4 Treasures of Studio


Unique Chinese calligraphy is the finest and most significant among all Chinese art forms, as well as an indispensible  part of the Chinese history. Not only does it convey messages by  in a precisely written way  but it also depicts emotions of the writer. Delicate aesthetic effects achieved by Chinese calligraphy are exceptionally unique among existing calligraphic arts. Today wide application of calligraphic art in the digital world is creating artistic fonts for printing or display. Many authors in their works describe a comprehensive examination of the writing effects which the brushes can make. For artistic effects, researchers try to model the hairy brush used  by famous artists in calligraphy. For example, Zhang (2004) states that the brush is  a set of bristles that evolve during the course of the stroke. This concept is popular among new learners.

According to Chinese sages, “Calligraphy is music for the eyes” , as well as a non-objective painting and soundless music. They also describe that calligraphy is a dance without  artistic architecture designs and materials. Such admiring epithets are a tribute to  art worship and they display  esteem respect. Indeed, the movement of the hand with a brush saturated with ink is like the original dance – the subject of internal creativity of wizards who are capable of producing on a white sheet a rhythmic harmony of black lines, dashes, dots and harmony that passes thorough an infinite range of human thoughts, feelings, and moods. That is why calligraphy is the key to many other related forms of art that draw their inspiration from it.

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In ancient China, the essentiality for writing poetry and the expertise of calligraphic art was mandatory for scholars and officials. In modern China, calligraphy is still one of the six arts. In Chinese culture, the origin of speech never existed; rather, the emphasis is always on writing. In this context,  the creation of language happens  through the creation of Chinese characters. This is explained by the fact that  in Chinese letters do not exist and characters are used instead  Credit of this invention goes to Cang Jie, a half human, half god figure, who lived four thousand years ago . The ancient Chinese had a belief that Heaven possessed secret codes which could be exposed through natural phenomenon. Only those blessed with divine powers had the capability to read them. Cang Jie had this ability as he had four eyes. He could translate the natural signs and interpret the shapes of objects into writing. When he created written symbols, spirits screamed in anguish because of  exposure of secrets of Heaven. Since then emperors and  ordinary citizens alike have a tremendous respect for written symbols. Cang Jie invented the ”iconic characters” like the Sun,  the Moon, mountains and rivers, birds and trees, and most characters  remain the same to this day as they were thousands of years ago (Mindich, 1990)

Since the ancient times writing in calligraphy  has received significant treatment that incorporates four essential jewels of writing. These jewels are: brush, ink, ink stone, and paper. Therefore, the Chinese worship these four treasures as objects involved in the divine principle, and its attributes hold a significant place in their society.

The Brush

Brushes are an  essential feature of the Chinese calligraphy. Students  use them in  classroom for  calligraphy and painting. Among the four jewels, the Chinese writing brush plays the key role in writing. The calligraphy technique collectively refers to brushwork, whose  distinctive feature is  its flexibility. Hair from animals, such as rabbits, horses, goats, and weasels forms the tuft of brush.  The application of a hard or soft brush depends upon the level of writing skills of a writer. In this respect,  beginners have to use a brush with either mixed hair or goat hair. Each variety of hair has its own assets for writing. For example, horse hair being stiff does not stick together when wet. Thus, a writing brush in its core should include stiff horse hair enclosed by soft goat hair for strengthening the bristles together.

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Brushes differ in both length and thickness, and the size of a brush affects the stroke size. The dimensions of the brush depend upon the size of characters which are to be written. While writing characters which are 1.5 to 2 square inches, brushes with g tufts of 1 to 1.5 inches long are best suitable. If calligraphy is to be written in pieces with inscriptions such as  characters smaller than the main text,  a smaller brush is  also appropriate for this purpose. All in all, Chinese writing brushes incorporate four significant features:

1. Fineness. For maximum accuracy, the tip of brush must be fine, which means it must be  pliable and sensitive.

2. Evenness. The Chinese brush has a distinct feature in which the long hairs embedded at the core act as a spine and those of the outside  layer have the same length. Some shorter hairs are also in between so that ink can well up in the pocket and gets released when  pressure is applied. The long hairs trimmed to the same length must meet at the same point. Thanks to this, while writing the hairs hit at the same time and distribute ink evenly.

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3. The tuft of calligraphy brush must be cone shaped, round and full, which  permits easy movement in all directions.

4. Flexibility. The brush should be flexible to produce strokes of various thicknesses and shapes. These brushes are stiffer when compared to Western paintbrushes. When the brush moves away from the paper, its tuft must retain to its original shape so that it is possible to write additional stokes. The brush is  itself a piece of art. Its bristles must serve  a functional purpose; the handle is merely for decorative impression. The handle consists of a variety of impressive materials such as silver, gold, ivory, red sandalwood, and ivory, although bamboo is the most popular . Handles decorated by carving into a desired shape or by carving calligraphy enhance the appearance of any brush (Fang, 1997).

