This guide will show you how to start alcohol inks! It’s perfect for beginners, but has useful info for everyone.
If you love the look of abstract alcohol inks and want to make your own beautiful paintings but don't know where to start - I've got you! I’ll walk you through the basics, like the materials needed, different techniques, and how to start a painting. I’ll also go over sealing alcohol inks, safety precautions, and answer some common questions.
Let's do this!
What are alcohol inks?
Alcohol inks are vibrant, fast-drying inks that can be used to make stunning paintings on a variety of non-porous surfaces. These concentrated inks are alcohol-based and waterproof.
They're semi-transparent which means they can be layered and combined together to create gorgeous effects.
It’s a fluid medium that can be used in many different ways... I love creating abstract effects so that’s what I’ll teach you here (plus it's the easiest way to get started)!
How to use alcohol inks
To put it briefly, you use drops of alcohol ink, isopropyl alcohol, and an air source to move the inks around a nonporous surface (like Yupo paper). The alcohol evaporates and so the inks dry very rapidly. This lets you get unique effects that aren't possible with other mediums.
Now, I'll guide you through the whole process in more detail...
Materials needed for alcohol ink art
The first 3 materials are all you really need to get started, but I've included other things that might be fun or useful. No need to get them all though!
I've included some affiliate links to make it easy for you to find the materials I'm talking about, and if you purchase through these links it helps support me at no extra cost to you. Thank you in advance!
The main thing! My favourite brands are the following:
Ranger by Tim Holtz Alcohol Inks - Lots of colour options, and inks that reveal new colours when you dilute them with isopropyl alcohol. Often sold in 3-colour packs, like these ones. This is great to start out with as the colours tend to work well together.
Piñata Alcohol Inks by Jacquard - Bright, concentrated inks that stay very true to colour when diluted. A little goes a long way, and it's fun to mix the inks together to make your own custom colours. Their brass ink is my favourite metallic ink ever!
Copic Marker Ink Refills - A huge range of colour options. Can be hard to know which ones to get and they are not as concentrated as some other brands. But the range of colours is amazing!
When starting out you only need 2 or 3 colours. I like to choose primary colours and mix them together to make my own hues. Custom colours are so fun to mix, and it saves you money too.
Isopropyl alcohol / blending solution
This helps dilute and blend your inks, as well as to clean up any spills. It's what allows you to get interesting effects and designs in your paintings. It functions with alcohol inks in the same way you use water with watercolours.
What's the difference between these options?
Blending Solution consists of isopropyl alcohol and other added ingredients. It keeps inks bright and vivid, and slows the drying time a little. But a much cheaper alternative is 91% or 99% isopropyl alcohol.
These have basically the same function so you can make do with one or the other. Further down the line you might want to experiment with both options, but to get started I suggest 99% isopropyl alcohol. It's my favourite because it's cheaper and works so well.
A surface to paint on (a substrate)
Normal paper absorbs the ink right away without giving it time to move around and mix. So a non-porous surface works best, as it gives the inks time to flow and to create unique effects. Here are a few options that work well.
Yupo paper by Legion is what I normally use, and I love it! It's a synthetic, water-resistant paper. It can have the drawback of staining, so you can’t wipe it clean after.
Nara paper - an alternative to Yupo, that can be wiped clean.
Ceramic tiles can be wiped clean and painted on again and again. Make sure to get glazed, white tiles for the best results. They’re normally cheap and can be found at many hardware stores.
Art Boards - I get mine from here and I love these as they can be wiped clean, and are so simple to resin over if you want. Save 10% with code COYASAUCE (I don't get anything from that but I just love these surfaces).
The outside of ceramic mugs, bowls etc
Tim Holtz Adirondack Alcohol Ink Cardstock - good small size to practice on at the start.
Something to move the inks (an air source)
You can start out just letting the inks air dry, but a lot of the fun starts when you move the inks with a tool like a hairdryer. I don’t recommend using straws due to the fumes of the inks. If you decide to try it, make sure to inhale far away from your painting, and make sure you’re in a well ventilated area, and don’t do it for too long. Also, moisture can gather in the straw from your breath and it may have unintentional effects on the painting. So I recommend one of the options below:
Hairdryer - A lot of people recommend this one but I haven't tried it, I just use an old one from a thrift store. Choose a weak, low wattage hairdryer for better control.
