Quite some time ago, I wrote about brushes used in Asia. As I am beginning Saturday morning Japanese language classes, I am in conflict with time and distance in being able to attend my Chinese painting class. I’ll just have to figure that out later. However, the fact that I am learning hiragana, my preferred practice method is the traditional brush since I enjoy it so much. It is also said that the strokes used in Asian calligraphy are those used in Asian painting. Given that, I thought it would be worthwhile to review elements of holding the brush.
Holding the Brush Is Not the Same as Holding a Pen
When I was in school, penmanship was an important part of the daily curriculum. I practiced my penmanship from first grade through the eighth. My third grade teacher shamed me by saying “Any one who draws as well as you do should have good penmanship.” Ooops! In eighth grade I won a penmanship award. Over the years, I’ve collected a few manuals on the Palmer Method of penmanship, which is the basis of much of what I was taught in school. Today, penmanship has been replaced by other methods of handwriting – you might find this article amusing if you remember your penmanship classes.
Enough digressions. The fact is that Western culture teaches the student to hold the pen at a slant. These scans from an old Palmer Method manual show what I mean. Additionally, the writing surface is also at a slight angle, tilting gently toward the writer’s lap. Paper is also angled, so that an uphill slope is created for writing left to right.
Illustrations from various books, published in the US, Japan, China and elsewhere demonstrate how to hold the brush. Rather than the slanted wrist resting on the table, the brush is held perpendicular to the writing surface, which is not at all slanted. The forearm is held rather straight, yet relaxed. The brush may be held close to the bristles, or anywhere along the handle, all the way to the top. The paper is also straight, with the idea being writing is vertical, and there is no need for the paper to be slanted.
Ms. Kuroda Holding a Brush
Holding the Brush
To the right, you can see how to hold the brush. This illustration is from a Japanese book on sumi-e painting, and unfortunately the only thing I know about the author is that her name is Kuroda san.
According to H.E. Davey, author of Brush Mediation: A Japanese Way to MInd & Body Harmony,
Grip the Brush Gently and Focus Your Ki through the Brush Tip
Physically speaking, shodo [Japanese calligraphy] begins with the student’s grip on the brush. Unless a suitable technique of gripping is mastered, no advancement is possible . . . First, your elbow should not stick up or out to an excessive degree. This would only create an unsettling of the arm’s weight a s well as produce tension in the muscle of the arm and shoulder. This tension can cause your flow of ki to clog in the shoulders and not be effectively transmitted through the brush into the painting. This point is important, and various Japanese calligraphy authorities have made note of its significance.
At the same time, do not let your elbow sag or droop . . . when your elbow sags heavily toward the ground, it also tends to rub against the body and produces a cramped feeling that is expressed in your in your artwork. You should feel that your elbow is floating in a settled position a few inches from your body. (pgs. 76-77)
Sitting with the Brush
In my opinion, one of the very best books on sumi-e is Sumi-e Self Taught, by Kohei Aida. No longer in print, you might be able to find it through an online used book service; if you are interested, it was published in 1968, by Japan Publications, Inc., of Tokyo, Japan. The text is in English, which is very helpful. The best part of the book is that he shows the artist how to load the brush, how angle and roll it on the ink-water dish’s edge, and many subtleties not illustrated in most English-language sumi books.
Aida san shows how to sit in a western manner (upright at a table) while holding the brush. H.E. Davey’s book, Brush Meditation, also has several photos on posture and sitting.
Going back to my blurb on knitting, posture, and pain, I suggest that you concentrate on sitting upright and focus on bringing your shoulder blades back toward the spine. Don’t arch your back, but focus on a gentle backward movement of the shoulder blades, and a focus on a plumb-line approach to your spine. If you are sloppy like me, this will be unfamiliar, and uncomfortable because you may not do this naturally, and your muscles will not be happy. However, with time, it gets easier – I’m actually remembering to do it, and occasionally find I’m still upright later on . . .
In this position, you can move your arm as well as your wrist. Tighter movements will be done with the hand closer to the bristles, while holding the hand at the top of the brush gives a wonderful looseness in the stroke. In calligraphy, I expect these same results will apply. If you look at my post about painting the dragon you will also see that the brush can be held at different angles – sideways, for example. Aida san’s book demonstrates the same.
Aida san Demonstrates Brush Movement
Movement of the Brush
This illustration to the left, from Aida san’s book, shows how the brush may be tilted to achieve a brush stroke while painting. The hand and wrist may also be tilted to create curves, pressure may be applied at the end of the stroke, and gliding motions similar to an airplane landing and taking off can make thin-to-thick line, and vice versa. Ending a stroke with increasing pressure will also create a certain effect.
The Charles E. Tuttle Company has published wonderful art books about Japan. One book which has been in print since 1960 is Japanese Painting as Taught by Ukai Uchiyama, Kay Morrissey Thompson. The reason I mention this is because the next picture is for the artist sitting on the floor, in the traditional manner, to paint. At the same time you can see that the brush is being held very near the top of the handle. Looking at Uchiyama san’s work, you will notice a very loose, wild style which is, nonetheless, very controlled and lively. Mastery of the brush allows for this, and perhaps sitting on the floor adds to the process.
Ukai Uchiyama Painting
Uchiyama Holding Brush
This detail of the photograph shows you how Uchiyama san holds his brush – just the same as Aida san, simply closer to the top of the handle. Practicing this yourself will help you understand the quality of stroke and control obtained by holding the brush at different levels along the handle. Certainly the closer your hand is to the bristles, the more minute control you have. Shoulder and arm movement are more restricted when in this position. Freedom and spontanenaeity increase with distance. However, without a knowledge of how to use the brush, this can be a study in frustration! So, focus yourself, breathe slowly and deeply. Imagine your energy flowing out of the brush tip – your ki – and with practice, your brush may dance with your soul.
Artist in Action
Once more, I believe videos can clearly demonstrate something which is difficult to explain with words. This video will show you how to hold a Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, or whatever!) brush for calligraphy.
The following video is of the young Japanese artist / calligrapher, Koji Kakinuma. In particular, watch how he changes from thin to thick lines, as well as how he tilts the brush at different angles; you will observe this by observing the brush tip. When the brush is perpendicular to the paper, the tip must be considered to be the center of the line. Tilting the brush, increasing and decreasing pressure – sometimes all combined – vary the appearance of the stroke. Notice, too, that the bristles in the brush are longer in length than a painting brush. Soft, hard, and mixed-hair brushes may be used, each having its own qualities.
Finally, here is a video about the difference between calligraphy brushes and painting brushes.