Water Calligraphy


I have written about my interest in Asian calligraphy before and how this fascination was sparked by a visit to China in 2008.  One sight that really caught my attention was seeing an elderly man using a large brush to write with water on the cement in the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing. There seemed something very poignant in writing beautiful characters only to have them slowly evaporate. I assumed that this must be an ancient meditative practice but it turns out that it began in the 1990’s as an activity for seniors in the park that now has spread across China called dishu.

calligrapher Photo courtesy of Bruce McIntosh

Around the same time, I began to see a similar concept being marketed in North America as “meditation sets” where you paint with water on a board and watch it slowly disappear. I have a set of my own with a board, brush, and little book called Zen by the Brush. The book is mainly a collection of Buddhist quotes with simple ink illustrations.

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A friend lent me another version of this idea that is designed to be given as a card. There is space on the right for the giver to write their message. I guess not everything is meant to be temporary.

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I can’t really judge whether these have any true meditative value, and am conflicted as to whether this is actually a good way to practice as you are unable to track your progress and learn from your mistakes. It takes about a minute for the picture to evaporate.

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Personally, I have found the novelty wore off quite quickly and I rarely reach for my set to practice my brush work.  

If meditation sets were people, they would be good-hearted but slightly flaky with an interest in new age philosophies. They love to buy anything to help them be less materialistic.


Tolstoy Put Pen to Paper


I have been culling my book collection and was left with a stack of books I have been meaning to read but haven’t got round to yet. One of these books was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. It is a lengthy novel in eight parts so I found it a bit intimidating to start but am really glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is amazing to think it all would have been originally written by hand with a dip pen.

Leo_Tolstoy_Dip_Pens Tolstoy’s desk at his home in Yasnaya Polyana

While there is lots to say about Tolstoy’s insights into relationships and society, this blog is not the place to discuss themes. Instead, I am keeping my comments to the glimpse Anna Karenina gives into the desks of the 1870’s. There were three aspects in particular that really struck me.

First, without phones, texts,or email, they are forever writing to each other. These notes and letters are both about the trivial and the serious. For example in one chapter, Anna’s maid brings a note from Betsy reminding her stop by, “She brought her dress and a note. The note was from Betsy. Betsy was reminding her that this morning Liza Merkalova and Baroness Stolz were to come to her house with their admirers, Kaluzhsky and the old man Stremove, for a game of croquet.” (Part 3, Chapter 15, p. 26). Later on in the chapter, a letter is also the way Anna chooses to tell her husband that she is leaving him, “But first I must write them both. She quickly went into the house, to her sitting room, sat down at her desk, and wrote her husband.” (Part 3, Chapter 15, p. 267).

Anna wasn’t the only one receiving and writing notes. “Countess Lydia Ivanovna ordinarily wrote Alexei Alexandrovich two or three notes a day. She loved this process of communication with him, which had an elegance and mystery that was lacking in her personal dealings.” (Part 5, Chapter 23, p. 471).

Secondly, paper knives show up repeatedly. In the early days of book printing, pages were printed on long strips of paper that were accordion folded and bound into the spine so the reader had to cut the edges of the paper to see the part that was printed on the inside. There is a great explanation of this in The Regency Redingote blog. Paper knives were the special knives that were used to cut the pages and would have been part of any good desk set. They are often mentioned in Anna Karenina. For example, Anna while on a train “out of her handbag took a paper knife and an English novel” (Part 1, Chapter 29, p. 93). She has trouble concentrating so ends up fidgeting with it, “She ran the paper knife across the glass, then pressed its smooth cold surface to her cheek” (p. 94).

Paper knives also seemed to be a popular tourist item. When Prince Shcherbatsky joined his family after a trip to Baden and Kissingen, he brought presents that included paper knives. “The prince had spread out his purchases beside him, the carved chests, spillikins, and paper knives of all kinds which he bought such a pile of at all the spas and gave out to everyone” (Part 2, Chapter 35, p. 214).