Airbrush - I've never used one but some artists love using one.
Air blower/dust bulb - The first image is an ink blower made for pushing inks around the page instead of using a straw. The second image is what I personally use - a sauce squeeze bottle. I haven't tried to ink blower so can't compare them but my sauce bottle seems to work perfectly.
You can use different tools for blending and creating effects, patterns, and designs.
You definitely don’t need all these supplies to get started, but you might have some around the house already!
Cotton Swabs are good for details, adding small dots of ink or wiping small areas away.
Tim Holtz® Adirondack® Alcohol Ink Applicator and small pieces of felt. Add inks and a little isopropyl, and stamp on your page to create colourful backgrounds for cardmaking, etc.
Paper towels to blot and remove areas of ink.
Paintbrushes for moving the inks, and adding details.
Gloves so you can use your hands to move the inks.
*To me this is a very important purchase. I use the above 3M half face respirator, with organic vapour cartridges. You can click the image if you're interested.
You could also use a full face mask to be extra careful, just make sure to use organic vapour cartridges. It might seem expensive but protecting your health is so worth it. Plus you get to feel like a cool post-apocalyptic character when you wear it (or is that just me?)
If you varnish or resin your art it comes in super handy there too.
Needle tip bottle
Small precision applicator bottles are amazing for applying isopropyl alcohol to the page and also for mixing your own custom colours. I can't remember the exact ones I got but they were similar to these ones:
Absorbent liner to cover and protect your work surface.
To clean as you go, wipe up spills, and clean areas of your painting if needed.
To protect your clothes from spills and stains.
To keep certain areas free of ink. Use an old brush or rubber tipped brush to apply the fluid, to avoid damaging brushes. Apply it to the page and allow it to dry fully. Then paint over it with alcohol inks and when that has fully dried, rub off the masking fluid to reveal the negative space below. Find more info here. You don't need this when starting out!
To protect your skin and they let you use your hands to move the inks.
Alcohol inks are very concentrated so start out with a single drop and add more as you go. They're waterproof, so to dilute them and keep them moving use isopropyl alcohol or blending solution. From now on I’ll only mention isopropyl as it’s what I prefer, but either will work.
Make sure to cover your work surface with something to catch any ink and isopropyl that spills over the edges of your painting.
The first thing to do is try the inks and just observe them.
To start you can add one drop of ink to your page and watch what happens… Nothing much. It spreads out a little and then dries quickly.
You’ll soon want to spice things up with some isopropyl alcohol, so add a drop of it right on top of the dried ink. The ink ‘wakes up’ and starts moving. This is one of the awesome properties of alcohol inks- they can be reactivated with isopropyl, letting you create layered, dynamic pieces that keep changing as you work on them.
Experiment with adding a drop of isopropyl alcohol and then a drop of ink, and then add another drop of ink. Watch how the colours interact and move. You'll notice that adding a second drop of ink can displace the first drop.
I normally put isopropyl alcohol on the page first, and then add a drop of ink onto that puddle. It means there's less chance of staining the page, and it starts moving right away.
You'll get the most magical effects when you keep the inks fluid and moving with lots of isopropyl, and much less ink. A little really goes a long way and you can add more as you go. Use plenty of isopropyl to dilute colours and get transparent and layered effects.
Try out different tools
I normally combine different tools and techniques in each painting, but to get you started here's an idea of what you can do with different tools.
Add isopropyl alcohol and a few drops of ink to form a puddle on the page. Pick up the paper and tilt it around and watch what happens. Add a drop of another colour and see how they mix when you tilt the page. When you're happy, put it down to air dry. Or you can start continue working on it with a paintbrush...
They often lead to a slightly more textured look. Try painting ink and isopropyl onto a wet page. Then when it dries, try painting on top of it... The effects are pretty different! Use a bit of isopropyl to remove ink - and get a negative space effect like the moon above. Flick the brush against your hand to spatter ink or isopropyl onto the page to get small dots. Just go with the flow and figure out what happens when you try new things! Use an old/cheap brush because the alcohol will dry out the bristles.
Using a Hairdryer
This is my absolute favourite tool and air source to use. At first it will feel like the inks have a mind of their own and fly all over the page, so be patient. Start off holding the hairdryer quite far from the page, and watch it move the ink. Try slowly bringing it closer, and move it around the page so it pushes the ink.
