Calligraphy Tools

The Four Treasures of The Study

/translated from: click here /
Translated by Judit Simon

Brush (fude, 筆)

Brushes vary in size ranging from tiny, delicate ones to man-sized brushes. Traditionally the shaft of the brush is made from bamboo stalk, while for the brush tip the hairs of a variety of animals are used. These can be distinguished by their colour. For instance white brushes are made from sheep hair; these are very soft brushes that slowly slide on the paper. Although this type of brush is difficult to use, once the writing technique it requires is mastered, one is able to switch to other types of brushes without difficulty. Brown are the brushes made from wolf hair. Being swift on the paper, these  brushes are perfect for writing short, fine strokes. They are flexible but not too soft.There are also mixed-colour brush heads made from horse hair and we can find fox or rabbit hair brushes, too. The size of the calligraphy determines the type of brush used, but within one calligraphy different types and sizes of brushes can be used for different purposes.

Although Chinese and Japanese calligraphy brushes differ from western watercolour brushes, they still share some common features. Firstly, they are always made from real, soft hair. Secondly, when wetted, their tip becomes pointed, making it possible for the artist to create both fine,delicate strokes  and big, powerful lines for which the whole head of the brush is needed. Thirdly, calligraphy brushes, due to their specially formed head can absorb a lot more ink than  watercolour brushes.

For protective reasons all new brush heads are dipped in "funori" (a special glue made from the seaweed gloiopeltis) which needs to be washed out in lukewarm water before the first use. Also, after each use a thorough cleaning is required to retain the softness and power of the brush tip. (A  simpler way of ridding our brush of its protective layer is to rub the head repeatedly with our fingers (but please note: always seek  professional help before using this method to avoid unintentional ruining of the brush)

Ink stick (sumi, 墨)

The Chinese character for ink means "black soil" from what it is (in the figurative sense) made. Ink is primarily made from pine soot, but oil soot can also be used.

The soot is mixed with bone glue and sometimes with ground spices too (traditionally with musk in China or clove )  to create a kind of dough. This glue, soot and spice mixture is then placed into wooden shaped molds and left to dry. The surface of the ink stick is often decorated with engravings, pictures or calligraphy. Out of The Four Treasures the production of ink sticks needs the most careful work. According to some sources more than a hundred steps are used in  the process. Since ink sticks are works of art in their own right, they are higly collectible items in Japan.
To prepare liquid ink, gound ink powder is mixed with water. Because the ink is prepared with a fixative, it adheres permanently once it is applied on paper and cannot be removed or corrected in any way. (in China a special type of ink was used in book printing, too.)

The ink stone or ink slab (suzuri, 硯)

The ink stone is used to grind the ink stick into powder by gently rubbing it against the grainy surface of the stone. It has various shapes ranging from the simplest to the most richly ornamented. Most ink slabs are made of a variety of abrasive stones or clay,  and their material effects the quality of  the ink made in them. All ink stones have a central circular  indent or well where drops of clear water and some ink powder is put. Ideally fresh rainwater should be used for this purpose. The liquid ink should be neither too watery nor too thick. The middle way is the best to follow, since too watery ink will run on the paper whereas too thick ink will stick to the hairs of the brush resulting in uneven strokes.

Paper (kami, 紙)

The best calligraphy paper is the Chinese or Japanese paper (washi, hanshi半紙) These are made from a mixture of fibres or even celluloid fibre. Chinese or East -Asian paper is usually referred to as rice paper. In reality they have nothing to do with rice. In Japan the most widely used material for making paper is kozo, the so-called Paper Mulberry  (Broussonetia papyrifera), a tree in the family Moraceae. Two other raw materials are mitsumata  (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and ganpi (Wikstroemia sikokiana), plants belonging to the family Thymelaceae.

Calligraphy papers are highly absorbent, with one smooth side for writing. Although other types of highly absorbent paper ( for instance newspaper sheets) can also be sufficient, good or at least moderate quality paper is still recommended for calligraphy practice.

The Fifth Treasure: The Seal

Although  seals do not belong strictly with the basic tools of calligraphy, they are still   indispensable tools. They are used by the artist to identify his/her work with them. Owners of paintings or books also often add their own  seals to pieces they have collected. Seals are small stone, ivory or copper  sticks with a cylindrical or square shape. Into the underside (working surface) of the seal, characters or names are usually carved, while the handle may be decorated with figurative inscriptions or other motifs. A seal in itself can be regarded as a special form of calligraphy. The inscription carved into the seal follows the aesthetical and compositional rules of the so-called "seal script." There are two main types of seal: the positive (yang) style seal and the negative (yin) style seal, or, sometimes a combination of these two. Seals are also popular as collectors' items as they may be very old or intricately carved masterpieces. The colour of their imprint is almost always red as the seal paste is traditionally made from cinnabar mixed with oil. The paste is always kept covered  in its ceramic container to prevent it from drying out.

Additional Tools

Additional tools of the calligrapher are the paperweight (bunchin) that helps keep the paper in place and the under-sheet  (shitajiki). Bunchin is usually a metal, copper, stone or glass square prism which the calligrapher places on the top of the paper. The shitajiki is a special felt pad (usually black) which is placed under the paper to protect it and the working surface from ink stains.

Brushes waiting to be used can be placed in little brush holders (fudeoki).These usually come in the shape of a stylized 3-peak mount.

Water or liquid ink can be kept in little porcelain bowls. These are very useful when paintig sumi-e (ink paintings) where different shades of ink (from deep black to a pearly, shining shade of grey) are used.

Suteki is a little water-dropper used to add water to the ink powder.

Water is added to the ink stone with the help of little metal or porcelain spoons or water droppers.

Fudemaki is a bamboo roll-up brush holder used for carrying brushes. It protects brush tips from damage and allows ventilation.

Fudekake is another type of brush holder/stand for drying brushes in a vertical position.

Footnotes:

  1. Unlike western watercolour painters who simply wash out their brushes and use them over and over again, the Chinese or Japanese masters use a different brush for each colour to attain perfectly unblended, clear colours on the paper.
  2. See Explanation of Pictures
  3. The shade of ink is also influenced by the type of soot it is made from. Pine soot results in a warmer,matte ink type, while ink made from oil soot has a cooler, shinier, bluish shade of black. Although the difference is hard to notice, the choice of ink can significantly enhance the artistic value of the calligraphy.
  4. Parallel to paper; silk, wooden boards or stones and walls could also be used as writing surfaces