The Chinese brush originated in the Neolithic Era. Traditionally,  credit goes to the general Meng Tian during Qin dynasty for this invention. The traces of black or red brush strokes discovered in the shrines of the Shang dynasty explain the application of characters carving on the oracle bones. During the Warring States Period, the earliest brush from rabbit hair with a handle of bamboo was discovered near the Changhsa city, which shows the popularity of writing characters in that period. These days “Hu brushes” produced in Huzhou of Zhejiang are most popular, owing to high-quality goat hair in that province and their long time involvement in manufacturing which dates back to  Jin Dynasty (Lei Lei, 2007).

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The Ink

These days, most beginners prefer to use liquid ink, which is both inexpensive and convenient to use. However, learned calligraphers make their own ink from ink sticks so that they are able to obtain variations in the ink solution for a superior control in achieving the effects they have in their mind. The ink used in the Chinese calligraphy is black, which include two ingredients: glue obtained from animal horns and hides and lampblack, or a carbon shoot. These ingredients are mixed in the ratio for obtaining a claylike paste, and then poured in wooden molds. When the pieces get dry, they are moved away from the molds, and the ink sticks decorate them with characters and designs.

For making an ink solution, pour a little water on an ink stone. As the ink paste rubs with the sick, it dissolves in the water and forms liquid ink. Precaution should be observed ensuring the proper mixing of the water quantity, so that the resultant mixture is neither too thick nor too runny. In case the ink is thick, it will not move freely on paper. If the ink is thin, it can blot and expand into thick lines.

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Sufficient ink for  writing an entire  piece must be prepared at one time, because the consecutive mixing of ink is never exactly the same or consistent. The remixing of ink in the middle of writing may cause undesirable color differences and change the character of writing. Although  ink is soluble in water, when applied to writing it becomes waterproof and does not fade as the Western inks. For this reason, the ink used in ancient Chinese paintings and scrolls is still visible though the paper has lost its color with age.

Chinese ink is soluble with water and gives different effects of blackness. Laymen consider ink to be  only black, but to an artist, there are many tonalities and colors. In the traditional art of Chinese calligraphy, there is a consistency of  using the same tone throughout the writing, whereas in painting various tones of blackness can be seen (The Four Treasures of A Studio, n.d.).

The Inkstone

The Chinese ink stone is comparable to western inkwell, though their functions are remarkably different. Western writing and calligraphy is usually by the use of a pen and  by a temporary form of ink. Besides,   Western inkwells serve  the only purpose – to hold ink. In contrast, the Chinese ink stone serves multi functioning. It is a surface for grinding an ink stick to form ink and a decorative art piece for an artist. Ink stones are typically made from solid and dark natural stone, which is smooth and flat, with a hollow portion in the center to hold ink. These ink stones are available in all shapes and sizes, and biggest have to be lifted by several people. Painters and calligraphers whose work needs a bulk quantity of ink and those who make their own ink use bigger ink stones; ordinary ink stones are usually four to nine inches in size. An ink stone must be heavy enough so that it does not tilt easily and will not move when  ink sticks ground on it.

During the course of ink making, when an ink stick moves in a circular form across the hollow center of the ink stone, the rough surface of ink stone grinds small pieces of the ink stick and dissolves in the water. Since this process is time-consuming and rather slow, liquid ink is becoming more practical and popular. However, professional calligraphers prefer to grind their own ink when they want to produce exceptional consistency and unusual tonalities of ink to give peculiar effects (Zhang, 2004).

The quality of the ink stone influences the quality  of ink produced on it and the speed of formation of the ink. The surface of ink stone should not be excessively rough or too fragile. If a stone is excessively smooth, it does not break an ink stick into particles, and if the surface is too coarse, the ink stick will grind into larger pieces that are not capable to form  thin liquid.

Another necessary feature of an ink stone is its ability to sustain the wetness of the ink which stays on its surface after grinding. If a stone is excessively porous, it will absorb the liquid and ink will dry out much faster than it can be used. The best stones for ink stones come from Duanzhou in Guandong Province and are known as  Duanyan.

The Paper

For Chinese calligraphy, professionals and artists use absorbent and coarse textured paper. The best quality is Xuan paper manufactured in Anhui province. It consists of plant fiber and possesses superior tensile strength. Xuan paper is delicate and white, does not tear, and can be  preserved  for a long time. Owing to its feature of absorbency, this paper reacts well to  different amounts and qualities of ink by producing a variety of visual effects. A wet, watery brush with ink moving on the paper gives the dark stroke in the center with lighter impressions of ink at the sides. In case a dry brush with a thick ink moves quickly on the paper,  white streaks are visible in the stroke. These effects and techniques produce a variety and add interest to work.

The credit of  invention of the paper goes to Cai Lun about 105 CE, but archaeological studies show that the use of paper of inferior quality began in an earlier period. The ancient paper manufacturing technology provides ideal support for brush writing and has deemed  indispensable for  the Chinese calligraphy development into a unique and  true art (The Four Treasures of A Studio, 2011).


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