Ogatsu Suzuri

Some time ago, I wrote about Ogatsu stone, which is found in Japan.  It is a a dark grey stone, nearly black in color, easily carved and used for many purposes.  Ogatsu stone is famous for suzuri as it is a dense stone with low porosity.

A characteristic of suzuri carved from Ogatsu stone is that the outer borders and edges of the stone often are left as natural as possible.  The well is smooth, with an area for the making of sumi, and a deeper area to store the ink.  Touching the surfaces smoothed for ink making, it is an incredible soft feeling, very smooth without any sense of roughness beneath the fingertips.  Outside the well, the stone is smoothed, but the texture of the stone is allowed to come through.  The sides are rough, as if chipped away with another stone, but then smoothed over, enough to preserve the ripples in the slate, but not to be unpleasant or rough to the touch.

This suzuri is in two parts, a lid, and a stone for grinding and storing ink.  The lid is an extension of the stone from which the suzuri is carved, and simply rests on top of the the stone.  The weight of the lid helps prevent it from moving off the stone, but, unlike the boxes of Chinese ink stones, this one can slide, and a small disaster could certainly result if it were to fall to the floor!

The length of the stone, including the lid, is about 7.25 inches (18.5 cm) and 5 inches (12.5 cm) at its widest.  Total weight of lid and suzuri is about 2.5 lbs.

Every stone has its own characteristics.  Japanese stone differs from Chinese, from what I can tell, in that it is less porous than Duan or She.  It takes a bit more effort to make sumi with the Japanese stones I have, but not in a negative way – it is simply a different experience.  Fine stones from both countries are definitely worthwhile purchases, as are professional grade sumi sticks.

Dragon Stone

We are still moving things around since my brother moved out last year.  Needless to say, we are slow!  In that process of making room for him, a lot of stuff was shifted, stored, and forgotten.  Now that the studio is being revamped, I am refinding things, namely, two ink stones, one Chinese, one Japanese. Today I will write a bit about the dragon stone.  Clicking on the image below will take you to a larger image which will allow you to see the in greater detail.

Dragon Stone - Dragon on Upper Left, Clouds and Tail on Upper Right - Smaller Dragon Along Left Edge

The above stone is Chinese and measures about 8.5 x 6 inches (22 x 15 cm). What kind of stone it is – most likely a slate – I cannot tell you for sure, but I will say the design is more Chinese, from what I know, than Japanese. The stone has a rather bell-like sound to it when tapped. Breathing on the stone shows little retention of surface moisture, as do some other stones, but a thin layer of water holds to the surface, then vanishes. I have not ground any ink on the stone as of this writing. Also, I have no idea where or when I purchased this stone! I expect I bought the stone because I like the carvings of the dragon in the clouds more than anything else – I’m a water dragon myself.

Repairing Chips on Lower Right Side of Dragon Stone

Unfortunately, when I unpacked the stone, a number of chips were in the box. I managed to salvage a few, and, not knowing what type of glue to use, decided to just try white glue. As the stone is porous, and white glue works well on porcelain, I decided to give it a shot. Admittedly, it doesn’t look great, especially in large pictures, but the mending is not too noticeable in the large picture of the stone itself.  The stone seems rather soft, which may account for the issue of low moisture retention on its surface, so it may be rather porous as well.  However, until I use it to make ink, I really cannot assess its grinding qualities.

Top of Stone - Dragon

I love the energy of the carving!  You can just imagine wild, stormy weather, and a fearsome dragon flying through the clouds.

Dragon Tail - Upper Right

The carving on this stone is quite fine, with thin lines being well expressed in the undulating lines of the dragon’s body as he flies through the clouds. Scales are small and subtle; the whorling clouds undulate gracefully over the carved surfaces.

Left Side Carving - Smaller Dragon and Clouds

There are also small, light inclusions in the stone, which probably to the knowledgeable will give a lot more information about the type of stone this is, and its origins.

This stone is enjoyable for its carving and size. I’ll ink it up in the next few days and tell you what I think. And, hey, maybe I’ll even do some painting (at last!).

Calligrapher’s Suzuri

Deep Well for Ink

This is a beautiful little suzuri, ideal for calligraphers.  It measures 4.75 x 2.75 inches (12 x 7 cm), originates from Japan, and is made of natural stone.  The size makes it perfect for taking with you.  Western calligraphers who like to use sumi with dip pens find the deep well at the end a perfect reservoir for ink.  Brush calligraphers also find it useful as the brush tip can be dipped straight in.  Because of its small size, obviously this is not going to work for someone who needs a lot of ink, but for someone who is writing with a pen or fine brush, this is a superb little stone.

