Calligraphy for Lunar New Year

Since I have been practicing running script, I was originally going to write Lunar New year banners in running script. But I quickly realized that I was not familiar enough with the script and felt really frustrated. I decided to write in standard script. I took my inspiration from the Yan script, but did not follow it exactly.

Last year I used Red with Gold Fleck Shuen paper from OAS. Unfortunately, the paper was rather thin, and absorbed more ink than I expected. It was also difficult to attach to the wall without damaging the paper. This year, I used banner paper from OAS. The paper comes in large sheets. When I started measuring and cutting, I realized I should look into pre-cut paper. It was a hassle to cut the banners, and took quite a bit of time.

The red banner paper has the consistency of wrapping paper. The paper is also slightly texturized with flower imprints. It also has a slight perfume smell that reminds me of wedding invitations. This paper does not absorb any ink at all. But I still had to make sure the ink had the same consistency as usual. I noticed if the ink was not thick enough, there would be some show through of the red paper.

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Part of writing calligraphy is working with the paper. Regular paper absorbs the ink. Different pressures of the brush results in different stroke widths. Writing on banner paper was very different because it did not respond the same. There still needed to be some pressure, but the speed of the brush needed to be faster to create the same strokes.

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I am definitely going to need more practice with the banner paper. I do not think these turned out as good as the ones from last year. It will probably be awhile before I fully understand the speed and pressure necessary to create the same strokes that I make on regular calligraphy paper.

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I also decorated my own red envelopes this year, instead of buying printed envelopes. I decided to use mica watercolor from Finetec because it is available in different colors, and are all very shiny and metallic. I had the idea to use gold and different hues of red. But I decided to stay with just one gold letter.

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I initially had some trouble with the envelopes because the paper was really waxy. It was difficult for ink to stay. It would bead up instead. I ended up treating the envelopes with gum sandarac, which really helped hold the ink. Similar to the banners, I had some trouble with the pressure and speed to get the same strokes. But I think it actually turned out pretty good in the end.

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I did have some issues when it came time to use the envelopes. When I opened the envelope, the paper became wrinkled and the gold ink flaked off. The photo above shows places where ink fell off. In the envelope on the left, there is even a flake of ink under the envelope. I was pretty disappointed when this happened. Perhaps a layer of clear acrylic could have to prevented this problem.

Even though these projects did not turn out as well as I thought they would, I actually learned a lot. I definitely need more time to practice and experiment with these different ink and paper combinations. This is also the first time I tried writing on something that had to be used, like the envelope. So far I have only used standard ink and paper combinations, so these projects were a challenge. I will definitely need to experiment further during the year to make sure I can do my best for next Lunar New Year.

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French cursive miniscules

I have admired French cursive for a really long time, all the way back when I was learning French as a teenager and had a French pen pal. French cursive handwriting is really precise and consistent. My current handwriting is an inconsistent mix of print and cursive, and that probably will not change for my day to day writing. I wanted to learn French cursive so I would have a more formal cursive when I need it.

Another reason for learning French cursive is that it looks similar to the letterforms of English Roundhand. If I understand correctly, English Roundhand was derived from French Ronde, which looks like the precursor of French cursive. I hope that through learning French cursive, I will become more familiar with the shapes of English Roundhand. I think one of the reasons I have a lot of trouble with calligraphy majuscules (upper case letters) is because I am not familiar with them. French cursive is also straight, so I can practice without worrying about the slant.

Practicing French cursive also requires practicing on French rule paper, called séyès paper. The paper is has multiple lines that helps with determining the height of ascenders and descenders. The single height seemed a bit too small for learning, so I decided to double it.

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The minuscules were fairly easy. It did take some practice before I was able to write them at the standard size.

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Upper case letters will definitely give me some trouble since I am not as familiar with them. But for now, I think I am pretty comfortable with the lower case letters and can immediately write them when needed.

New goals

Going into a new year is a good time to rethink some goals and plans. This year was pretty eventful. I started learning pointed pen calligraphy. I started exploring running script in Chinese calligraphy. I even dabbled in some abstract watercolor.

In Chinese calligraphy, I will definitely continue with running script. At some point, I know I will probably want to switch to a different script. I could work on a standard script style that had hints of cursive script. Or I could start a different standard script style that I think will be an interesting match with English calligraphy.

I want to learn English brush calligraphy. I started with brush pens, but now I want to use an actual brush. It would complement my work in Chinese calligraphy and abstract watercolor. Brush pens require purchasing many pens for a variety of colors, but watercolors can be mixed for color variation.

I need to work on the basic drawing and color mixing skills. I have found two books by Betty Edwards that fit perfectly: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and “Color: A course in mastering the art of mixing colors”. I like that these books have guided exercises.

I want to develop a neat handwriting for those occasions where I need neat and nice handwriting, but calligraphy may not be appropriate. For the English alphabet, I will be working on French cursive. For Chinese, I have some books on improving writing and writing beautifully.

I really need to work on more projects during the year. I think the only major project I did this past year was red banners for Chinese New Year. I need to start focusing on producing actual works that can be mounted and exhibited.

