The Four Treasures: Inkstone / Suzuri, i

I am not an expert on inkstones. I own a few, most of which I have used, and some I like better than others. My most expensive is perhaps the best, although recently I acquired one which I have still not tried. A cheap inkstone is simply a cheap inkstone, and worthless. An inexpensive inkstone is not cheap, just a bargain, and a pleasure to use!

A Little History of the Inkstone

In the “kanji countries” – that is, eastern Asian countries with a tradition of brush and ink as writing implements – inkstones were developed to grind ink sticks. If you think of sandpaper, you will understand the underlying principle of the inkstone, which is to grind away the ink into fine particles which are dissolved in water. The finer the grit of the sandpaper, the finer the grit of the ground ink. A poor inkstone will not do the job it is intended to do. A fine inkstone may be ruined by a poor ink stick, so taking care to choose high quality stone and ink is important to the artist and calligrapher.

According to various websites, there is archeological evidence of inkstone usage in China as far back as 5000 years. In Japan, the arrival of the inkstone – the suzuri – came later, as Chinese and Japanese cultures made contact. Inkstones have been excavated in Japan which date to the 8th century, and 1998 at the Tawayama site in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, the finding of the Chinese inkstone parts suggests articles related to writing were introduced to Japan via the Korean Peninsula much earlier than previously thought – about 100 A.D.  Inkstones are usually made of stone, but have also been made of ceramic, tile, clay, porcelain, jade, iron, copper, silver, wood, lacquer, and bamboo.

There are many areas throughout China, Japan and Korea noted for the quality of stone for inkstones. A good inkstone will quickly grind ink into very fine particles, will not absorb the water used to grind the ink, and not harm the brush. The mineral content and character of the inkstone influences the fineness of ink particles, as well as the blackness of the ink.

Two Chinese stones I have and used include the Duan and She stones from China. Duan (Chinese: duanshi. Japanese: tankei) is a volcanic stone, or tuff. The colors range from reddish to purple. The She stone is from China (Japanese: kyu), and is a form of slate. Both stones may have markings throughout, which are considered to increase the value and beauty of the stone.

In Japan, according to a contact, there are no more mines today which are capable of producing good inkstones, and the best stones are imported from China and carved by Japanese artisans. Nonetheless, in Japan, there Akama and Ogatsu inkstones. The Akama stone is reddish in color, with a hard, fine grain. The Ogatsu stone is black, and allows for detail in carving. It, too, is a hard stone with a fine grain. I have both Akama and Ogatsu stones.

Parts of the Inkstone

An inkstone is not just a practical tool, but a work of art in itself, whether simple and functional, or richly carved. Generally speaking, an inkstone will have a large, flat area for the ink, and a slope leading to a well for water. A small amount of water is placed in the well, and using the bottom of the ink stick, water is pulled onto the flat surface where the grinding of ink occurs. I often will sprinkle a bit of water onto the flat surface of the stone, begin the grinding of the ink, and pull more water up as needed. A stone with a large flat surface can help the artist localize different shades of grey, and the well may be used to dilute ink already on the brush to lighten it. This link will show you the general structure of an inkstone.

A Duan Inkstone

This stone measures approximately 3 x 5 inches (7.5 x 12.5 cm) on the inside.  When tapped, it has a nice, crisp sound.  The case is made of rosewood, and well constructed.

Not all inkstones have boxes or lids, and unless you use your stone frequently, it would be easy to let the ink dry out in the stone if you covered it and forgot about it.

This stone cost about $40.00 around 2000. Ink is easily made using this stone, and has a pleasant consistency. As it is a small stone, ink needs to be replenished on a regular basis. The size also makes it convenient to take to class, or to use outdoors, as it is neither heavy nor bulky. This is a great everyday stone for the the artist looking to explore ink painting and calligraphy. It is a quality stone without a high price, and a good ink stick (not a student grade ink stick) will produce thick, rich ink.


3 thoughts on “The Four Treasures: Inkstone / Suzuri, i

  1. Dorian Wacquez

    Thank you very much for your insights into the inkstone!

    I have just returned from South Korea where I purchased calligraphy items (stone, 12mm and 16mm brushes, rice paper, ink, etc.) and I have my heart set on beginning my training as soon as possible. In the mean time, I am reading around the internet, searching for tips on maintenance, stance, and style.

    Would you recommend any interesting websites or books?

    Thanks again,

    ~Dorian Wacquez

  2. Naomi Post author

    Hi Dorian,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll see what I can do for lists of books – maybe do an inventory or something, or write up a bibliography.


  3. Anne Sandler

    Hi -N-
    Thanks for the education on ink stones. The pictures didn’t come through so I think I missed what the various ink stones could do. Might be a software incompatibility. I’ll check back later.

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