Chinese Calligraphy

For the first time in this project I’m starting to get some clarity in terms of what I want to achieve visually, which is quite exciting. There’s nothing scarier than the very beginning of a project when everything is still loose and meandering and you’re trying so hard to find something to grip onto that feels concrete. At the same time, I know that I have to resist the temptation to find something too early in the process, which could potentially lead to closing off different opportunities. I haven’t been working in the studio the past few days because school is starting up again and I haven’t had the time. The good side of this though is that I’ve had a lot of time to let my experiences in the studio this month sit and simmer in my head for a while. I think if I had continued to work in the studio every day I may not have had the opportunity to think about the work as much.

The other day I was doing more small scale ink sketches with just straight black ink, and I started to notice that many of the strokes I was using in the water were starting to resemble the strokes used in Chinese calligraphy. My mother practices Chinese calligraphy regularly, and I’ve done a little bit in the past myself on and off. I have all the equipment to do the calligraphy, as my mother would always bring back inks and brushes for me from Taiwan. In fact, my favorite brush that I’ve been using to do ink drawings is a Chinese calligraphy brush. I did notice a ways back when I was working on the Waiting series that the most comfortable way for me to physically hold the brush was very similar to the positioning necessary to doing the calligraphy. These drawings though, are the first time that I’ve ever done something that so closely resembled the visual aspects of Chinese calligraphy.

A page of Chinese calligraphy I did a few years ago. The seal in the corner is my Chinese name.

Taking that in mind, I had a few sheets of leftover rice paper from when I was doing calligraphy, and some of the Chinese ink as well. I did just a few small scale sketches using the Chinese ink on the rice paper and it was amazing just how right all of it felt. The rice paper is much more sensitive in terms of how it receives the ink, and I loved how soft and subtle the surface felt as I brushed in the ink. The ink bled all over, and yet at the same time I was able to get a very gestural, brushy surface, two qualities that just weren’t possible with the stiff watercolor paper. The Chinese ink I’m using is still liquid, but it has a little more substance to it compared to the India ink and it creates a rich black that has a depth that the India ink just isn’t capable of matching.

Eventually if I do decide to pursue these drawings in this manner, I’m going to have to look into how exactly to present the drawings. The rice paper is so thin and fragile, that it’s going to be absolutely necessary for me to find some way to mount it on a stronger surface. I was convinced earlier that I was going to do the ink drawings on those stretched pieces of watercolor paper, but now I’ve nearly ruled out that surface because the rice paper is working so well. In a way, I’m sort of relieved that the stretched pieces of watercolor paper aren’t going to be appropriate to the project; already in the past week I was getting a lot of anxiety when I was thinking about working on them. Preparing the wooden frame takes forever because I have to construct cross beam supports, the watercolor paper on a large scale is very expensive, and there’s the fear that I would spend all of these hours preparing the surface only to make an ink drawing that I’m not that excited about. I like the idea of the rice paper because the process would involve making the drawings on rice paper first, and then choosing which ones I would want to go forward with mounting. This is great because I’m not sacrificing any of the visual effects I want, and at the same time I can edit out the drawings that I don’t feel are worth mounting. Not only will I be able to work more freely, but the anxiety of wasting large, expensive materials is eliminated. When I was doing lithography as an undergraduate, I never felt like I could loosen up and do the drawings I wanted to do because at the back of my mind I would keep reminding myself that I had previously spent 5 hours grinding the stone. Scrolls are definitely an option, although I’m a little hesitant that that format might be too similar to the Chinese paintings. I’m not sure I would want the relationship to Chinese calligraphy to be that transparent, although it’s far too early for me to be making that assumption. I’ll have to do more tests and think about it more.

I’m going to do many more sketches before I decide whether to go with this approach all the way, but I haven’t felt this excited about my work for a long time, which is usually a very good sign. It’s also amazing to me that something that I’ve been literally living with my whole life could play such a major role in the work I’m doing. I have many Chinese scrolls hanging all over my house, and it’s so interesting to me that all of this has been right under my nose the whole time.

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