Q. What exactly is alcohol ink?
It's an alcohol based liquid ink similar to what's used in permanent markers (like Sharpies) and art pens (like Copics). Most Alcohol ink comes in small bottles with nozzles that can be used to drip the ink onto surfaces.
Q. Where can I buy alcohol ink?
Craft stores, art supply stores, and Amazon.
Most craft stores carry some variety of alcohol ink these days. Michael's and JoAnne's carry Tim Holt's Ranger Alcohol Inks. Michael's carries Copic refills (which are just refills for the Copic markers, but the inks are pretty much just alcohol inks and come in a zillion colors--though they recently cut the size of the refills in half and started charging more because alcohol ink artists were using them). JoAnn's is also carrying Brea Rease inks (which I haven't had a chance to try, but I have heard that they are good). Your local art supply store may also have alcohol inks (Dick Blick does). There are also tons of different brands available online. As alcohol inks have become more and more popular, more and more brands have popped up. Amazon carries many different brands. I just ordered some Pixxis inks and some T-Rex inks off of Amazon to try. My favorite brand that isn't available at craft stores but can be bought on Amazon is Pinata.
Q. Which ink do you recommend for beginners?
Ranger inks. I haven't tried out all the inks that are available these days, as the list keeps growing, but Ranger inks are widely available, you can pick up one or two sets on sale or with a coupon from Michael's or JoAnn's to try out, and they are a bit easier to work with than some of the other brands. My favorite sets to recommend for beginners are: Dockside Picnic and Summit View. The colors in these two sets are bright and fun and go well together.
Q. Do I need any special tools after I buy the ink?
You don't need other tools (aside from some rubbing alcohol for clean up), but some do make things easier and allow for more application variety.
What tools you need depends entirely on what you want to do with your inks. As long as you have something you want to ink, you can do projects without much in the way of other tools (by dripping). However, some good tools to start off inking would include: canned air, a felt stamper, a couple small paint brushes, some rubbing alcohol, and some glazed ceramic tiles (4 inch ceramic tiles from the hardware store are inexpensive and are great surfaces to try out inking on since they can be cleaned off with rubbing alcohol and reinked).
Additional tools you might want the more you get into using alcohol inks include: craft mats, heat guns or hair dryers for blowing around ink, hand bulbs (like the kind used for cleaning lenses) for blowing ink, pipettes or eye droppers for dripping rubbing alcohol or blending solution/extender, and gloves to keep ink off your hands (I don't use gloves, but if your hands get irritated when using things like hand sanitizer, alcohol ink could irritate your skin). But I recommend holding off on buying all the extras until you know if you like the inks and how you want to use them.
Q. What can I ink? Do I need special paper?
You can ink any non-porous surface. Glazed ceramic tiles, ceramic dishes and vases, glass (bottles, vases, plates, bowls, etc...), plastic, pre-painted surfaces, wax, metals, and, yes, special plasticized papers (Yupo, Nara, Graphix, alcohol ink papers) all work for alcohol ink. If you want to create art on canvases or on wood panels, the surface will need to be sealed before inking for best results.
Because I'm more of a crafter than an alcohol ink artist, I have lots of experience inking on glass, ceramic, and plastic. Your ink will work a little differently on surfaces depending on how porous they are, but otherwise, your imagination is your only limit.
Q. Do I need to buy that "blending solution" or "extender" stuff?
Nope. Rubbing alcohol from the pharmacy works fine for cleaning up alcohol ink and for thinning it out. Even the 70% alcohol works fine for most projects. Though the alcohol ink artists swear by 91% alcohol. The blending solutions, especially Pinata's Claro Extender, create more open time (make it take longer for the inks to dry) when working on your projects. They can be useful in certain situations, but it's not a must have item for beginners.
Q. How do you apply alcohol ink?
I have tried multiple methods, but the most common are drip, blow, and stamp.
You can drip your ink directly onto a surface. If it's flat, it will create bubbles of ink. If it's a vertical or curved surface you can create lines of ink. This method can also be combined with plastic wrap inking (used on the mug photo below) and flamed inking (used on the ceramic tile above) for different effects.
You can blow the alcohol ink around in a variety of ways (used on the glass jar below). You can used canned air, hand bulbs, heat guns, hair dryers, airbrush wands (without any paints loaded in them), etc... Most of the beautiful alcohol ink art you see on Instagram is made using this method. They thin the ink with blending solution or rubbing alcohol and carefully blow it around. But you can also use this method on a variety of other surfaces with more or less thinner to create different effects.
Stamping the ink is another way to apply alcohol ink to a surface (used on the glass gems above). Apply the inks to a felt applicator and stamp away until it looks the way that you want. This is the way that I started using inks, and it's a great method for beginners.