For the sumi artist, a deep well is equally useful.  The flat surface can be laid with water, the tip dipped in the well for dark ink followed by a small amount of water, held tip up, and the two will combine in a lovely gradation of ink.

Combined with a professional grade sumi stick, this little stone produces rich, dense ink with little effort.

Calligrapher's Suzuri - 4.75 x 2.75 inches (12 x 7 cm)

Patina, Provenance, Keshiki, and the Velveteen Rabbit

Patina: a surface appearance of something grown beautiful, especially with age or use.

Provenance: origin, source.  the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature.

Keshiki: . . . (Japanese) after you use [something] and make some stain, it is natural thing and we call it “keshiki” (“a scenery naturally made”) that makes the item valuable.

The Veleveteen Rabbit: a children’s novel written by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson. It chronicles the story of a stuffed rabbit and his quest to become real through the love of his owner.

* * *

We buy things to use, to admire, to give pleasure to our lives, to make our lives more efficient, to wear, to eat, to provide shelter, to take us from one place to another.  Sometimes we hoard, from fear, necessity, greed.  There are things we all have hiding in a cupboard or drawer or under the bed, saved for the rainy day that never comes, for that yet-to-be-determined special occasion.

And then we die.  All that was valuable to us, as individuals, is gone.  Now it is junk for others to cart away.

I have decided to ink my only un-used suzuri, using a highly prized ink stick.  The experience will be mine alone.

The Four Treasures: Inkstone / Suzuri, vii

Every region has its artistic styles, as well as every time period. The same may be said for production of the suzuri, with a classical shape and style modified according to era and taste.  The most common suzuri is a rectangular stone with a deep well on one end, and a flat surface sloping into it  This makes sense, as it is practical and probably fairly easy to accomplish. Decorative elements and embellishments in the non-working areas are certainly possible, and I would be inclined to say almost inevitable for the expression of the carver’s creative force.

Besides the impact of regional and time preferences, the economics behind the stone’s production itself may be seen.  Stones for the masses – the daily stone – are probably more plain than those for the aficionado, simply because of their utilitarian role. These can be made quickly, with or without attention to quality or aesthetics. Today, stones for tourists may be pretty but worthless as far as usability; other stones may be far better in quality and less ornate. A good stone is absolutely necessary, whether for calligraphy or painting, if you are using an ink stick.

Kiri Wood Box

Today’s stone is from Japan. It does not have a rosewood box, but it is very nicely encased in a kiri wood box. Unfortunately, I cannot read the label! (If anyone can translate for me, please let me know.) This is the only stone in my collection I have not yet used, and I am still deciding on whether or not I should – it is so beautiful as it is! Knowing me, though, I will at some point when I am not rushing around – I want to take the time to enjoy it.

I am under the impression this stone is carved from nachiguro, a lustrous black slate or river shale unique to Japan, and has been used since the Nara period (710 – 794 CE) for carving practical and ornamental items, such as suzuri, go stones, and suiseki, This stone is a sedimentary shale which originates in the upper side of the Kumano river in Japan’s Mie prefecture, and is characteristically very dark and shiny.

Suzuri Lid with Carving

Many traditional Japanese themes and symbols may be considered by a master craftsman in creating a high-end suzuri, but this artist has taken a considerably more modern approach.  The abstract elements of the lid are suggestive of many things, and certainly some traditional themes as well.  Just in a glance, I can envision falling leaves or swimming koi.  The carving is very subtle and pleasing, working very well within the smooth borders of the circle.  To the touch, the different textures are smooth and rough at the same time, without any sharp edges.

Inside Well of Suzuri

The smooth elegance of the polished stone is a bit more rough on the grinding surface and the well, having the necessary tooth to create sumi ink.  The borders of the well are polished and shiny, in keeping with the rest of the stone.  The contrast of these two areas repeats the circular motif of the suzuri’s shape, as well as the framing of the lid’s pattern.  The underside of the lid is as smooth and reflective as the underside of the lower portion of the stone.  Even the underside of the suzuri well is smoothly finished, and follows the circular motifs of lid surface and underside, and the well.  This stone is not especially old, probably produced in last quarter of the twentieth century.  It is a large, heavy stone, measuring more than 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter.

