At some stage in the Western world most of our languages made the switch to a restricted number of symbolically meaningless shapes which, combined, made the infinity of words we needed to share our ideas and our emotions. There are still variations among alphabets and it took a while to agree on the number of letters in each language. Along the way, we have attempted to infuse them with some power and meaning but have mostly come up short in this regard. (We even might have lost something magical and vital when that switch happened, read the gorgeous book by David Abram The Spell of the sensuous if you would like to explore that avenue.)
Still, why is it then that we enjoy letters so? That our initials are important to us… enough anyway to emboss them on our luggage or embroider them on our best linen -granted not so much anymore perhaps. Beautiful handwriting is still admired of course but “in the good old days” elegant penmanship was most certainly a sine qua none skill for a man or woman “of letters.” Some continue to practice that noble art and even get paid to embellish envelopes or write suave hand-written letters… Such is the life of Eric de Tugny, calligraphe extraordinaire in Paris, France and owner of Mélodies Graphiques… we will come to him in my next post!
Most languages not using the Latin alphabet have stuck to the original formula of stylized root symbols. Alone or grouped to make meaningful word-symbols these drawn representations have created and sustained important lineages of calligraphers… dare I refer to the Oriental ones as men “of the strokes”, while tagging Arabic calligraphers men “of the curves?” Certainly all of them as skilled as any fine artist would be.
It has occurred to me only recently that, however different the results, the choice of supports and tools -from brushes of all shapes and ilk, to qalams made of reed or bamboo to an array of differently shaped nibs-, the common denominator to all calligraphy is… INK!
And although ink has been developed just about everywhere on the globe at some stage or another, the delightful Seshat, also known as “Mistress of the House of Books”, Egyptian goddess of reading, writing, arithmetic, architecture and credited with inventing writing might have also (while she was at it!) come up with the recipe for ink. Certainly a most useful ingredient for the scribes who would for centuries fill papyrus scroll after papyrus scroll with exquisite hieroglyphs drawn in deep black ink.
She might have been the first but I learnt, at the age of five years and in a rather indelible way, that ink comes from China. That’s what the label on that big black bottle I reached for on my mother’s chest of drawers long ago most certainly said. A very enticing bottle which I tried to grab, missed and which then rolled, without any possible redemption, in a very artistic crash unto my parents’ new wall to wall carpet. And encre de Chine is quite impossible to get rid of… precisely why it is sought after so! (By the way, I am talking about the same one you probably know under the name of Indian ink, a misnomer most certainly due to the boats arriving in England from India… but not the ink.)
It is only quite recently that I understood how encre de Chine was developed in China in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. leaving behind plant dyes and graphite which had been used for centuries prior but produced poor or greyish results. The new process consisted of allowing little oil lamps with a conic hat to burn until all the oil had disappeared, the lamp left to cool and the soot then collected. That pigment*, mixed with animal glues, would then be kneaded and beaten and trampled on until it was shiny and smooth enough to be easily molded into cakes. Left to dry, the practical little sticks could produce ink on demand all over the Empire just by adding water. For some reason (don’t ask me I think I’m past trying to understand this passion of mine), it prompted a true and vivid image in my mind. I could just see the rows of little lamps burning, the black room in which it all happened, the men in conic hats sweeping gently the soot away. I anticipated easily finding a drawing or a Japanese woodblock print of this, after all ink is a pretty serious business in China and Japan -who stole the recipe some time during the seventh century. But no luck so far…
And so it is not without some trepidation that I pushed the door of the Kobaien Co. in Nara (Japan) two months ago. We chose that particular factory because it is the oldest one, fifteen generations of owners have prided themselves in making the finest sumi ink here, but an appointment I have not and no idea either if they will let us visit their premises. Of course, the shop is open to all and it’s already quite a treasure trove of ink sticks plus a few brushes and vermillion paste for the seals. But I want more! So we patiently wait until a lovely young man, apparently the English-speaking employee here, comes along. We try to explain our quest and… yes! He will translate for us while the more knowledgeable lady in charge tells us in Japanese the story of the firm and explains the steps of ink making.
It’s a bit hard conveying my bliss at seeing my “vision” come true. To these people who have been producing ink for four centuries and see it every day in the making, I must sound somewhat overly enthusiastic but I don’t care, this is what I’ve come to Japan for and there it is…
Step one, the production of soot in the lamps… The longer the wick, the faster the burning the less fine the pigment particles. Also, the quality of the oil will have an incidence on the quality of the ink, it’s darkness and hue… bluish, greyish, black or blacker still.
Step two, the melting of the animal glues and the mixing with the pigment + a small amount of perfume to cover the smell of the glues. (I have read that in ancient times the calligraphers would make the trip themselves to buy their inks and taste them -literally- to judge their finesse.)
Step four each lump is weighed and then rolled by hand again…
then inserted into a wooden mold (the molds are engraved in reverse so that an inscription can be read later on the stick)
Step five, the little cakes go to dry in big wooden trays buried under layers of rice husk ashes… it’s very very fine (think rice powder) and will absorb already a lot of the humidity.
Step six is the second phase of drying in which neat string tied rows of sticks will gently sway in an air controlled room for weeks and become rock hard. (This room is a display one only as the door is opened too often and that would not suit the precious sticks.)
Step seven is shell polishing of the sticks and eventually, for the better inks, hand painting or gilding of the inscription or even the whole stick. (These steps are performed in the summer months when the humidity halts the ink making.)
Student quality Sumi ink is often found in bottles but good quality and variety is found mainly in sticks. Although lightfast, most sumi inks do not dry totally waterproof and it might be a good idea to test yours if you want to use it next to watercolours for example. They also dry more matte than “Indian ink” does as encre de Chine contains shellac -a lacquer added to give the ink a shiny sheen and also turns it waterproof. Apart from that they are made in the same way but Indian ink is usually sold in a bottle (haha, tell me about it!)
* And what is the name of that pigment made from burning oil in little lamps? Common, you know… the answer is in the question!
Kobaien Co. Ltd is the sumi-e ink factory and store I visited:
7 Banchi, Tsubai-cho, Nara, Japan
while Kinoshitashousendou is the name of the little store/factory, also in Nara, where you can buy vermillion paste for your seal, http://kinoshitashousendou.co.jp/