Ever needed calligraphy ink alternatives?

Ever needed calligraphy ink alternatives?

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This post wasn’t planned to be about calligraphy ink alternatives. Originally, I was going to talk about envelope suppliers in the UK, but during the sample testing process, I suffered some sad calligraphy ink catastrophes.

…so you bought less-than-perfect quality envelopes and now your ink is bleeding everywhere like a scene from CSI. Don’t panic. All is not lost.

What’s the ideal stationery gsm weight for calligraphy?

As a general rule of thumb, envelopes (well, pretty much any form of stationery) for calligraphy should be at least 120gsm. It’s still always a good idea to test the paper stock if you can because you just never know.

I recently made the schoolgirl error of buying 110gsm envelopes… I swear I thought it was 160 gsm! With a solid helping of optimism, I tested it out, and things did not go so well. Next to the 130 gsm counterpart I was testing, it was a right mess. Hollywood superstar Daniel Craig doesn’t deserve to receive this trash calligraphy.


Testing sample envelopes for calligraphy

The sample envelopes I used for testing

Do you think it was the fancy name of the 110 gsm ones that blinded me? Before you answer, it’s important to know that I’m a sucker for marketing. And as a marketer, I should know better. Maybe I thought more expensive meant better? I wish we could just forget they ever happened. But they did, and now we have to find a way to fix this.

The black inks I used to test with

  1. Sumi Ink
  2. Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink
  3. Pelikan 4001
  4. Winsor & Newton watercolour

Accent Antique Magnolia 110 gsm envelopes

You can see for yourself how the envelope fared with these inks. I used Leonardt Principal EF nib and within seconds of nib to paper I knew it was going to be hazardous. It takes a lot of effort to persist when your writing looks like this. You’re wiping away tears and clutching at your heart and reputation all while creating the calligraphy version of a Pinterest Fail that you very absolutely intend to share with the internet. You’re welcome.


There really isn’t much point in assessing each ink, but I would say that the watercolour may make them usable, and the Pelikan 4001 suffered the most. Sad, really.

Although I went to bed annoyed at myself for these envelopes, I woke thinking, “I CAN FIX THIS”.

What can you use instead of ink for calligraphy?

You see, calligraphy isn’t restricted to inks. There’s a range of water-based paints and products that can be diluted to the right consistency to write with. Rummaging through my inky tool box, I pulled out four alternatives that I thought could be worth a try.

  1. Finetec “Inca Gold” watercolour
  2. Dr Ph Martins “Bleed proof white”
  3. W&N watercolour
  4. Schmincke Horadam Gouache


Every single one of the alternatives to ink works on these envelopes. Well, the fact that the white is barely legible is beside the point; it didn’t bleed. Cos it’s “bleed proof”. Dr Ph Martin did not lie. And — come on! — secret writing is exactly perfect for James Bond. Maybe not for Royal Mail.

Let’s compare the inks with the paints in close view to just really prove the point that all is not lost with the envelopes — we have many alternative options to play with.



Ivory envelopes 130 gsm

Now, this is more like it! Bring on the inks, I say. I used Gillott’s 303 nib for this test. My only struggle was that they were a little hard to see through in parts on the light box, but, if all else fails, rule it up my friends. Draw those guidelines and erase once you’re done. Old school.

130gsm envelope
  1. Sumi – was lovely! It created beautiful hairlines and was easy to write with on this envelope. It did dry slowly, though.
  2. W&N Calligraphy Ink – slight bleeding and the hairlines aren’t so fine, but still works. I do find this ink thicker than it should be, so could be watered down for a better result. I just haven’t tried it yet.
  3. Pelikan 4001 – went on smoothly and hairlines still very nice
  4. Watercolour – also lovely and created thin hairlines and a smooth experience.

Top tip for troubleshooting calligraphy inks and stationery

At the end of the day, the main thing is to test your stationery and be ready to adjust your expectations. Be willing to experiment with different media, and have fun!


Ms Scarlet

Ha Ha!!! Excellent post! Btw, you can tint the Bleed Proof White any colour you fancy 🙂

    Studio Team

    Can I tint Daniel Craig any colour I fancy? Wait. What does that even mean? Okay, I’ll stick to the inks and away from the celebs.

      Ms Scarlet

      Strange, but I know what you mean about Mr Craig!

Paula Comparini

Brilliant study of inks on envelopes Kate, very helpful to a beginner. As for me I like Fw acrylic, espacially the white for envelopes, and always get the heavier weight or advise client to do the same.
As for using a lightbox hardly ever, I use a phatom liner. Quite tricky to get used to but they are great,mostly I do invitations on heavy card that you would never work on a light box and when you have 500 or more to do you dont want to be drawing lines and then rubbing them out. John Neal Usa sells the Phantom Liner check it out!!!

    Studio Team

    Thanks, Paula! I will check out the phantom liner. What weight envelopes is your minimum to work with, would you say? I’ve recently been seeing the laser liner/slidewriter but am scared of what prolonged use will do to my hand! I had to rule up guidelines on black envelopes recently and it would certainly help to have a shortcut.
    Kate x

Amanda Adams

I never use any product that says it’s for “calligraphy”.
I like Blots Pens ferro-gallic ink. So far, I like all ferro-gallic ink.
I’ve seldom met an envelope that can’t be improved by sandarac.
Quills are less violent than metal nibs.
Gouache is wonderful. White gouache is whiter than Dr Martin’s. (But Dr Martins has a superb texture.) People may be putting the envelopes on their mantels along with the invitations, gouache is also good for colour (a named, lightfast pigment, not a “hue”). So they won’t fade.
Just placing a guard sheet (the one that protects the paper from my hand) absolutely straight but a “line” lower down is sufficient to provide a straight line reference for writing on envelopes.

    Studio Team

    Fantastic, Amanda! Thank you. Love these ideas. I really do love gouache as well. So versatile and I didn’t realise they didn’t fade. I really like your ideas about a straight-lined guard sheet. I noticed last week when I was testing something on the back of a peel-and-seal envelope (you know the ones with the narrow, straight-edged flap, that I wrote straight without much effort. I think your suggestion explains that! So thankful for all of the knowledge and insight my very experienced counterparts are willing to share. I’m sure others will be just as grateful.

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