Suzuri Well on Left; Underside of Suzuri Lid on Right

Underside of Suzuri Well

I expect this stone could be considered something of a luxury item, for oneself or as a special gift. Given this, I cannot help but wonder if the beauty of the stone is all it has – can it be used to produce good ink? Even if it does not, there is something to be said for simply beautiful objects. The suzuri’s circular shape is pleasing, the lid’s carved surface intriguing, and the soft, candescent glow of the stone subtly elegant. Aesthetically, this suzuri is a sculpture to be appreciated in its own right.

The Four Treasures: Inkstone / Suzuri, vi

Four Famous Stones

According to Wikipedia, and other internet sources, there are four main ink stones historically prized throughout China:

For serious calligraphers and painters, a good inkstone is as important as the quality of the ink. An inkstone will affect the quality and texture of the ink that is ground upon it. Four kinds of inkstones are especially noted in inkstone art history and are popularly known as the “Four Famous Inkstones.”

  • The first is Duanshi stone (Japanese: Tankei) (端石砚) from DuanxiGuangdong. Duan stone is a volcanic tuff, commonly of a purple to a purple-red color. There are various distinctive markings such as eyes that were traditionally valued in the stone. A green variety of the stone was mined in the Song period. Duan inkstones are carefully categorized by the mines (k’eng) from which the raw stone was excavated. Particular mines were open only for discrete periods in history. For example, the Mazukeng mine was originally opened in the Qianlong period (1736-1795), although reopened in modern times.
  • She stone (Japanese: Kyū) (歙砚) from She CountyAnhui. This stone is a variety of slate and like Duan stone is categorized by the various mines from which the stone was obtained historically. It is a black color and displays a variety of celebrated gold-like markings. These inkstones likewise date from the late Tang period.
  • Of great rarity is Tao River stone (洮河砚) from South Gansu. This stone is no longer found today and was gathered from a river bottom in the Song period. The stone is crystalline and like jade. The stone bears distinct markings such as bands of varying shades. This stone can be easily confused with Duan stone of the green variety, but can be distinguished by a careful observation of its crystalline nature.
  • Chengni ceramic stone (澄泥砚) is a ceramic-manufactured inkstone. This process was begun in the Tang period and is said to have originated in LuoyangHenan.

She Ink Stones

In particular, the She ink stone has long been prized for its quality.

The history of inkstone goes back to over 5,000 years ago. There is a lot of archeological evidence that Chinese used inkstone for grinding ink. There was a stone inkstone found in a 5,000-year-old archeological site in Jiazhai of Shanxi Province.

As one of the essential tool of ink brush painting, She inkstone, produced in Anhui Province in East China, is one of the most sought collector’s item among the literati and elite for thousands of years. It is one of the Four Great Inkstones in Chinese history.It is named after Shezhou Prefecture, Anhui Province, where it was first produced in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Many counties under the jurisdiction of this prefecture produce She ink slabs, but the best come from Longwei Mountain in Wuyuan County. Sometimes She ink slabs are referred to as Longwei inkstones.

She inkstone is made of gray, light green, or black rare slate with markings, and the stone appears in layers and is hard. She inkstone has three features: quick forming of ink, no harm done to the brush, and preserving wetness of ink.

She inkstone has a special artistic style with different markings resulting from geological changes with passage of time. Typical markings are Gold Star, Gold Star Patch, Gold Line, Silver Star, Silver Line, Cherry Blossom Gold Star, and Small Water Wave. More rare ones are Eyebrows, Jade Belt, Jade Belt with Gold Star, Big Water Wave, Fish Egg, Dates Kernel Eyebrows, Jade Patch, and so on.

My Suzuri

The inkstone I am writing about today is my favorite. I purchased it a number of years ago from Japan, but it is Chinese in origin.  It is a very large, very heavy stone, encased in a custom rosewood box. The box measures 6 3/4 x 9 7/8 inches (17 x 25 cm) and weighs 1 lb 10.2 oz (745 g), while the stone measures 5 3/8 x 9 inches (13.65 x 22.86 cm) and weighs 4 lbs. 10.4 oz (2.1 kg). It is my understanding that this is a She inkstone, and over 70 years old. Acorn Planet has a lot of information about Chinese ink stones – unfortunately, they no longer sell them.