These seem like a good starting point. I’m sure I will have more short term goals as the year goes on. Do you have major art goals for the coming year?

Getting to know 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序

The most famous running script is that of 王羲之 and in his work 蘭亭集序, sometimes also referred to as 蘭亭序. The work is generally known as an impressive piece of calligraphy, and the ideal for running script. I wanted to find out more about the calligrapher and the importance of his work, so I (naturally) turned to the internet.

The China History Podcast did an episode on 王羲之. It also includes a lot of historical background. I really like this episode, because it covers the importance of calligraphy in Chinese society, and also discusses a lot of aspects of Chinese calligraphy. It’s a good episode to learn about Chinese calligraphy!

I did not know that it was during the time of 王羲之 that paper became more commonplace. This was also the first time I learned about 衛鑠 (衛夫人; Lady Wei). She is the first female historical calligrapher I had heard about. All the masters we learn from are all male, since they were the scholars of the time. It was nice to hear that her work 筆陣圖 (The Picture of Ink Brush) was the precursor to 永字八法 (Eight Principles of Yong).

This CCTV episode of 文明之旅 (Journey of Civilization) discusses 蘭亭集序. The video has English subtitles.

I always take anything from CCTV with a grain of salt because it is the state television of China. I’m a bit confused by the work they reference in the beginning of the video. I thought the original was gone. I do appreciate that the content of the work is explained. It is not until towards the end of the video that we find out that the original is indeed gone, and the one we have been looking at was the one copied by 馮承素.

This short video was the first that I watched. It specifically discusses the story of 蘭亭集序.

The video is part of a series of interstitials developed by a Taiwanese television studio that are broadcast between shows. It is quick and to the point. It’s a little bite of culture to peak the viewer’s interest.

The next two videos feature Taiwanese art critic 蔣勳. The first video is about 王羲之, while the second is specifically about 蘭亭集序.

I like that this video goes into works other than 蘭亭集序 to explain the work of 王羲之. It’s interesting to look at the letters 王羲之 wrote just to friends and reflecting on life things and the society of the time. I especially appreciate putting his calligraphy and words in context of the wars and feuding states. At one point, 蔣勳 explains that 王羲之 writes that he feels uneasy when looking at the political news. I feel the same reading American political news these days. I remember shortly after the election, there were a lot of articles about how now is the time for artists to go to work. In his time, 王羲之 was able to produce magnificent calligraphy. What will artists produce during the next four years?

This part goes into the text of 蘭亭集序. I really like the interpretation that 蔣勳 has about the works about 王羲之. I did not realize the many contrasts of 王羲之 and his calligraphy. 王羲之 was writing in such a free style, about good or bad things, in the midst of political chaos. That it was due to the beauty of his free style, that people spent energy fighting over his works to the point that his works no longer exist for people to see or enjoy. I like that 蔣勳 says to truly enjoy the works of 王羲之 is to take heart the words from 蘭亭集序. The translation is mine.

是日也
On this day
天朗氣清
It is sunny, clear, with fresh air
惠風和暢
It is pleasantly warm, without a worry
仰觀宇宙之大
Looking up, admiring the vastness of the heavens
俯察品類之盛
Looking down, observing the extensive of things
所以遊目騁懷
That is why, happily gazing about as one pleases
足以極視聽之娛
Is sufficient to provide extreme amusement in sight and sound

I also found some references to 王羲之 and in popular culture.

周杰倫 (Jay Chou) had a song titled 蘭亭序 in his 2008 album 魔傑座. The lyrics were written by 方文山 (Vincent Fang), who is well known for writing song lyrics inspired by traditional Chinese culture and history. The melody is nice, and the lyrics are interesting. But I’m not sure either is reflected in the music video.

I want to point out a few lines in that are directly about calligraphy. The translations and interpretations are mine.

A few lines from the first verse:

蘭亭臨帖 行書如行雲流水
Copying the Orchid Pavilion model; the running script is like moving clouds and flowing water (行雲流水 is an idiom for a natural and flowing style of calligraphy)
忙不迭 千年碑易拓卻難拓妳的美
Extremely hurried; a rubbing of a thousand year stele can be easily made, but it is difficult to replicate your beauty (calligraphy was once carved into stone slabs or stele, the only way to copy the calligraphy on the stele was to create rubbings)
真跡絕 真心能給誰
The real marks (stele) are gone; to whom can I give my real heart?

From the second verse:

摹本易寫 而墨香不退與妳同留餘味
The copy books are easily written; the fragrance of the ink does not disappear, and with you leaves a lingering scent
一行硃砂 到底圈了誰
A line of cinnabar (red) ink; who’s name does it circle? (cinnabar ink is only used by the teacher to indicate corrections on practice works; typically the best character on the page is circled)

From the refrain:

懸筆一絕 那岸邊浪千疊
The suspended brush is cut short; the waves at the coast pile up in a thousand layers (懸筆 is the way to hold the brush; the brush is suspended mid-air, and the arm does not touch the table)
情字何解 怎落筆都不對
It is difficult to understand the character for love; each time the brush is placed on paper (to start writing), it does not feel right (落筆 is the act of putting the brush to the paper, to start a calligraphy stroke)

I like how specific calligraphy terms are scattered about the lyrics. The terms in the beginning describe the materials of calligraphy. The terms 懸筆 and 落筆 are terms that describe physical movements in calligraphy.

