J. Herbin is one of my favorite ink companies. J. Herbin is the oldest name in ink production in the world. Their entire fountain pen ink line is made with all natural dyes. This is pretty cool and very rare. They don’t use any toxic additives in the ink, thus producing one of the safest ink out there.
Of course, this poses some limitations but I’ll discuss those as we go along. A complete list of properties and my experience with using the ink extensively can be found at the end of this post.
The ink cards I use are made by “maruman” and are actually called Word Cards. They use watercolor paper but unfortunately they don’t specify the content of cotton nor the weight of the paper. Nor they state whether the paper is acid free or not. It is, however, good for visual demonstration of the characteristics of the ink. Unfortunately, I believe the Word Cards are no longer made but there are other methods of making these samples, and so I don’t see it as a tremendous loss. Cutting one’s own cards from the best quality watercolor paper may be far better option, even if not as convenient.
As you can see from the sample on the card, the ink is very subtle. The hue is relatively light in value and cool in temperature. I like this subtlety though. It is indeed a brown, but one that has a quiet elegance about it. I really like that. There is no sheen but you can see that the ink displays quite some value range, or shading.
Bottle Design and Functionality
The bottle design is wonderful. Very antique. The bottle itself is very small actually and only contains 30 ml of ink. It also has a pen rest integrated in the design. This serves as a resting place for your dip pen, traditionally. The bottle is called a D bottle, where the D refers to the old French unit of measure “la Demi Courtine”. I find the 30 ml volume of these bottles very reasonable and actually practical. Unless you use one ink consistently, you can enjoy a variety of colors more often than if you had a 60 or 90 ml bottle.
Despite the fact that the bottle only contains 30 ml of ink, J. Herbin inks are not that expensive. A bottle can be purchased for €7 but the store where I purchase mine offers a 4 for 3 deal, where the cost goes down to €5+ per bottle. J. Herbin also offers selected inks (6 to be precise) in 100 ml bottles but I have a hard time finding those. If you can, however, they should certainly offer better value. I would love to get a bottle of Cacao du Brésil in 100 ml bottle but this particular ink is only available in the 30 ml bottle.
When we speak of the functionality of the bottle, we find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. Virtually nobody likes these bottles for filling fountain pens. For dip pen use the bottle is fantastic. However, if you try filling a self-filling (not an eyedropper filler) fountain pen from the bottle, you’re in trouble. When it’s full and you don’t have a pen with a large nib, you can get a fill comfortably. Otherwise, you are forced to transfer the ink into a bottle that allows you fill at low levels, since it’s only 30 ml. Not only is the bottle opening small, but the bottle has a wide rectangular base and since it only accommodates 30 ml of ink, it is very short, allowing very little space for your nib.
Using the Ink
I went through the whole bottle of the ink in no time. And understandably so, the bottle only contains 30 ml of ink. I use Fude nibs for drawing and they put a lot of ink on the page, which is, of course, what I’m after. My drawing pen is Ranga Bamboo, so I never had any issues filling the pen, because it’s an eyedropper filler. It holds roughly 3 ml of ink, so if you do the math the pen can be filled with the ink around 10 times. I fill my pen once, sometimes twice a week and so the ink lasts me around two months.
The sketchbooks I currently use are Winsor & Newton and they contain somewhat absorbent (when compared to fp-friendly paper) heavyweight 170 g acid free paper. I have never noticed any discoloration of the ink, neither I noticed any loss of value or chroma. The ink seems to be holding up pretty well. J. Herbin claims that the inks are pH neutral and lightfast. These two parameters should assure that your sketches won’t fade. Still though, there is no standard for testing fountain pen inks for durability and lightfastness, as there is for watercolor paints. And so it’s difficult to confirm the claim.
I also used the ink on other types of paper, such as Rhodia, Clairfontain, Leuchtturm and regular office paper. On all of them the ink performs well. Some bleedthrough can occur on office paper but that is to be expected. The ink is not aggressive and can be used on a variety of paper types, provided that you adjust your nib choice to the paper you use.
List of Properties and Behavior
Following are listed my subjective findings and conclusions observed during the time I used the ink.
