As you know by now, the Asian brush is differently constructed than the Western brush, and its usage has its own traditions. Calligraphy and painting are considered to be the same, if you base it on language; it is my understanding that “writing” and “painting” have the same verb in Japanese. And, as in Western cultures, a refined hand in writing was believed to reveal the character of the writer.
Calligraphy Brush vs. Paint Brush
Calligraphy can be done with a regular brush, but perhaps not as easily. This picture to the left will show you two calligraphy brushes, which are on either side of one of my favorite paint brushes. The noticeable difference is the length of the bristles – the calligraphy brushes are have much longer ones than the paint brush. Still, you could use the center brush for calligraphy, but there is more movement to be had when using the calligraphy brushes. If you recall the video in the previous post of Koji Kokinuma, the brush he uses has long bristles – he makes beautiful thin to thick, flying whites, and graceful curves. Close observation shows he changes the brush position as he moves along, twirling the brush in his hand, besides angling his wrist or tilting the brush from the perpendicular.
The brush to right, with the dark bristles, is a “hard” brush. This means the hairs are less absorbent, and thus, less ink is held in the bristles. This kind of brush must be refilled more frequently than a soft haired or mixed hair brush, but one of its great qualities is a vibrancy it gives to the lines – sharp, direct, with flying whites as the ink is used up. Dark bristles indicate a hard brush.
The next brush, with the white hairs on the outside, and darker hairs on the inside, is considered to be a mixed hair brush. This kind of brush has lighter, white hair for increased ink capacity, as well as a fuller, rounder body when the brush is pressed into the paper. The harder center allows for a sharper point. This kind of brush can range from a razor thin line to a plump one with very little pressure difference. Angling such a brush can give a very rounded shape to the stroke. If the bristles were all white, then the absorbency and softness of the white hairs would be a dominant feature.
Setting Up for Calligraphy or Painting
I am right-handed, so this is how I set up my desk for painting or calligraphy. As I am learning hiragana, I am more interested in memorizing the kana than being artistic, but the fact that kana developed in a culture where the brush, not the pen or quill, was the writing implement, the structure of the kana is derived from brush strokes. Anyone who tries this will understand what I mean – a chiseled Roman capital will not happen with a calligraphy brush!
When it comes to practicing kanji, the form and structure of the character is designed to fit into a square. As you can see, the mosen, which is the felt upon which one paints or writes, has squares with diagonals. Sometimes the squares can be set up like a 9-patch quilt, with 3 x 3 grid. The purpose of these squares is to allow the calligrapher to center the characters within the squares, creating a balance and structure which allows the beauty of each to be seen. Notebooks from Asian countries often have vertical lines to keep characters neat, just as we have horizontal lines in our notebooks. Messiness has its place, but illegibility is not desirable.
Practice calligraphy paper is very thin. This allows the lines to be seen through the paper. This paper is also very absorbent, so before writing, excess ink is removed on the edge of the suzuri, and sometimes even blotted on towelling. If you look at the towels in the photo, you will see a lot of ink stains, from blotting the ink stick after rubbing, and from blotting the brush tip as well. I use the same towels over and over again, and find that cheap, terry dish towels are fantastic. The more I wash and bleach them, the more I like them.
This next image is from the book Chinese Calligraphy, by Qu Lei Lei. Here you can see the 3 x 3 grid for the character, as well as one like the one I use. You will also see how beautiful the character is, nicely balanced within the square. My own attempt is rather short and squat, and lacks the quality of Qu Lei Lei’s example. If you are a serious calligraphy student, Chinese Calligraphy is especially nice because the details of dots and lines is far more than what many books will teach. They may look easy, but they are not! And, it takes practice – my work needs a lot of help!
See what I mean? Homely as it is, it does show how the mosen is used with the paper to help center and balance the calligraphic character, and help create the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. The absorbency of the paper I am using also presents a challenge because bleeding of the ink is very common! When you can do this without the mosen, you will have accomplished quite a bit.
And finally, here is my practice hiragana. In the upper left, you can see how nicely the grid helped center the kana. On the lower right, you can get a good sense of the absorbency of the paper – thick black lines for some kana, to thin, sharp lines as I used up ink.
I used both calligraphy brushes shown above, preferring the mixed hair brush for the smaller practice. I also used some very fine brushes which had maybe only 10 bristles in them. I liked the softer, longer bristled brushes, as I thought the movement of line was more readily accomplished, with smooth transitions from thin and thick and back for the kana, but if I wanted a rugged effect, a hard brush could be quite the right tool for the job.
Brushes are incredible inventions, for all their seeming simplicity. At a future date, I will write more about the manufacture of Asian brushes!