In 2016, Shen Yun Performing Arts included a story dance based on the Orchid Pavilion in their show. An original orchestral score was composed for the dance. I have not seen clips of the dance or music.

There’s also a Chinese drama called 書聖王羲之 (Sage of Calligraphy Wang Xi Zhi) that started filming in 2014, and included Korean actress Kim Tae-Hee portraying the wife of 王羲之. At the time, the drama was scheduled to be broadcast in 2015. There are some rumors that the drama may be one of many that have been restricted from broadcast in China.

王羲之 is considered the best calligrapher in history. It is really interesting to see that his story has stood the test of time. Even though his works no longer exist in their original form, the idea of his works has also inspired modern culture. It will be exciting to see what comes about in the future. Who will be the next artist inspired by 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序?

侯北人 Hau Bei Ren exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum

The Los Altos History Museum in Los Altos, California is currently showing an exhibit on the work of 侯北人 Hau Bei Ren. The exhibit is open until the end of the year, so there is only a couple of weeks left to enjoy the paintings on display.

侯北人 is a master of Chinese painting, especially the method of splash painting.

The exhibit does not have any works of just calligraphy, but there is some calligraphy on the wall in the entryway of the museum:

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My calligraphy teacher, 于君慧 Yu Chun Hui, is a student of 侯北人. I have also taken workshops from Robert Dvorak, who also studied with 侯北人 at one time. It was interesting to see the works of 侯北人, because I can see how he influenced my teachers. There were a few paintings that reminded me of exercises from Robert’s workshops.

I was really taken in by the color in the following two paintings. Even though the one on the left is of similar colors, somehow it evokes different colors as well. The one on the right mixes a lot of colors, but they blend in together seamlessly.

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As part of the exhibit, visitors can take a look at some books on the works of 侯北人. The museum store has a few books for sale, but are low on supply. The book I was interested in was sold out. However, the store is selling a very nice card set with three cards of different works.

Copperplate practice pads from Logos Calligraphy

Learning Copperplate calligraphy can be a little awkward. The script is beautiful, but actually producing those beautiful letters is difficult. The oblique pen is nothing like a regular pen. It can take time to get a good feel for the grip of the pen. Another difference between pointed pen and a typical pen is that pressure placement is crucial to producing thick and thin strokes.

In my short experience with the pointed pen, I seem pretty comfortable with the pen itself. My problem tends to be putting the pen to paper. Due to the slant of the letter, the paper needs to be angled, even when using an oblique pen. The problem I have is producing the letters at that angle. I can see it when I have an exemplar in front of me. But once it is turned at an angle, it no longer looks familiar.

I was really intrigued when I saw Logos Calligraphy + Design start to develop practice pads with traceable letters. I went ahead and pre-ordered the Lowercase/Uppercase Bundle Set.

By following the traceable letters, I became more aware of where to place my nib, and when to apply pressure. I did not have to worry about how to write the letter, and became focused on the physical aspects of the placement of pen and paper. I noticed if my paper was not angled enough to trace the letter. I also became more aware of the actual shape of the letter when tracing, especially from the angle that I was looking at the letter. Being guided by the practice letters let me feel how it should feel when a letter is written. I practiced on a blank sheet and felt much more comfortable producing the letter.

The practice pads have one letter on each page, and there are extra pages for practice. The paper is perforated at the top for easy removal. Perfect for those like me who prefer not to write on the pad itself. The paper quality is great: thick and super smooth. I have used Pilot drafting ink, and Higgins Eternal. Both work well, but there is some minor feathering with Higgins Eternal.

I am definitely going to buy more practice pads from Logos Calligraphy! Not only is this a great learning tool, but it is also very soothing to trace letters. These sheets may be a good starting point to calm down when starting a practice session. In Chinese calligraphy, calligraphers grind ink to prepare to write. Not only does this produce the ink, but it also calms down the body and settles the heart. I have not been able to find an equivalent for Western calligraphy. I think these traceable letters are a great way to calm down and prepare for the practice session ahead.

Within the US, the practice pads can be purchased from Logos Calligraphy’s online shop. Outside the US, the practice pads can be purchased from Logos Calligraphy’s Etsy shop.

Practice and the time of day

I usually practice calligraphy at night, because that is when I have time. However, I noticed my latest watercolor practice did not turn out so well when I practiced at night.

Lighting may not matter so much with calligraphy, since I practice with black ink. Working with brush pens is ok too, since the color is a significant contrast from the paper.

I think I prefer natural light when working with watercolors. With watercolors, small differences matter, which may be more difficult for me to see under artificial light. I am new to watercolors, so I just might need more experience before I can figure out what happens under artificial light.

Do you prefer to practice during the day with natural light, or at night under artificial light? Do you think it makes a difference?