Finally, some things never change. They appreciated pens and paper just like I do, especially Alexei Alexandrovich. “Two assistants were writing at their desks, scratching with their pens. The writing implements, for which Alexei Alexandrovich was a great enthusiast, were uncommonly fine; Alexei Alexandrovich could not help but notice this.” (Part 4, Chapter 5, p. 336).  “After folding the letter, smoothing it with his massive ivory paper knife, and putting it into an envelope with the money, he, with the satisfaction that his well-made writing implements always afforded in him, rang the bell.” (Part 3, Chapter 14, p. 261). Others also paid attention to these things, “Lydia Ivanovna had already begun to calm down when the next morning she was brought a note whose handwriting she recognized with horror. It was the handwriting of Anna Karenina. The envelope was made of paper as thick as a strip of bast; on the oblong yellow paper was a large monogram, and the letter smelled beautiful.” (Part 5, Chapter. 23, p. 470).

These peeks into the 1870s were fascinating to me and were just one of the pleasures of reading a classic novel. The quotes used here are from a 2014 translation by Marian Schwartz. My own copy was a yellowing paperback from 1961 translated by David Magarshack. The tiny print and weird smell of the paper were unappealing so I went to the library and discovered many other versions. My favourite to read was the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude because of the consistent way they referred to the characters’ names but I liked Schwartz’s turn of phrase so used it for the quotes.

I am not going to give my impression of what Anna Karenina would be like if she were a person because there is a whole book that describes that. Instead I’ll offer up a theme song for her, Release Me. Here are the lyrics:

Please, release me, let me go,

For I don’t love you anymore.

To waste our lives would be a sin,

Release me and let me love again.

I have found a new love, dear,

And I will always want him near.

His lips are warm while yours are cold

Release me, my darling, let me go.



Pencils – Part 2


While HB pencils can be considered middle of the road, there are many other pencils out there especially if you are using them more for art purposes than just writing.


3H – Starting on the hard end of the pencil scale, this green Kimberly pencil was made by the General Pencil Company in the US. This family owned business has been in the Weissenborn family since 1889. These pencils are made in Jersey City, New Jersey, one of the few American pencil factories. I like the green and gold colour combination. Because of the hardness of the graphite, the line it makes is more grey than black but you can get a nice sharp line with it.


2B – I have three 2B pencils. One is a Daler Rowney which, although is a British art supply company, is made in Austria.

The next is a Grumbacher Sketching pencil, made in Germany, with a unique oval shape. Because of this shape it has to be sharpened with a knife, not a pencil sharpener. It is similar to a carpenter’s pencil in that it can’t roll away but I think the shape is designed to allow for thick and thin lines, rather than preventing it from rolling. This is an old pencil that I got from my mom’s limited art supplies. She took a course in oil painting at one time but I don’t remember her keeping up with it. It seems these pencils are not still being made.  

Finally, I have a Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth Toison D’Or 1900 2B pencil. I wrote a bit about Koh-I-Noor pencils last week as I have an HB one too.

These are all good pencils but the Daler Rowney gives the darkest line. The uniqueness of the Grumbacher makes it my favourite.


4B – I have two Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth 4B pencils. One is a 1500 and the other is another in the Toison D’Or 1900 line. It seems that the Toison D’Or 1900 line is more common in North America. They are both made in the Czech Republic and are very similar, if not identical, quality. Koh-I-Noor HB and 2B pencils have 2mm leads while the 4Bs have 2.5mm leads. Both of these pencils give a very smooth and dark line.


8B – The darkest and softest pencil I have is a blue Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil. It is considered premium quality in the Staedtler line. It has a thick lead and is very dark and smudgy. Definitely for sketching and not for writing.

If these odd ball pencils were people, they would all be artistes, that look down on the more familiar HBs despite their common origins and family ties.