If you keep moving the hairdryer around the puddle of ink in a circle, you’ll start to get an infinity ring effect. If you move it around the page at random the inks will keep moving in different directions, and you’ll get a cool abstract effect. As the inks dry, keep adding isopropyl to keep them flowing. Every hairdryer is different so the best way to learn is practice.
Using an Ink Blower
You can get amazing effects using an ink blower - it functions similarly to using your breath/a straw, but it's safer and doesn't affect humidity. Win-win! You can use it to guide the inks where you want to go, make fades, blend colours, etc.
You can work with one small puddle at a time to get gentle fades and other effects. To do this I drop on some isopropyl, move it with the ink blower, and then drop ink on the edge of this puddle. Then I use the air blower to push the ink part way into the isopropyl, so it forms a fade.
You can also put a big puddle of isopropyl and inks all over the page and move them around and blend them, using gravity and the ink blower, as in the photo above.
I’ve suggested a few techniques so you can try different things and see what works for you. But the best way to improve and learn is to figure things out for yourself. Experiment allll the time, ask questions, make a big ol' mess and have fun. You'll develop your own effects and unique techniques, and that’s the most exciting feeling of all!
Store materials out of reach of pets and children.
Work in a well ventilated area and follow all safety instructions for the materials you use.
Alcohol inks and Isopropyl Alcohol/Blending Solution are flammable so keep away from fire or heat.
Do not use isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle as it should not be airborne.
Read the safety data sheets for your materials. For example here is the Ranger alcohol ink mixative sheet. Seeing it like that makes me so glad I wear a respirator.
Wear a respirator mask!
When I started I just wanted to test alcohol inks out, and for a few months I didn’t use any safety gear. I was reluctant to wear a respirator as I occasionally used my breath to move the inks, but then I started getting headaches. I did some research and got a respirator - and the headaches went away! So now I (nearly) always wear mine, and I love it... I prefer to consume alcohol in a wine glass rather than inhale it into my lungs.
What if you can’t afford a respirator yet, or just want to try out alcohol inks?
Personally, I feel okay working without a respirator for short periods of time, in a very well ventilated area. I'm sharing this for informational purposes only, this is not medical advice or anything - Please do your own research and make your own choices! The main thing is that you know the risks and take precautions.
Sealing your art
Alcohol inks are light sensitive and will fade with time with exposure to UV light. So I recommend you always seal your finished works. Many varnishes are alcohol based and would reactivate the inks and potentially ruin your work, so the following is my process. This works for me but feel free to adjust it to your needs. If you can't access this brand, try to find a water based varnish/fixative so that it doesn't reactivate your inks.
Step 1 : Krylon Kamar Varnish
Wait until your art is completely dry (at least 24 hours to be safe). Place your art inside a cardboard box and go outside/ to a very well ventilated area, and wear your respirator mask. Spray it with about 3 coats of Varnish, waiting 15 minutes between coats. Cover the box between layers to make sure no dust lands on the art as it dries.
Step 2: Krylon UV spray
After varnishing I wait for a few hours or overnight. Use the same step 1 set-up. Then spray with 1-2 coats of UV spray and leave it to dry for at least two hours. Your art is sealed! It's ready to frame, or to cover with resin.
Step 3 (Optional): Resin
This is a more advanced option as you need to learn all about another medium. Many artists love using resin as a final coat because it gives a gorgeous glossy finish. There are many brands out there to suit exactly what you need. My favourite is ArtResin for wall art. I love Counter Culture DIY Artist Resin too, especially for coasters, as it’s more heat resistant when cured.
If you want to learn more about resin, here is a tutorial I found useful.
FAQ and Troubleshooting
I hope these answer your questions! These are just based on my knowledge so I encourage you to do your own research :)
Can you paint on canvas?
Yes, but as it’s porous inks will behave very differently and may absorb into it quickly. To improve this you can prime the canvas. I haven’t done this, but I know a lot of people recommend that you use Kilz2 to prepare the canvas. It’s a latex primer found in hardware stores where paint is sold. When I use store bought canvas they normally come pre-primed with gesso, and I simply paint on them right out of the pack. The inks move differently but it's still possible to get gorgeous effects!