Concentration and Chroma
The concentration parameter describes what is usually referred to in fountain pen community as “saturation”. However, the correct term describing the ratio of pigment/dye to vehicle is called pigment load, or concentration. The pureness, or “brightness” of a color is called chroma.
The dye component is not, surprisingly, too low in concentration in this ink. It is certainly on the lower end of the spectrum, but I still find the ink to be quite strong. My conclusion is, however, that despite the relatively solid dye concentration the ink would not be the best option for dilution. I think the entire J. Herbin line is formulated to be used as-is.
Chroma of the ink is low, it is a muted hue. I heard people mistaking it for a grey.
Hue and Value
The ink is of neutral brown hue. The tonal value is light-middle to middle. It is very transparent and so it can be layered, in which case you can get a range of two values. Useful for sketching.
Overall Flow Properties and Behavior
The ink flows really nicely. I like J. Herbin inks. In general, they are not too concentrated, thus they can be characterized as being somewhat watery, but they don’t feel dry, cheap or lackluster whatsoever. I personally like their flow properties.
The ink is not aggressive. It can be comfortably used on a variety of paper types. Fountain pen ink friendly paper will do very well, of course, but I found that it behaves well on other paper types as well.
Water Resistance and Permanence
J. Herbin states that their ink line is lightfast, meaning it should withstand the effects of UV light. They must use dyes that are not as prone to fading. That being said, there is no standard testing done on fountain pen inks as there is on watercolor (and other) artist paints. This is a shame, though it’s completely understandable. Usage of fountain pen inks is no longer as widespread as it used to be. And so it probably doesn’t make any sense to push the inks for the ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials) testing. Therefore we don’t get the standard permanence ratings we do with our paints.
My personal approach is to use my fountain pen inks only for sketchbook applications and drawings that are not for display. There are, of course, much more durable inks, such as pigmented fountain pen inks from Platinum or Sailor, or even Noodler’s (though they use permanent dyes, not pigments). However, the “permanence” in these inks refers mainly to the resistance to water. They are still not tested for UV resistance, or perhaps they are internally, but not objectively by ASTM and no results are ever supplied by the manufacturers.
As regards to water resistance, Cacao du Brésil is not a waterproof ink. Quite some of it washed off the page on contact with water. However, you can still read what was written on the page perfectly fine. The brown dye component is completely washed off and a dark gray residue is left almost intact.
Drying Times and Dry Smear
Drying times are good with this ink. It dries fairly quickly and doesn’t smear after drying which is very important for me because I use very wet pens.
The ink doesn’t sheen at all. It is, however, not at all flat, as it exhibits good amount of shading.
In the introduction I mentioned that J. Herbin doesn’t use any toxic additives in their inks. This may pose some unwanted behavior, or so I thought. Logically, it would seem the ink would be much more prone to growing mold inside the bottle. I have had inks from other brands that had this issue – yet, they used conventional toxic additives. Despite it, the mold formed and the ink was ruined. I currently own or had owned over 10 bottles of J. Herbin ink. Never once I experienced any issues with the ink being unstable. This only confirms that they really know what they’re doing.
Despite its partial water resistance the ink is very easy to clean from the pen and doesn’t stick to the material whatsoever.
Some Comparable Inks
There are some comparable inks out there among which I can list the following:
- Iroshizuku kiri-same: similar lighter valued ink. Kiri-same, however, is a grey, although not a true neutral. Similarly well behaved and pleasant to use. It exhibits a level of water resistance.
- Diamine Grey: cool hue of grey, this ink is light-middle to middle value and I find it somewhat dry. It is true, however, that further thorough testing is necessary.
- Montblanc Meisterstück 90 Years Anniversary Permanent Grey: not an easily obtainable ink anymore, this is very nice dark-middle valued grey that is also permanent.
- Noodler’s Lexington Gray: very pleasant ink though much more aggressive than kiri-same. Permanent.
- Parker Quink Black: a black of lighter value, could be considered dark-value grey. Very good ink, I like it and have been using it for years. Not permanent, however.