Thursday, January 7, 2010

Legacy of the Cuttlefish


a reddish-brown color associated particularly with monochrome photographs of the 19th and early 20th centuries; a brown pigment prepared from a black fluid secreted by cuttlefish, used in monochrome drawing and in watercolors; a pigment prepared from the ink, or black secretion, of the sepia, or cuttlefish. Treated with caustic potash, it has a rich brown color; and this mixed with a red forms Roman sepia. (The street scene photo is a sepia view of an old Japanese neighborhood.)

It isn’t at all hard to understand that sepia was the common ink of classical times. How often do we see examples of it in either books or museums displaying old documents, or texts? From ancient times fisherman have pulled cuttlefish from the seas, and discovery that the black fluid this mollusk secretes can be used for writing was only a matter of time. The animal’s scientific classification as Sepiida explains where we got the name for what we now call ‘sepia.’

I have two sepia inks which to be honest, gather a lot of dust on my ink shelves. I like the color, and I especially like the idea that it has a long history. The historical connection appeals to me. The first sepia ink I bought was the Montblanc Sepia, and I’m afraid that I allowed the sepia of history to cloud my judgement. I should say right off that Montblanc inks are among my favorites, and I usually take pleasure in using many of their colors. (The discontinued Turquoise and Racing Green were perhaps my favorites.) But back to sepia, Montblanc’s take on this color is a little too red for me, and look’s almost like shoe polish. Maybe in the right context it would work well, but I personally haven’t hit upon that time and situation. The ink seems a little thin to me, and when writing I often wish it would show more body, some shading at least. The saturation (or lack) as well leaves me wanting more. Possible that I might find better results by experimenting with different fountain pens, but the problem there is my lack of interest growing out the ink’s resemblance to shoe polish. I have indeed tried the Montblanc Sepia in four or five different pens, but to my mind none of them boosted the ink’s deficiencies. So I eventually bought another sepia ink.

Hakase Sepia is a color much, much more to my liking, and gives the page an antique look that I like. There is not so much red in this shade of sepia, but more of the classical muddy brown. In fact, everything about this ink is superior to the Montblanc, and after a single line of words you sense its better behavior toward both the pen and the paper. (The photo examples were written on a Muji off-white, lightweight paper.) For me it is a more comfortable ink, and one that allows concentration on my thoughts without worrying about the ink. I wrote in the paragraph above that the two sepia inks gather dust on my shelves, which implies that they are not often used. What about the Hakase Sepia? When you come to the end of a page, despite the handsome color and the ink’s good qualities, it is not always easy to read. In spite of the brown and its muddiness, the ink too often slows down the reader because of its lightness, or lack of depth. Color is good, but at the end of it all the ink must be judged on how easily the words can be seen and understood. Like a good font, ink must finally be weighed against how easily it can be read.

The Montblanc Sepia is not at all my cup of tea, and despite the good ‘feeling’ I have for the Hakase Sepia, in the end it’s one I rarely use.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America