What’s in a Brushstroke?
“Figures are the most shocking things in the world. The prettiest little squiggles of black looked at in the right light and yet consider the blow they can give you upon the heart.”
—H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly
This prolific, English science-fiction writer recognized what we all know… calligraphy can and does reflect and project emotion. Its flourishes and brushstrokes, tails and wisps seem to release the images from the parchment and pages, freeing them from their literary confines, allowing them to seemingly come to life. They can even give, as Mr. Wells clearly recognized, a palpable blow upon the heart.
The Way of Writing
At its origin in ancient Greece, calligraphy was considered a visual art related to writing, and in its purest form was executed with the control of a single stroke. Time has marched on and modern commercial versions of calligraphy, from wedding invitations to important-looking legal documents to degrees from institutions of higher learning, have obviously taken liberties with that original rule. In fact, most computers even contain a calligraphic font. What would the early Greeks have said about that?
And, though Asian calligraphy originated in China approximately 4,500 years ago and took many forms over the centuries, it did not reach Japan until some time in the 6th Century. Once there, it was simplified into three basic writing styles.
Tackling the essentials of calligraphy, or shodou as its known in Japanese, is required as early as elementary school. Later, it becomes part of the art curriculum in higher education. Currently calligraphy is routinely practiced in adult life by a significant segment of the Japanese population.
The most basic style of shodou is called kaisho, meaning,
“correct writing”, and could be thought of as the equivalent of “printing” in the English alphabet. The simple strokes attempt to imitate the letterforms one might encounter while perusing a book or magazine. It’s the easiest to read and execute allowing beginners to practice using the brush.
Gyousho, or “traveling writing”, is like cursive handwriting in English. It’s a more flowing and rounded calligraphic style that’s easily read by educated Japanese. This is the form most people generally use when penning a casual note.
The most artistic form of calligraphic writing is called sousho, or “grass writing”. With this version, form trumps function and the stylized technique of individual artists and their attempt to define a unique shape often leaves legibility aside. It is, however, closest to the original pure form where the brush never leaves the paper.
Tools of the Trade
The brushes, or fudes, are the calligrapher’s essential tools and are artistic collectibles in their own right. Most commonly, they’re made with bamboo or wooden handles and may contain hairs from a variety of sources—cat, deer, dog, horse, and goat are most common—depending on the desired effect. The best brushes are fifty to one hundred years old although a baby’s first hairs are sometimes used to create a commemorative piece in celebration of a birth.
Next in importance is the ink, or sumi. A charcoal stick is rubbed on an ink stone, a suzuri, while the artist adds water until the desired consistency is achieved. Serious artists will always make their own ink though commercial inks are available, especially for beginners.
Finally, there is the paper itself. The Japanese produce a special paper, known as washi, from a type of mulberry bark noted for its extra-long fibers. Its unique surface texture, consistent absorption rate, and strength make it the choice of contemporary calligraphers throughout the world.
Beyond these essentials, every artist will have a paper weight to hold the paper in place, a cloth to place under the paper preventing ink from bleeding through, and a seal created by the artist to identify his or her own work.
A Global Art Form
All across Asia, the calligraphic arts are on display in every country from Mongolia to Myanmar. And each region will have its own distinctive variations. In East Asia, the differences in approach can be derived from the literal translation of the word for calligraphy. In China it is the law of writing; in Japan, the way of writing; and in Korea, the art of writing.
In India, calligraphic inscriptions were often committed to stone, obviously requiring a much more angular style of lettering. In the Islamic world, calligraphy relates to the spiritual world as opposed to the spoken word, and appears often on the walls and ceilings of mosques. Based on the already flowing Arabic alphabet, it has its own look as illustrated in many classic editions of the Koran.
In the west, calligraphy was used most often in handwritten religious texts laboriously reproduced by monks. And, at the archaeological sites of Central America, calligraphy is found in ancient Mayan hieroglyphs that, even today, are used as logos by commercial companies in parts of Mexico.
For such an ancient art form, calligraphy continues to be appreciated and used as a reference point for the highest form of expression by contemporary artists of every stripe. Author Shawn Martin describes one of the characters from his 2013 novel, Shadowflesh, thusly, “Addison spoke in calligraphy while everyone else talked in scribbles.” Sounds like someone we’d like to meet.
In the meantime, why not have your name written in calligraphy as a memento of your journey.