While on exchange in England I decided to teach myself how to hand letter and write with brush pens (just one way to entertain myself while I burrowed inside, out of the cold). I found the experience really enjoyable and even though I wasn’t very good, it was fairly easy to learn. Because of this, I’ve decided to focus my DA on learning the art of Japanese calligraphy (書道, shodō) while looking at the popularisation of brush lettering.
I studied Japanese for a year in high school but I honestly can’t remember a thing about kanji and hiragana. This will be an almost entirely new experience for me. While searching on Google for any and all information about Japanese calligraphy, I came across an app called ‘Shodo Expert’. I thought it would be interesting to compare my experience of using an app to learn calligraphy and using a more traditional method of a calligraphy brush and ink.
Shodo expert is a free app that I downloaded onto my iPhone from the app store. I found it be an extremely easy app to navigate and use but it didn’t provide the overall experience I was hoping for. I felt a bit disconnected from what I was supposed to be learning and the interface was a bit slow for my liking. There was a lot of time spent loading pages when I wanted to switch between the different characters and I was asked, after completing every character, if I wanted to save the photo to my phone. I found it a but difficult to get the correct stroke when using my finger as it was a bit hard to see where I had to stop, where in the character had a flick, etc. It might work better on a device that has a bigger screen and with a stylus, instead of a finger. I used Shodo expert in the same place that I would usually do my other hand lettering; in my bedroom. I thought that a place that was comfortable and fairly quiet would help me concentrate more. After figuring out that the app didn’t really work out for me, I went on to try the traditional method of brush lettering.
My local Eckersley’s art and crafts supplies store had everything I needed for this part. I purchased 100mL of sumi ink paste for $12.50 and a sable hair brush for around $18. This was set up in a room much bigger than my bedroom because I was worried about spilling or dripping the ink onto something. Once I got home from the shop and actually read the box that was almost entirely in Japanese (can we just talk about the fact that the Eckersley website has the ink listed as ‘Chinese Black Ink’ when it says ‘Made in Japan’ in several locations on the box…), I discovered that the ink was actually a concentrate and I would have to dilute it with water before use. How much water exactly? I wasn’t sure. After using the ink and trying to write with it, I think I mixed too much water with the concentrate and it was no longer black but a patchy grey. I had never used a brush like this before, so I watched a tutorial on YouTube while setting up to see if there were any pointers that could help me. I learnt that I would need to let the brush soak in the ink for a little bit to soften the bristles as the movement of them proved to be important when trying to write. One of the other key points from the tutorial that stuck out to me was that it was normal and expected to write slowly.
I found that using an actual brush, ink and paper was a much more enjoyable experience and is a method that’s much easier to learn from. I used the lessons from the app to pick out a couple of characters to draw out. I ended up only writing out two characters – ichi and hito – but it felt natural to be using these products that I was unfamiliar with. I’m excited to use this method more and hope that with a bit more education, I will be able to correctly write a bunch of different kanji. I will also continue to test out the app on different devices to find a way that works best for me.