily liquified with barely any effort. This is something you can easily see in Image 1 where we tested India Ink, Sharpie® Permanent Marker, and Sakura’s IDenti™ Pen by brushing over them with our GOLDEN Gesso, GAC 100, and a wash of QoR Watercolor. The surfaces we tried included Ampersand’s Gessobord™, Multimedia’s Artboard®, and Arches® 140lb cold pressed watercolor paper.

Testing Inks on Various Substrates for Sensitivity to GOLDEN Gesso, GAC 100 and QoR Watercolor

Image 1: Testing inks on various substrates for sensitivity to GOLDEN Gesso, GAC 100 and QoR Watercolor.
Click for larger image.

So, what is happening? As it turns out, while the India Ink is indeed ‘waterproof’ – in the sense that water alone will not cause it to run – it remains sensitive to the ammonia and other alkaline materials that can typically be found in acrylics, not to mention many household cleaners. Any surprise is simply caused  by the fact that we think of acrylics so strongly as water based that other factors, like ammonia sensitivity, might go unnoticed. And in a case like this, if one imagines a drawing in India Ink being over painted with acrylics, the consequences could spell irreparable ruin. In terms of what one can do, there are a couple of options. Obviously using a different ink, as the tests above show, might be one solution, although each ink would need to be tested beforehand and the character of the drawing would likely need to change. Another route would be to first fix the India Ink with a couple coats of Archival Varnish, thereby locking it in and providing a barrier that protects it. As you can see in Image 2, after applying two coats of Archival Varnish Satin to India Ink swatches on all three substrates, they were able to be overpainted with GOLDEN Gesso and GAC 100 with no sign of being disturbed:

Golden products applied over india ink coated with 2 coats of Archival Varnish

Image 2: GOLDEN products applied over India Ink coated with 2 light layers of Archival Varnish (Satin).

Further Explorations

While the above might provide a nice and clear case of discovering an unexpected ammonia sensitivity in an application, and a cautionary tale of needing to always test one’s process, there remains additional curiosities to share.

Some of the common primers for sealing wood in commercial applications, as well as substrate preparation for artist panels, are white pigmented shellac products such as Zinnser’s B-I-N®. These types of primers have a well deserved reputation and following because they are fast drying, an excellent blocker of tannins in wood, and able to seal off dye-based inks that can bleed into water-based latex paints. So the immediate question was whether B-I-N, as one widely available example, had a similar sensitivity as shellac-based inks? And would GOLDEN products cause the same issues that we saw earlier? The results of our testing showed some additional twists worth exploring.

The main surprise is that B-I-N appears to hold up to regular GOLDEN products quite well, at least when applied at common brushed-on thicknesses, but fail quite readily when coated with OPEN Medium or Thinner. You can see this in Image 3, where we applied a small  amount of GAC 100, OPEN Medium, and OPEN Thinner on top of two coats of B-I-N on a hardboard panel. After 15 minutes we rubbed an area using a cotton swab to see if the coating would dissolve or loosen, and then repeated the process after 30 minutes. Clearly the coating stayed intact under GAC 100 but readily came off under OPEN Medium and, while slightly less dramatically, also under OPEN Thinner.

GAC 100, OPEN Medium and OPEN Thinner over two coats of Zinnser's B-I-N on a hardboard panel

Image 3: GAC 100, OPEN Medium and OPEN Thinner over two coats of Zinnser’s B-I-N on a hardboard panel.

As to why GAC 100 left B-I-N intact while easily dissolving the earlier India Ink, the most likely explanation is the strength of shellac in B-I-N versus the very slight amount found in India Ink which, like all inks, relies mostly on the pigments nestling down into the fibers of an absorbent surface rather than being locked down tightly by a binder. It is also important for inks to not cause nibs to become easily clogged, so keeping the binder levels to a minimum makes sense from that standpoint as well. In terms of OPEN, however, the ability to dissolve B-I-N seems clearly linked to its unique formulation which results in the amines being able to interact with the shellac binder in a much more aggressive fashion.

There is clearly more to explore here and the main takeaway is really about testing your materials and processes for these types of unexpected results. Waterproof, lightfast, non-yellowing, acid free, archival, permanent are all words that conjure up simple clear notions until we start to poke and prod them, asking how much, for how long, and under what conditions. Among many other things. And as we have seen, all too often, the answers you get might just surprise you.

