A couple weeks ago, I made an introductory post of my calligraphy works and journey in a group for Asian creatives. Aside from heartwarming support, I was surprised by the amount of questions I got in regards to getting started. Many are interested but don’t know where to begin, and a couple of google searches made me realize how few resources there are online, even in mandarin. This inspired me to write this post — a quick guide to help you start learning Chinese calligraphy.
Update 11/15/2021: Given continued reader interest in this post, I decided to start a series to cover various aspects of learning Chinese calligraphy in more detail. Check out the inaugural post, and hit “Follow” if you want to be notified when future posts are published. I plan to do one every month. Also, don’t miss out on the opportunity to win a handwritten calligraphy prize! (see the end of the inaugural post for more information)
Tools for Chinese calligraphy
👆This is a photo of my calligraphy desk setup, and it has everything you need to get started (the first four items below are known as the Four Treasures):
Rice paper: also called xuan paper or sumi paper. They come in various sizes and textures, and the ones with grids (as shown in the photo) are the best kind for practicing. There are ones with additional reference lines, which I’d recommend for beginners, as it makes it easier to observe the relative positions of the different strokes within a character.
Calligraphy brush: Chinese calligraphy brushes are often made of weasel or rabbit hair, and the shaft from bamboo or wood. Please don’t substitute the calligraphy brushes with Western watercolor or oil paint brushes! The latter often have very different designs that restrict the angles in which the brush could move, making them almost impossible to produce the delicate and varying strokes in Chinese calligraphy.
Ink: traditionally calligraphers grind ink sticks on ink stones with water to produce liquid ink for calligraphy. But for convenience sake, nowadays most people use pre-made bottled calligraphy/sumi inks.
Ink stone: for grinding and containment of the ink. But if you choose not to grind the ink yourself, you can replace it with any other container with a distinct enough edge to smooth out the brush (more details under Getting the Brush Ready).
Paper stop: it’s the golden metal strip in the photo. You can use anything that’s heavy enough to hold down the paper, and small enough so that it wouldn’t block off too much of your writing space.
Calligraphy mat: a large cotton mat that prevents the ink from getting onto your table or other surfaces. There are different colors, but black is the most popular as stains won’t be visible. A couple layers of newspaper will do too.
If you’re based in the United States, all of the above could be found on Amazon. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to find them in local art supply shops or specialty stores.
Holding the Brush
The video above gives a clear demonstration of how to hold a Chinese calligraphy brush in the traditional way, where your index and middle fingers are in the front, and the rest on the back of the shaft.
However, I hold the brush the way I hold a pencil — with only my index finger in front. This is how one of my calligraphy teachers taught me, and I felt that it gave me more control over the brush. Choose whichever method suits you the most. Yet an important aspect that remains consistent across these different ways of holding the brush, is that your index finger and thumb should form an oval shape, as shown in 0:20 in the video. This creates the space necessary for the fingers to maneuver the brush. One way to practice and confirm that you’re doing this correctly, is to try and make sure you’re able to fit an egg or ping pong ball into the space in between the brush and your palm.
Getting the Brush Ready
Almost there! Now that we know how to hold a brush, let’s do the following steps:
(1) Rinse the brush
If you’re starting with a brand new brush, the hair is most likely stiff as there’s gel to keep it in place. Wash it under warm water for a couple of minutes until the brush is no longer stiff / when you can no longer feel the gel.
Otherwise, usually a few seconds is enough. And smooth out the brush and gently squeeze out excess water with your thumb and index finger.
(Left) before rinsing; (Right) after rinsing
(2) Pour some ink into your ink stone or container
(3) Wet the brush with ink completely
It’s important to make sure that you wet the brush completely instead of just the tip. Thicker strokes are created by pushing down the brush towards the paper, utilizing the middle or upper sections of the brush; therefore you simply won’t be able to continue the strokes if only the tip has ink.
(4) Smooth out excess ink
Smooth out excess ink on the edge of the ink stone or container. You’re ready to start writing when the brush no longer drips when you hold it up right. It should have a nice tip similar to how it looks above after it’s been rinsed.
Leggo! The Warm-up
Knitting and pony tail — this is a 5 minute practice that you should ideally do at the beginning of each calligraphy session, as it’s a great warm-up for the most common arm motions when writing Chinese calligraphy.
For knitting, you start off with drawing horizontal lines left to right. You want them to be swift, clean, thin, and as long as possible.
And you gradually fill it out like you’re knitting a rug.
with vertical lines starting from the top, and also fill out the page. While knitting, you don’t want to move your fingers or wrist — rather the whole arm should be moving in the direction of the line, bringing the hand and brush along with it.
As for pony tail, we first draw the outline. We then fill it in — the concept is similar to knitting, but instead of straight lines, we are now working with curved ones.
(Left) outline; (Right) fill in with similarly curved strokes
We then repeat in the other direction. And regardless of the directions, the stroke always starts from the top, and ends in the bottom.
Eight Principles of Yong- The Fundamentals
The Chinese character 永 (yong), is the best character to start with, as it comprises of 8 of the most common strokes in Chinese characters, also known as the Eight Principles of Yong.
Below is a nice demonstration of how to write the individual strokes:
Each of these strokes take a long time to master, therefore I’d recommend practicing them one at a time instead of rushing to complete a whole character. I remember having to practice each of them for hundreds, if not thousands of times when I first started. So don’t fret if it doesn’t look right the first few tries! Give it some time, and most important of all, have fun!
If you find this interesting, and would like to keep learning, or have any specific questions, leave a comment or send me a note. Happy to share more (whether it be more details on how to write the strokes, the different styles of calligraphy etc.) if there’s enough interest 😃