Friday, September 26, 2014

Chinese Calligraphy is DEEP (GUEST BLOGGER MAK JO SI)

Today our friend Mak Jo Si from Chi in Nature shares his thoughts on Chinese Calligraphy. You can see some of his work here: Chi in Nature

Chinese Calligraphy is DEEP by Mak Jo Si
Chinese Calligraphy is not the same as writing Chinese, but a form of art to express more than what the words are about. In a piece of calligraphy work, you can not only see, but also hear, feel and sense the message that the artist embedded into the artwork. That is what makes it a calligraphy artwork, and not just a piece of writing. There are many things in Chinese Calligraphy that the western culture does not know yet, and so you are missing the ABCs and 123s to understand this form of art. Here we will layout the foundations and basics, so you can understand it better, or even better than most Chinese today - because they only know how to read the words, but you can read, see, hear and feel what's embedded inside.

All the Chinese calligraphy artwork starts with the four treasures - paper, brushes, ink and ink stone. Oh, right, and water. How come people don't list that in the "treasure" list?  Without water, the ink and ink stone is useless too!  Let's make it five treasures today!

Paper is often referred to the Chinese rice paper 宣紙 (Suen Jee in Cantonese). They are often made of rice, or cotton, or other mixture of this and that. In general, they are often white, but can also be in many other colors, texture, thickness, or even sprinkled with gold flakes, with watermarked drawings, and many other things. As our technology advances, people come up with many fancy ideas and so we can now have many fancy options and consistent quality paper to use. Some cheaper ones can come in a stack or a roll, which cost you about $5 a roll of 10 long sheets.  The pricy ones such as the 3-ply cotton paper can cost you about $10 USD for a 7feet by 38 inch sheet, HOLY SHEET eh?  The real artist will study the different types of paper and use the type that suit their artwork the best, and that is a LOT of experimental work to be done in their own "laboratory"!

Paintings with a lot of water and ink will require a stronger and thicker paper to survive the torture and so the paper will not be torn or broken by the artist's brush. There are textures that is a bit more ink and moisture repelling which gives the ink a better flow and control, which is better for text, with a sharper and cleaner edges on the strokes. You can see that it is about what paper to use for what purpose, and not just find the best paper you like the most.

Brushes can be as cheap as $1 and up to one for hundreds and thousands of dollars depending on the maker and the materials used. Most brushes are still made by hand today, but some are made by kids or cheap labor in some unknown factories, some are made by skilled masters who know what they are doing.  My golden advice is - NEVER buy cheap brushes in the bookstores, because they will never work and they only have the power to ruin your learning experience. These brushes are made with some unknown blend of "hair" and poorly assembled.  Never trust the cheap stuff!

Good brushes or those that are at least usable, are often found in specialized art stores, and often have the maker's name on the brush. These brushes can cost from a few dollars and up. Not that you need to look at the price tag all the time, but it is often the case that good brushes or functional brushes are often $3 and up for a small brush. Trust the price tag, they are often there for a reason.

There are many types of hair used for these brushes, but it is always from animals, and specifically picked from a certain PART of the animal. Some brushes have a mixture of different animal's hair too. The basic ones can come from sheep, wolf, rat, horse, squirrels and many other animals. Some hair is stiffer and harder, giving the brush more bounciness, and flexibility - while they lack the ability to hold absorb and hold ink. Some hair are soft and they absorb the ink juice very well - while they lack the strength the bounce. With a blend of the two, there goes a combo brush with the inside that soak and hold the ink, and outside that bounce and flex. Way cool!  Just like the art of sword making, blending steel that bends and steel that is hard, sandwich them and there goes the famous "San mai" steel  blade that is tough and flexible at the same time!