HB Pencils

I have a fairly extensive collection of pencils and as it turns out, quite a few fall into the vintage category. In fact, I have so many I can’t cover them all in one blog so this week I will focus on my HB pencils. In the United States they call this a #2 pencil but for everywhere else in the world pencils are graded on a scale from Hard (H) to Black (B). The softer the pencil, the blacker the mark. HB pencils fall right in the middle. This all sounds very standardized but actually there is a difference between the various HB pencils I own.


Berol Turquoise – This Canadian made pencil is a vintage one as I don’t believe there are any more Canadian pencil factories. The Berol company goes way back to 1856 when a Bavarian immigrant to the US, Daniel Berolzheimer, founded the “Eagle Pencil Company”. Much later on (1969) the company changed its name to a shortened form of Berolzheimer but the family connection ended in 1987 when there was no 6th generation successor. I love the turquoise colour with the silver ferrule. I found that this was one of the darker HBs.                                 20170709_Dixon.jpg

Dixon Ticonderoga – This is another old American company. It was founded by Joseph Dixon who in 1873 bought the American Graphite Company based in Ticonderoga, New York. This classic yellow painted pencil was launched in 1913. It seems to me that all the pencils we used in school were yellow and this one is probably meant for a student because of the pink eraser on the end. I have a soft spot for this company because at one time they had a factory in Canada and when I had a job acquiring furnishings for the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village around 1990 they kindly donated some unpainted pencils that we were able to use in our school house.


Koh-I-Noor Toison D’Or – Koh-I-Noor pencils are made by the Czech Hardtmuth company, founded in 1790 by Joseph Hardtmuth of Austria. I consider this an art pencil but of course it could be used for writing too. Pencils are versatile that way. 


O’BON – This is a unique pencil with a body made from recycled newspaper rather than wood. It was purchased at a local store called Carbon. Not only does recycled newspaper save trees, the company claims it also protects the lead from breaking. I think it is cool how you can see the colour variation when it is sharpened in the part between the lead and the paint.      


Staedtler – Staedtler is another old pencil company, founded in 1835. It may not be made from recycled newspapers, but the wood is from certified, sustainably managed forests. I have two Staedtler HBs, the Norica 13246 (blue) and the Tradition (black and red). The Tradition is their higher quality line but I don’t notice a significant difference. In fact, I find the Norica a bit darker and it has a handy white eraser on the end.                             


Venus – The Venus was originally made by the American Lead Pencil Company but that company was eventually taken over by Faber-Castell. This vintage pencil was made in the US and despite its unassuming appearance, I find it one of the nicer pencils to actually use and it has a handy pink eraser.

The word “pencil” comes from the Latin penicillus meaning a “little tail”, so I think if a pencil was a person he would be a man. Tall and skinny, he is a bit old-fashioned and don’t let the bright coloured suit fool you, he is no dandy. He changes his mind easily so whether you think that makes him open-minded or wishy-washy is up to you.

Birthday Cards

this year

It was recently my birthday and, following with tradition, I received a few birthday cards. Two of them were handmade and all of them were from women which confirmed a Carlton Cards statistic that claimed that 70 percent of all card purchases are made by women. I tried to find out when the custom of giving birthday cards began but all I could find was the history of greeting cards in general. Even the Hallmark Cards site only made special note of Christmas, Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day when discussing the history of their company. Maybe because birthday card purchases happen all year round, card companies take that market for granted even though it is estimated to be 60 percent of all greeting card sales.

I couldn’t even find out when celebrating birthdays began but I, for one, am glad we take a moment to give thanks for another successful trip around the sun. I have a sentimental streak so have kept a stash of old birthday cards. The ones from my parents mean the most to me now. 


I also get a real kick out of seeing how graphic design has changed over the years.

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While designs change, the personalities of the givers stay the same. The same friend who gave me the kittens card when I was nine, sent me a text birthday greeting with a photo of her cat this year. 


I love penguins so have received a lot of penguin cards over the years. I mustn’t be the only one who loves penguins as Hallmark even had a “Penguins” line for awhile. 

Penguins Penguins reverse

So here’s to birthdays and to those who keep the birthday card tradition alive!