Q. How come it is so light or pale when I'm inking on glass?
Different inks have different transparency levels (even within the same brand). Some colors and inks work better on glass than others. You may have to keep adding ink (or switch colors) to get it to look the way you want it to. If you're stamping the project, you often have to keep stamping until the ink gets a bit tacky to create more defined circles. I have also backed ink on glass with spray paint and with aluminum tape (for smaller projects) to get the inks to pop.
Q. Do I have to seal it?
Yes. If your ink comes into any contact with alcohol based liquids (including but not limited to alcoholic beverages, rubbing alcohol, hairspray, perfume, etc...) it may run or dissolve--even if the project has been dry for years.
That said, though, the ink is generally permanent, so if you plan on inking something and setting it on a shelf and not handling it, you can get away without sealing it. I have left several projects unsealed and they have remained inked.
And then there's the fading issues. Alcohol ink is light sensitive, and will, over time, fade. The newer Ranger inks fade less than the ones that came out 10 years ago, but it's something to consider. Don't place your art in direct sunlight unless you plan on re-inking it every few years. You can buy a UV sealer to help slow this process down.
Q. What do I seal it with?
This is probably the most common question I receive. The quick answer is Kamar Varnish followed by the sealer of your choice based on the kind of project you're doing.
I recommend Kamar Varnish (or a similar non-alcohol based varnish) to set your ink projects. Kamar Varnish does not react with the alcohol ink and is non yellowing. It can also act as an isolation layer if you want to add a layer of ink without the old ink reacting to new alcohol. This varnish is great to use on projects you don't plan to handle much but would like to seal to protect the ink a bit and don't mind a satin finish on. If the ink will be handled or get wet, you will need to layer Kamar Varnish with another sealer. Kamar Varnish is made by Krylon but is not located with the spray paints. In stores that sell Kamar Varnish, it is located with the art supplies (it's available in the craft department at Wal-mart, for example).
If you want a more robust seal on your alcohol ink projects, you can layer an acrylic sealer over your Kamar Varnish. But whatever your plans are, start with the Kamar Varnish so that your chosen sealer won't react with the alcohol inks. You might get lucky and find an acrylic sealer that will react very little or not noticeably with your alcohol inks--especially if you spray on light coats--but you may run the risk of ruining your design, so it's recommended to spray a few light coats of Kamar over your project first.
Most alcohol ink artists recommend the following spray sealers in this order: First Kamar Varnish, Second UV Spray, Third Krylon Triple Thick Crystal Clear Glaze. Wait until the project is completely dry before sealing (next day is best), and spray thin coats with plenty of dry time in between for best results. I have not tried the UV spray, but I have paired the Kamar with Triple Thick and it's worked great.
Q. What do I seal dishes with to make them safe to eat off and dishwasher safe?
Um, well...nothing will do both of those things that I'm aware of.
You can try Kamar Varnish followed by Mod Podge Dishwasher safe sealer (which takes a month to fully set and has to be brushed on) for a hand washable surface (yeah, I know it says dishwasher safe, but my experience says stick with hand wash). I've heard that the 3-step sealant above will also create a hand washable surface, but I haven't tried it on dishes. These sealers are not food safe and should only be used on the outside of dishes.
Some folks use a food-grade resin. But I have zero experience with resins. Resins are expensive, difficult to work with, and require a respirator to use. There is also some discussion about whether or not any resin is actually food safe.
Regardless of the route you choose, try to keep the ink off of areas that will touch lips on glasses and ink the backs of glass plates or bowls so your ink and sealers don't contact the food. If you find something that works well for dishes, let me me know!
Q. Are alcohol inks safe?
Yes, but with precautions.
This is actually something no one has ever asked me on the blog. But there's lots of discussion about it in the Alcohol Ink online communities. Especially those communities that focus on the alcohol ink art (where they thin the ink and blow it around). Alcohol ink and, especially it's thinners (blending solutions, extenders, and rubbing alcohol) release alcohol vapors as they dry. This can make you sick (alcohol poisoning) if you are around it for a long enough time without proper ventilation. This is made worse when using heat guns or hair dryers to dry out large amounts of isopropyl alcohol that's in rubbing alcohol and the blending solutions. Many artists swear that it has also caused them lung issues, and they recommend using a respirator.
I don't notice any smell or irritants when working with dripped ink or stamped ink. I do notice the smell when blowing inks around. I always work in a well ventilated area. When blowing ink, I try to limit my time inking to one project. I don't wear a respirator, but if the vapors bother you (give you headaches, etc...) you may want to consider moving your art station to a more ventilated area or wearing a respirator.
The chemical safety sheets for Alcohol Inks indicate that they can be an irritant and to move to fresh air if exposed to large quantities.