The ink is not like paint, and it is not just a black colored liquid. In fact, ink are not even in liquid form, but a solid form!  When we refer to ink, it is often referring to the "ink sticks", which are made from a mixture of smoke (from burning pine), some sort of starch, herbs and some other special ingredients.  These ingredients are pressed and mixed together by a big machine (or hand.... ) And turned into a very tacky paste, and these pastes were then pressed into molds and compressed, hardened and smacked out into blocks of ink sticks.  These ink sticks are often edible too, but I don't trust China today for their "ink sticks"... so I will avoid trying to eat them. Those that are made by small factories in Taiwan are legit though. They often use ingredients that are in their traditional recipes, which are all edible.

Good ink sticks are not stinky, and they produce a nice smell when grind onto the ink stone. Cheap ink sticks will scratch your ink stone up, and might not even produce ink for you!  Some cheap ink sticks you can buy in those Chinese "dollar stores" are often very poorly made to the point that they can just damage your ink stone right on the first day of use!  It's scary how quality can make a bit difference!

Talking about ink stone, there is also a big difference between the REAL functional ink stone, and the ones they sell for display or even for kids to play with. The ink stone that is really meant for use, are what we will use for calligraphy work. These real deal are no where near cheap at all. A small 4 inch circular ink stone with NO designs or engravings can cost you $100 and up. What's so special about them? The stone!  The type of stones used are extremely tough, and dense, and so they can make ink for you easily and not "drink" all the ink up before you use them! Imagine a bad ink stone that have trouble in making ink for you, and after 50 minutes you got some ink going, but the stone absorbed it all in 5minutes while you are going for a washroom break....!

There is a metaphor - the ink is like soap, and the ink stone is like a knife. You have to literally SHARPEN your ink stone from time to time, to make sure that your ink stone can produce ink effectively and efficiently!

Getting a real deal ink stone is not easy, but knowing how to use it is not easy too!  When you just got your ink stone in the mailbox, it is not a "open and use" kind of thing.  The first thing you need to do is to wash off the layer of WAX that is on the surface of the stone (for protection and preventing it from drying up and cracking during storage).  To do that, you can use some toothpaste or some hot water to rub the surface and remove the layer of wax on top.  After doing so, you will have to sharpen your ink stone the first time, so that it is ready to be used.  To do that, you will need a special block of whetstone that is specially sold for doing the job.  With some water, you grind the whetstone in circular motion ont he ink stone and keep grinding for a while until the surface feels smooth. Now your ink stone is sharpened, it is then ready to be used!

Grinding ink is not easy though. It takes a lot of practice, and a lot of patience!  You might be grinding ink too fast or with too much force, which result in ink juice that is full of rough and tacky texture.  You might be doing it too soft and slow, and your ink is not black enough.  It takes a lot of time and practice to get the right ink prepared!  Oh gosh, that's the best punishment to grind ink for big painting!  Imagine you need to grind ink for 2 hours, and then produce one big painting....

Thanks to technology, we now have bottled ink juice!  No grinding required!  There are pros and cons though. The bottled ink juice is often very poor in quality, and they smell bad.  If you want good quality bottled ink, they can cost $50 a bottle and up!  Compare to the ink sticks, it's like you want to pay this one way or the other. Money or effort?  Good bottled ink can be very flowing, smells great, and works great, but cost a lot more than you can imagine.

So now we have our four "treasures", we can get on with a piece of calligraphy artwork!

With the gears prepared, you must also have a properly setup workstation. With a piece of felt as the table cover, it prevents your watery and soaking wet paper to stick on the table. The ink and water will penetrate the paper, and it will stick on to the stuff below like glue!  If you are using a lot of ink (tacky), it will glue your artwork to the table in no time if you don't have anything below your painting. There is a special kind of fabric you can buy in the art shop which is almost water and ink resistant, and they are the best thing you can get for this task.  Wow, you never know it takes so many things to even "start" your painting session eh?