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21 Responses to Waterproof India Inks and Shellac-based Primers

  1. J November 28, 2016 at 3:50 am #

    awesome you answered my puzzling question why sennelier inks smudged, but now I also realise they have such stunning transparent colours due to non lightfast dyes no archival pigments I’m not using them now

    Does this means I can’t draw acrylic (no shellac) ink lines over HFA ? I need to dip my nib in black HFA instead?

    • Sarah Sands November 28, 2016 at 7:12 am #

      Hi J –

      You can absolutely draw acrylic ‘ink’ lines over High Flow Acrylics (HFA) – or even use the High Flow Acrylics themselves as an acrylic ink by putting them into blank marker pens, as we speak about in the following article:

      And we even have a very short video showing how easy it is to fill a marker:

      Beyond that, just keep in mind that anything called an acrylic ink should still be tested, just to make sure it works in the way you need. And if you have any other questions or concerns, just ask!

  2. Jenny Kyng November 28, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi Sarah. I’m not a big user of inks at this point but am interested in exploring Zinsser shellac based primer for sealing/priming wood–so I’m pleased to read that it is highly regarded. Thanks for an interesting article!


    • Sarah Sands November 29, 2016 at 8:35 am #

      Hi Jenny – Thanks for the comment. If interested in priming panels, you might take a look at our article “Preparing Wood for a Life Outdoors“. While focused on best steps for preparing panels for exterior use, the same steps could certainly be followed if wanting to maximize the protection against moisture indoors. As for the use of a pigmented shellac as a primer, such as Zinnser’s B-I-N, you might be interested in this article from Marc Williams, a Fellow of the American Institute of Conservation: Sealing Wood for Storage and Exhibition

      Hope that helps further and if you have any other questions, just ask!

      • Jenny Kyng November 29, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

        Wow, that’s a very useful article. Thanks Sarah!

        • Sarah Sands December 13, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

          You are really welcome Jenny! Happy it was helpful!

  3. Doug Tiller November 29, 2016 at 12:58 am #

    Ammonia NH3 will change PH and therefore Rheology of ink.
    Ink to me has to be
    Pigment based
    PH 9.2 there abouts
    Work without hesitation in a fountain pen.
    Best ground if not a 300 lb Fabriano
    True Gesso – Thompson’s recipe.
    Look at work of Reginald Marsh.
    Can draw underdrawing for egg tempera on the spot on a street or Coney Island. Most illustrators from turn of last century all used The same India ink like Marsh.
    I love acrylic ink and heavy body acrylics – using GAC and airbrush medium on mylar. And for dissolving dried ink,paint on Mylar — Vodka for drawing into and clearing areas.
    India Ink though does not exist in production like it did 25 years ago.
    Therefore have to make myself. I have a great recipe if any one wants it.
    Besides egg tempera over ink drawing – liquid acrylics thinned with air brush medium really sweet to work with and then sealed with gloss gell..
    Want to add more shellac to ink use water based shellac.
    Blank marker pens not fast enough for drawing or have the action a pen nib has. Acrylic ink wonderful with brush on Mylar.

    • Sarah Sands November 29, 2016 at 9:32 am #

      Hi Doug – Thank you for such a detailed response, especially in terms of your own process. If you are willing to share the traditional India Ink recipe you mentioned I am sure many people would be interested. Certainly many traditional art materials have changed over the years and so it would be fascinating to learn about how it might have been made in the past. Again, thanks for your comments and if there is anything else we can do, just ask!

  4. Inge Zuck November 29, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    Thank you sooooo much, Sarah!
    That’s exactly what I needed!
    Blessings Inge

    • Sarah Sands November 29, 2016 at 2:52 pm #

      Hi Inge –

      You are SO welcome! It is truly our pleasure – and best of luck with all your projects.

  5. DougTiller December 13, 2016 at 3:17 pm #

    What I have figured out
    Shellaque recipe found in old carpentry manuals.
    Gellatin solution – is good for tempera and once used buy set painters in theatre – especially summer stock.

