At the time of writing this article, I am as curious as you are I would really like to know. Let's find out together.
A good place to start our little investigation is at PETA. PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The name says it all.
An article published in 2011 by PETA gives a list of animal-based supplies used in art, from bone charcoal to brushes to ink. The author goes on to suggest ethically sourced alternatives such as actual charcoal, graphite, raw fabrics, walnut ink, etc. Eventually more can be found in shops specialized in such products.
The question is, are there total alternatives, or should we draw the line at some point?
We live in a world where caring is a primordial aspect of living and if we do not demonstrate this at every step that we take, we are not doing it right. It is therefore a legitimate concern to wonder if harm is being done to animals in procuring supplies for art.
The good news is that we no longer kill animals for their hide to draw on. At least, that is abolished. But what about ink? How much of the animal-based ink have cruelty-free alternatives?
Typically, paint or ink is made up of three components: the pigment, the binder and what we call the mordant (which is what enhances the color and prevents fading to happen.) A fourth component is sometimes used, but not always required: the preservative.
Pigments, the actual color, can be sourced from any of the following: vegetables or fruits, blood of some species of shellfish, secretions from cephalopods (octopus and squid families), minerals (stones, soils) and from tannin (tree bark and nuts.)
The first man-made ink was developed in ancient Egypt, around 4000 years ago, and was used for writing on papyrus. That ink was made from carbon, water, egg and natural gum. Later on, Egyptians and subsequently Chines started to use soot mixed with gum. Dried and preserved and mixed with water whenever writing ink was needed.
The modern ink and pigment soon were sourced from soot, colored earth and plants. We will rarely find pigment made from insects or blood of sea creatures. Those are fortunately too expensive to procure and are generally an ethical concern anyway.
So, modern ink is generally ethically sourced and cruelty-free, unless someone intentionally go out of their way to get their hands on ink that comes from animals.
When it comes to the binder, while they were using gum in the past, we now use resins – alkyds, ketones, acrylics and formaldehydes. Which in broad terms are forms of plastic. They are what makes it possible for printing ink to be glossy, heat and water resistant, and not to reach to chemicals. Some ink contain multiple sorts of resins at the same time, depending on the printing results desired.
The mordant, which used to be eggs in ancient Egypt, is now a group of chemicals that is made up of humectants, defoamers, wetting agents, pH modifiers, and biocides – that latter to prevent bacteria and fungi growth! Suffice to say that there is nothing of animal origin about those fancy chemicals.
Preservatives, the last component, is made up purely of chemical agents.
Modern ink, due to huge commercial demand, has been repurposed to be wholly manufactured in laboratories and factories and the non-dependence of animal-bases actually is a favorable aspect of the production. Inks in printing are black ink and colored ink of four dyes: peacock blue, yellow lake, Diarylide orange and Phthalocyanine green.
It is of odd comfort to know that the ink and painting industry is more about chemical components that come from laboratories than from animals. At least our concern is addressed.