Chinese seal carving: rubber stamps

A year ago I took a workshop to learn how to carve rubber stamps. The motivation for learning was as a stepping stone for carving seals. I decided to give it a try.

I used Blick Readycut for these stamps. The material has a grey upper layer and a white lower layer. To create the stamp, the grey layer is carved away.

In seal carving, there are two styles. 朱文 means red characters. 白文 means white characters. I tried both. I did 月 (the character for moon) in 甲骨文 (oracle bone script) and 篆書 (seal script).

Here are the 甲骨文 examples:

And the 篆書 examples:

I think it’s a pretty good start. The 朱文 style is definitely more difficult. Rubber is pretty flimsy, and the cut away portions would always touch the ink pad or paper when I pressed down. The material is also pretty thin. It’s probably not the best for 朱文.

This was a fun exercise. The stamps are not as small as regular seals, but I don’t think I have fine enough tools to do something that small on rubber. It does make me want to learn more about 甲骨文 since I have not practiced it my calligraphy studies.


墨境 Ink Worlds at the Cantor Arts Center

There are only a couple of weeks left to see the exhibit “墨境 Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang” at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. For anyone who is interested in ink and Chinese art, this is definitely an exhibit to see.

I was really excited to see a piece of work by Tong Yang Tze.

There were also works by Lui Guo Song and Zhang Da Qian.

The exhibit covers many aspects of contemporary ink painting. I do recommend getting the exhibition catalogue. It explains a lot more than the exhibit itself. Abstract and contemporary art tends to be a response to past art. Without the background of the past works, it can be difficult to understand the current work. The catalogue goes into a lot more detail than the exhibit.

Back to more tools

A while ago I decided I was dealing with too many tools and wanted to only use brush for both Chinese and English calligraphy. But recently I realized that I really need to work on using other tools, and added another tool: the pencil.

I was working on some English brush calligraphy when I really needed thinner upstrokes. The only way I could create those strokes were with a pointed nib. Out came all the pointed pen supplies: pen holders, nibs, ink, and ink wells. I started looking at some books and materials, and have been inspired to return to pointed pen. It’s the only way to create those luscious thicks and thins!

This was enough to spark more interest, and now I have taken out the parallel pens. Maybe I’ll start practicing broad nib calligraphy as well. Of course then I had to take out some special fountain pens and brush pens.

How does the pencil fit into all this?

I have been reading some books lately on calligraphy and how to practice. A common theme is to practice with a pencil first before picking up a tool (such as a pointed pen or brush). Often this is for creating muscle memory for practice. Now I’ve added the pencil to my common calligraphy tools.

It doesn’t look like you can keep any calligraphy tools away from me for very long!

‘Formal Brush Writing’ exercises

I started practicing exercises from Tom Kemp’s book ‘Formal Brush Writing’. I use the same ink and practice paper I use for Chinese calligraphy. The only difference is the flat brush. I hold the brush the same way I hold a brush for Chinese calligraphy. The first three exercises are straight line, forming a long triangle, and making a circle.

I really like forming the circles. It’s pretty fun rotating the brush. It’s a stroke that’s really novel to me, and almost seems rule-breaking to do it. It’s a very cool shape to be able to form with the brush movement.

I do wonder how much of these techniques I can apply elsewhere. It probably would not be used for Chinese calligraphy, but it might result in some interesting shapes for abstract painting.

Focusing on brushes for Western calligraphy

When I started Western calligraphy, I found that there were many tools. Unlike Chinese calligraphy, which is only written with a brush, Western calligraphy has many possible tools. The main ones would be pointed pen and edge pen. Other tools include brush markers, glass pens, fountain pens. I dabbled with many tools when I first started Western calligraphy, not knowing which was the best or worked well for me.

Since I had different tools for Western calligraphy, I started thinking about Chinese calligraphy with these different tools as well. The tools for 硬筆書法 hard pen calligraphy include pencil, pen, and fountain pen. But so far I have not had the time to explore 硬筆書法。

With all the tools available, I think it’s time to focus on one tool and work on it. To complement my work in Chinese calligraphy, I’ve decided to focus on the brush as a tool and not worry about other tools for now. This allows me have more flexibility in future projects to combine both types of calligraphy.

I have some brushes to test for Western calligraphy. I’m trying smaller and smaller brushes to see if I can create lines as thin as pointed pen.

There are six months until I take a brush Roman workshop. I’ll be using the time from now until then to work on preliminary exercises. I need to become comfortable holding a flat brush the way I hold brush for Chinese calligraphy. This is completely new, but will definitely be an interesting technique to learn!

Lunar New Year banners

The theme for this year’s Lunar New Year banners is time. Each of the sayings is related to the passing of time. My original intention was to write the banners in seal script, since that is the script I am currently practicing. However, it seemed that the banners might look better in standard script. I ended up writing banners in both scripts. The banner on the left is in seal script, and the banner on the right is in standard script.

日日進財 Receive wealth day after day

月月平安 Be safe and sound month after month

年年有餘 Have abundance year after year

I also made some individual single character banners.

福 Good fortune and prosperity. The banner on the top is in seal script, and the banner on the bottom is in standard script.

春 Spring. I only wrote this in standard script.

I had some trouble last year with this paper. It is nothing like the usual paper for calligraphy. This paper is almost like wrapping paper, with a very slippery surface. I had to adjust and write really slowly. I also found that not all brands of ink is appropriate for this paper. 吳竹墨 is better than 一得閣. I thought 一得閣 was too wet and was difficult to control.

I also tried to use the red envelopes from last year, but found even regular black ink would only adhere with some gum sandarac. I really do not like the look of it on the red paper because it turns the paper pinkish and leaves dust all over. Dried ink also has a tendency to fall off.

I ended up making red envelopes out of the same paper for the banners.

I tried some gold inks this year, but none seemed to work with the paper. I probably need to experiment with some more gold inks before I find one that works. Another possibility is to find better banner paper. I have seen descriptions of paper that has a consistency closer to mulberry paper (the type of paper typically for calligraphy). Ink should soak into that type of paper better. I would expect to have the same (at least closer) results compared to writing on regular calligraphy paper.

Calligraphy vs. painting

I have started to notice differences between the techniques in calligraphy and painting. I can also understand why people who start painting start focusing on painting and not calligraphy. I’ve found that there’s so much to explore in painting that my focus can keep changing during one practice session. I need to make sure I devote equal time on both.

I’m slowing getting acclimated to mixing different shades of ink. Painting requires different shades of ink. Calligraphy uses full ink. I found this article really helpful. Loading the ink on the brush is also different. For calligraphy, I have a sense of how much ink is necessary. In painting, squeezing out ink on the side of ink stone is not enough. It seems that the only way to remove enough ink so the brush is not overloaded is by brushing on a paper towel. I think I’m understanding what I need to do, I just need to remember to do it.

Another adjustment to painting is needing different brushes. With different shades of grey in painting, it’s better to use different brushes for each shade. Otherwise I’m constantly washing the same brush, which is really time consuming. Now I need more brushes. I’m using brushes are not good enough for calligraphy, but they might also not be good enough for painting.

The angle of the brush is also different in painting. In calligraphy, the brush is upright, practically perpendicular to the paper. However, in painting, the brush can be angled in different directions, even parallel, to create the desired shapes.

A pretty curious aspect of painting is the variation of wet to dry brush. For calligraphy, the brush needs to be wet enough to produce strong strokes. In painting, a dry brush can produce different textures.

Starting Chinese painting is a rather fun addition to my calligraphy practice. As I learn the differences, I’m also understanding calligraphy more and more. I think I’m off to a good start.