Custom Box for Suzuri

Custom Made Suzuri Box

Boxes are custom made for each high quality suzuri, to ensure protection as well as a fit unique to the shape of each stone. Above, you can see the box for this stone. It is solid and heavy, made of rosewood. The wood is smoothly polished. The bottom half of the box holds the suzuri securely. Underneath, small feet provide support. Altogether, the box is a work of art in itself.

Inside Bottom of the Box

Underside of Box Bottom - Notice the Feet in Each Corner

My stone itself is a beautiful dark grey color, with a single inclusion or marking, which is skillfully centered in the middle of the carvings, like the moon amongst tree branches on a foggy night. The well is deep, and the slope onto the flat surface is evenly carved. There are no rough spots on this stone. Touching the stone, it is cool. The sound of the stone, when tapped, is clear and crisp. Breathing onto the stone, the moisture from one’s breath sits on the surface, and slowly – very slowly – evaporates or is absorbed by the stone, which shows the correct porosity for hand-ground ink.  Tilting the stone in sunlight shows fine sparkles, indicating the presence of pyrites.

My Best Suzuri

Ink ground on this stone is very fine, and quickly ground, and rests easily on the surface with little need to replenish the water.  I use my finest Japanese ink sticks on this stone – to use ones of dubious quality would possibly ruin its smooth surface if there were coarse grains within the ink stick.  To pour liquid ink onto it would be sacrilege!

Suzuri with Lid

Suzuri with Lid

High quality stones, according to some web sources, are well-carved, but without excessive design. Lesser quality stones may be more elaborately carved to increase their value. Various inclusions, such as color streaks or the dots, as seen on this stone, are rare and add to the value of the stone. This stone has a narrow band of elaborate carving at the top, of cherry blossoms, bamboo, and birds. Its style is very Chinese, from what I can tell; Japanese stones have different carving characteristics.

Carving Detail

Carving Detail, Close Up

Carving Detail

Inclusion or Marking

There is no way to describe the intense pleasure which comes from using a fine inkstone – it is an experience unique to itself.  Any sumi artist or calligrapher will know what I mean.  I am very fortunate to be able to enjoy such a wonderful stone.

The Four Treasures: Ink, ii

This really is my home-made video debut.  For my birthday, I got a Kodak Zi8.  I’ve never shot a video in my life.  It’s been in the back of my mind for some time to try to create videos on various subjects, in particular those related to sumi ink painting.  I’ve long admired a number of ink artists, and have learned a lot from watching their videos.  So, I decided to make a video today, just to see what I can do.  Already, I know that what I have done is incredibly amateur, but for a first try, I decided to go ahead and post what I’ve done.  Just making the videos gave such a greater appreciation for the thought which goes into a good one, as well as having good editing software.  The Kodak Zi8 comes with MediaImpression for Kodak, by ArcSoft.  I’ve managed to add a title and an ending to the file, but nothing else.  What you see is really unedited footage!

The Art of Grinding an Ink Stick

Many authors of Japanese and Chinese ink-painting books will tell you that while you grind the ink on the stone, with gentle motions, it is a good time to collect oneself.  I agree.  I like to take my time, listen to calming music, and relax.  Focusing on breathing helps – in, out, in, out – slowing down.  Given the permanency of every ink stroke in sumi, it makes sense to calm down, to control one’s energy, and to take time to become centered.  Breathing helps.  I know that if I start out feeling stressed, my painting is stressed, tight and unhappy.  Grinding ink is a period of transition.

Making the Video

Well, making the video was a pain!  At first the camera was too low, and the field of vision too narrow.  I had to build up the height of the camera, and retrain its focus.  Looking at the video, certainly lighting needs to be improved, and the camera should be coming over my left shoulder, and lighting needs to be less yellow (maybe use the no-light setting!?!).  Shadows need to disappear.

Purpose of the Video

  1. Show the ink stone, with water
  2. Demonstrate the ink stick
  3. Demonstrate the upright position of the ink stick, and the motion on the top of the stone, as well as pulling the water up from the well of the stone, to continue the grinding process
  4. Show the creation of dark ink, show the creation of medium ink, and the creation of light ink
  5. Show through the time of the video that grinding ink for sumi does take time – it’s not something poured out of a bottle.

The Video

Let me know what you think!  Try it in HD and full screen, too.