    The Gelatin Solution
    600 ml. distilled water
    200 ml Ammonia solution (Amex-store bought clear no perfume about 30%
    20 packs of Knox gelatin 1pack =7 g
    Idea to hydrolyze 20 packs of gelatin and have PH about 9.3-9.5

    Mark pot-bring back with 50% Amex and 50% distilled water
    Use double boiler- put broken glass in bottom – cover-weight on top- try to get as hot as possible.
    Check buy dropping a drop (use eye dropper) into beaker of ice water
    Stir –drop –should disappear before hitting bottom
    Disappears in the swirl.
    Clear golden

    Putting it together

    Distilled Water – 870 ml – heat to 140 F – use about 1/3 for “mixing butter” must
    cover head of mixing wand
    Camphor – 20 ml (10% Life Brand) –goes milky in warm water
    Borax- 16.0 gm 20 Mule Team Borax
    Carbon Black-40gm Degussa deluxe Printex-U -ONLY!!
    Shellaque Flakes-18 gm-from Lee Valley
    The Gelatin Solution-40 ml-keep in fridge do not freeze. I do not add fungicide-
    Too dangerous -seems to be OK if solution and ink kept in fridge –do not
    Add rest of water after “steaming” and changing sound of mixer.” Dentist sound”
    Filter through coffee filter-let decant for 24 hours

    • Sarah Sands December 13, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

      Thanks SO much for sharing this Doug – it is a really wonderful find and will definitely be appreciated by those wanting to explore and experiment.

  6. David Clemons December 27, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    It may be worth pointing out that Zinsser’s shellac primer is not wax-free, and that may adversely affect the acrylic medium at some point. more in terms of adhesion I would think. General wood finishing advice is to not use a water-borne product over shellac that has any wax content. Zinsser has another shellac product called Seal-Coat that is labeled wax-free, but it’s clear, not a primer.

    • Sarah Sands January 3, 2017 at 11:49 am #

      Hi David –

      Thanks for your expressed concerns. While we agree there is a cause for concern when using waxed vs dewaxed clear shellac-based sealers, especially under polyurethanes where most of the adhesion issues seem to be reported, the same does not appear to be true of the pigmented white shellac primers such as BIN, which has a very long history as an almost universal primer under both oil and water-based systems. It might be that the wax levels are just so small that in a pigmented system it becomes insignificant. Also, in looking into this question, I came across reference to the patent that Zinnser uses to give their shellac-based primers longer shelf life ( – a problem they were among the first to solve and a major issue in any premade shellac products. As a side effect of that process the wax content is brought down from a 2-6% range to a 0 -.5% one, so that in itself might be the major factor. That said, short of a chemical analysis or more information from Zinsser, it is hard to claim what the exact range of the current product might be. In the end, the high pigment load of the product certainly appears to provide ample mechanical adhesion for acrylic coatings and using BIN under latex topcoats is both common and recommended. We also could not find any reported issues of adhesion failure between BIN and a commercial latex housepaint or an artists acrylic.

      Again, thanks for raising this issue. I will see if I can reach out to Zinsser to get additional information on this and if I hear back would be happy to pass it along.

    • Sarah Sands January 9, 2017 at 10:34 am #

      Hi David –

      Wanted to follow up on my earlier reply to your concerns about the adhesion of waterbased paints on Zinnser’s shellac-based primer, and specifically whether BIN used a dewaxed shellac or not in its formuulation. I did reach out to Zinnser’s tech department and got a fairly prompt reply – so kudos to their service. According to them, their BIN Shellac-based primer does indeed use a dewaxed shellac, so it can be safely painted over using waterbased topcoats. Hope that helps clear that up and provides some assurance.

  7. David Clemons June 23, 2017 at 6:09 pm #

    Thank you for the follow up, Sarah. I greatly appreciate the info that BIN uses dewaxed shellac. Since their labeling on that product doesn’t say so, I assumed otherwise. Good to know.

  8. Lisa von Koch August 14, 2018 at 11:45 pm #

    Hi! I have a painting made with India ink on a primed panel. I sprayed it with Lascaux varnish, but I may have done too thick a coat. It looks clear when viewed straight on, but kind of dusty when viewed from the side, I was thinking about painting the Sennelier colorless ink over it, to bring back the gloss. Do you have any idea if India ink can be painted over a varnished surface?
    THANK YOU!!!!!

    • Sarah Sands August 16, 2018 at 4:46 pm #

      Hi Lisa –

      Thanks for the question. We are not really familiar with these products and so cannot really speak to whether this specific combination will work. That is testing you might need to do on a test piece to see if you get satisfactory results. We can share that we would hesitate to ever put a shellac product over a work of art. Especially a clear one, as shellac will yellow and become more brittle with age. As an ink, or a ground on a solid panel, those things might not be critical, but as a final ‘clear’ layer, we would generally not recommend it. Since it looks fine except at an angle, we would suggest seeing if you are able to live with the results as that of course would be easiest and safest. Outside of that, any additional coating you apply – without doing tests – could make things worse and be more difficult to correct.


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