How do you use alcohol inks with resin?
I normally use resin to seal my paintings, but it can be used in other ways too. You can use alcohol inks to tint resin different colours, or you can drop them straight into liquid resin for a petri dish effect. Once a resin painting has cured you can also ink on top of the dried resin, creating a layered effect, which is something I love to do.
When sealing with resin is it necessary to varnish before adding the resin?
If I'm making anything to sell I always seal with lots of varnish and UV protection to make the highest quality artwork possible. But if you're just experimenting with something for yourself, there's no harm in trying. I've tested adding ArtResin onto unsealed art and it worked pretty well, with a slight difference in the metallic but the rest looked fine. Make sure the painting dries for at least a couple of days before adding resin. Results may depend on the brand of inks and resin that you use.
Are alcohol inks foodsafe?
I don’t recommend using them on any surface that will touch food, as it’s not proven food safe. This article talks about using ArtResin and might be helpful!
Can you paint on mugs and other dishes?
Yes, you can definitely paint on porcelain e.g. mugs, jewelry dishes, tile coasters, flower vases, etc. A white surface works best as the inks are transparent. It can be challenging due to the curved shape of many porcelain items, so painting on them might be easier if you hold the dish and turn it in your hand constantly, to help control the inks. Some patience and practice will make it easier!
It will need to be sealed in some way too and bear in mind that fixatives normally used with alcohol inks are not foodsafe. For mugs, make sure to keep a gap between the inks and the rim of the mug.
Are there alternatives to Krylon Kamar Varnish and UV Spray?
Many varnishes are alcohol based and would reactivate the inks and potentially ruin your work. If you can't access this brand, try to find a water based varnish/fixative so that it doesn't reactivate your inks. This article discusses sealing options in more depth!
Are alcohol inks dangerous?
With the right precautions I think they're safe. Read the safety data sheets of the products you use and make sure to wear a respirator and gloves if possible. I read this article at one point and it made me realllly glad I wear a respirator mask. I also wrote a section on safety precautions.
Can you draw on top of alcohol inks?
Yes, just make sure the inks are fully dried first. Posca pens are a popular choice, as are Sakura Gelly Roll pens and Microns. Some more info here.
I can't get ripples and thin lines!
For transparent effects or thin, delicate lines, diluted inks work better. Fine lines appear when the ink dries on the edge of the puddle of isopropyl. So pay attention to the shape of the puddle of Isopropyl and you will be able to predict and control where you’ll get distinct lines.
To get crisp lines I have more luck with a warm air source.
Can you make your own alcohol inks?
Yes, this is something I've done following this tutorial!
Why does my white alcohol ink behave so strangely?
Jacquard Piñata Blanco is known to surprise people by turning into a thick, gummy mess when used with isopropyl alcohol. Why does this happen? Jacquard Piñata inks are ethanol based rather than isopropyl based. The white especially doesn't work with Isopropyl Alcohol because it's less soluble in Isopropyl, so if you add that it can coagulate. If you want to use white, avoid mixing with other brands like Ranger. Make sure to shake it a lot, and only use blending solution with it and you should have more success.
Why are my alcohol inks getting all grainy and textured on the page?
There could be a few reasons for this. If you're using Jacquard Piñata inks, they are ethanol based and when used with isopropyl alcohol it can reduce the solubility of the dyes (especially with darker colours). The dye can end up separating and becoming little flecks of dye on the page.
Sometimes humidity can also lead to this sort of effect.
I don't know what colour inks to buy? Help!
Lots of artists make swatches of their inks and generously share them. Some of the ones I refer to are found here: Visit @astuaryart's website for amazing tutorials and loads of swatches.
Click here to visit @thatblonde.art's Instagram - she has a detailed story highlight with descriptive Copic swatches.
Click here for @brushcali's Instagram, she has a story highlight with mainly Copic and Ranger swatches.
Where can I purchase supplies?
Your local arts and crafts store, or online. In Canada my favourite places to shop were:
Shades of Clay
In Ireland I order my alcohol ink supplies from:
Good luck on your art journey!
Thank you for reading and I hope you're excited about being on this alcohol ink journey. Have fun and keep experimenting and trying new things!
Where can I learn more?
Check out my YouTube channel and subscribe to see future videos too!