With a brush, ink and water, you can basically do many things on the paper. From text to drawings, and maybe even doing experimental artwork. Whatever it is, you will come to a point where you will say this it finished, and your artwork is done.  Wait, that is not completely done yet, not without your signature!  In Chinese calligraphy, we do not sign our name often, but we will use a stamp to sign the artwork!

A piece of Chinese calligraphy artwork can be as simple as just a black and white artwork with a letter, or a poem, or maybe even with drawings and colors and all sorts of awesomeness - but they will all end with a stamp, a seal, which represent the artist. The stamp is a signature, which is often the name or hallmark of the artist. Some will only stamp their artwork, some will stamp over a written name to add power to the signature. It's just like writing the name Mr. President XXX there is not enough, because everyone can write that!  So they stamp on top of the name to make sure it is the genuine one and not just any wannabe writing the name down. In the old days, we don't have laser stickers or whatever fancy stuff that is hard to replicate, so the stamp is often the best thing to use for this purpose. Since the stamp is handcrafted by the artist himself, every small detail must match when you put the artwork side by side with the stamp and the artwork. One tiny chip, one ding, one thicker or thinner stroke will be obvious to the artist and those who study the artwork. If yours is a knockoff, the stamp must be different looking. (Of course, no one got a scanner and printer back then...)

The color of the stamp is often chosen for a reason. It can be just a simple red color stamp, or it can be even in black, blue, white, green, yellow, gold and many other colors. In the past, colors can be chosen for a specific purpose, or it can be chosen just because it gives a bitter contrast to the artwork. Imagine stamping a white stamp into a very big blob of black ink. It looks very cool!  Some stamps will also be done in other color to show respect. Such as a calligraphy artwork for a funeral must NOT be stamped in red, but blue or black or white only. It's a cultural taboo thing, and showing red in a funeral is very rude. To the outsiders, it might be just a color, but the feeling you give to the family who receive the artwork is totally not what you want!  A little difference can make a major impact!

Beside the color of the stamps, the material used for the stamps are often critical too. Stamps can be made with stones, wood or metal, or eve other materials. In the ancient time, the authorities have their stamps made in gold or jade, to show off their wealth, and also make sure the stamps are tough and will not be damaged easily. The seals of the king are often made with jade and metal or gold, which makes it fancy and pricy, but also durable and long lasting without any chance of chipping, deform or whatever chance of damaging or deforming. Nowadays, we will often just use soap stones or other stones to carve our own stamps. It can be simply carved by hand using a set of stamps carving knives, or if you are the smart ones, you will be using a dremel (a power tool) which makes life so much easier...!

Where to stamp is also very critical!  As we now know that the stamps are like the seal of the artsit, the signature or the "proof" of the signature, we must know where to stamp so that it make sense!  Stamping can be done in random places to "balance" the painting, or it can be done in a logical order and placement such as stamping over the name, the date, or the sign-off line, etc. For the professionals, stamping process is very critical, because stamping it wrong can ruin the whole piece of painting, and many hours of hard work can be ruined.  Stamping the stamp on BAD quality paper can also lead you to damage the painting and rip the paper too!  Imagine stamping hard on a painting that is sort of still wet, and the paper is just not thick enough to withstand the stress. The stamp will stick to the wet paper and cut out a chunk of the paper along with the stamp's edge and there goes your torn piece of artwork.  It takes a lot of practice to learn where to stamp, and HOW to stamp properly. We don't stamp like how the custom stamp your passport, that's gonna kill your painting dude!

Now that you know about the basics and all the gears, it's time for you to go and explore the art shops!  Grab some tools, and start your magic on the paper!  There is nothing such as "wrong" in the first stage, just take your brushes and ink, fool around like a kid and experiment all kinds of effects on the paper. Learn from testing, trying and don't worry about F-king up anything and you will learn your way to mastering Chinese calligraphy!  Hope you like my little introduction to Chinese calligraphy!  If you would like to see some in action, feel free to watch my demonstrations on YouTube!  " " - See you there!

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