Chinese Calligraphy

4Treasures

I have been interested in calligraphy for a long time and a trip to China in 2008 expanded that interest to include Chinese calligraphy. I was so fascinated that I purchased some calligraphy supplies while I was there.

One aspect of traditional Chinese calligraphy that I really love is the respect shown for calligraphy tools. They even call them the Four Treasures. These treasures are the brush, ink, paper and ink stone.

Brushes:  Calligraphy brushes are traditionally made with animal hair. As with paint brushes, different kinds of hair have different properties that affect the brush stroke. White hair in brushes is usually goat hair and are a bit softer so are good for large characters. I didn’t know anything about brushes when I bought mine in China and I actually like the slightly stiffer, brown haired brush (the one on the far right of the photo) I got when I took a Chinese calligraphy course from the Confucius Institute the following year. The course was advertised as being for all ages so I was a bit dismayed to discover most of the students were Chinese children. As I sat on my tiny chair I reassured myself that even though I may not understand Chinese like the kids did, I can sit still and listen like a pro so I had that going for me.

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Ink: Ink sticks are generally made of soot that is mixed with glue and then pressed into a mold. The type of soot (pine, oil, charcoal, etc.) and other additives create different inks. Ink sticks are often decorated, as mine is, on both sides. Liquid sumi ink works well too.

Inkstick Inkstick reverse Ink

Inkstone: The inkstone is a shallow dish (with lid) used to grind the ink stick in a small amount of water to make the ink. This process takes about 15 minutes (depending on how dark you want your ink) and is considered an important meditative step to prepare yourself for creating calligraphy or to paint. Not all inkstones are made of stone, mine is ceramic, and many are beautifully decorated although I like the simplicity of mine.

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Paper: For calligraphy, the best paper is slightly absorbent. I have some rice paper that was bought locally but made in Japan. For practice purposes my calligraphy instructor suggested using paper towels like the type found in public washrooms or newsprint. We were given thin paper with guide lines printed on them for learning the characters in class.

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There are other treasures too, like the seal and the seal ink. Seals (sometimes called a chop) are used like signatures. Typically made of stone, they are used with a thick paste-like red ink. I bought mine from a street vendor in Xian, China. It is supposed to be a translation of my name but I am not sure how well she understood me. There is something very aesthetically pleasing to me to have that small addition of red to the black and white of the ink and paper.

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If the Four Treasures were people, I image them as four ancient Chinese sages with long beards and silk robes that will impart their wisdom to anyone who will take the time to listen.

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Watercolour Pencils

I recently watched the 2012 film Sightseers, a dark British comedy/horror about a couple going on a camping trip around England. One of their planned stops is the Pencil Museum in Keswick (now on my must-see list). This museum is run by the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company. Although this company is now owned by a large multinational called ACCO Brands, it has a long history and they still make pencils in Britain (the only pencil company still manufacturing there). The only Derwent pencils I have in my pencil collection are watercolour pencils.

Watercolour pencils are pencil crayons with a water-soluble core, so while they work great dry, the colour really intensifies when wet. You can wet them by either dipping them in water or colouring first and then use a paint brush to dissolve the pigment. You can also wet the paper first and then colour on top but I don’t really like the results from that method. My set of 12 pencils has a good basic range of colours and came in a nice metal box that makes them easy to travel with.

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I also have four Daler Rowney watercolour pencils that came in a set with other art supplies that are meant for outdoor (plein air) painting so are in nature inspired hues. Daler Rowney is another company with British roots but these pencils were manufactured in Austria.

DRset DRtest

I feel both brands of watercolour pencils are good quality but I enjoy the larger range of colours in my Derwent set.

If watercolour pencils were people, they would be thin and love to travel. They seem uptight but give them something to drink and they really go wild.

Washi tape

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I love washi tape. It is a type of tape made from special Japanese paper usually made from mulberry, or other natural fibres, but not from wood pulp. Although washi tape has a delicate appearance, it is actually quite tough. Because it is paper tape, it is sort of like masking tape but usually decorative, often with printed patterns and slightly opaque. Because it is paper, it can be torn by hand and written on. I find it quite versatile and use it to decorate pages, tape down ephemera in my journal, or seal envelopes.

I bought my first roll of washi tape at a store called The Artworks. This tape is from a Japanese company called mt with a fascinating history dating back to 1923 when it began as the Kamoi Fly Catch Paper Works. It makes sense that as the market for fly paper shrunk to shift the business to making masking tape. I love the colour and elegant design.

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My daughter knew about my enthusiasm for washi tape and brought me back three rolls from Japan. One has a blue chevron design and is from the Rinrei Tape company. They don’t have as interesting a website as mt, but they also began making washi tape in the 1960’s.

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The other two rolls are part of a set called Islands & Waves that she got at the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. The actual wording on the package says: “Inspired by the gentle waves and the islands dotting the Seto-Inland Sea, these masking tapes. They are made of Japanese traditional handmade paper (washi), and have been used for architectural use. With your imagination please find many different uses for them; little accents for letters or cards, for wrapping or collage.” I feel something may have been lost in translation as I am not sure what the architectural use would be.

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There is a big difference between true Japanese washi tape and novelty tapes. For example, I bought patterned Scotch “Expressions” masking tape from Target a few years ago. It has its uses, but is very coarse (just like the beige type) compared to washi tape.

Masking tape

I also bought a set of decorative tape with a maps and old paper theme which is really like a long sticker on a roll but it doesn’t at all have the feel of washi tape.

Sticker

If washi tape was a person they would be attractive and refined but not as fragile as they look. Washi tape is a great collaborator and adaptable to many situations.

Sharpies

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I have a strange fondness for Sharpies and have several at home, both fine and ultra-fine. I like their nice sharp line, smooth writing feel, and their permanence. This last quality has proven handy not just for writing but for covering bleach stains on a black hoodie and scratches on the arms of my sunglasses.

First introduced in 1964 (their logo still has a charmingly retro flair), Sharpies are the original permanent marker. In the last few years, I’ve noticed that the Sharpie range has expanded from the traditional black marker with a grey barrel and black cap to being available in a variety of colours with different formulations. The colours are great but what has really piqued my interest are the ones labeled “no bleed through”. Because that, my friends, is the Sharpies’ greatest flaw – they bleed through almost all paper.

So do the “no bleed through” Sharpies really live up to the name? The answer is yes! Same nice line and comfortable feel without the bleed through to the other side of the page.

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If Sharpie were a person, they would be a reliable middle aged man with a penchant for self-improvement and neatly trimmed hair that is dyed black.