Frederic Wong’s “Brush, Ink, Mind: the Practice of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting” takes the reader step-by-step through the elements of learning calligraphy and brush painting in the Chinese tradition. The book is methodical like an instruction book or like a primer written in clear, steady prose.
According to Wong, in the Chinese art form, calligraphy – the writing of Chinese words – and brush painting are inseparable. Visually, one brush stroke can write “a whole poem” or paint “a whole painting.” More than this fluidity flowing from words to considering art expressed otherwise as paintings, Wong quotes from Shi Tao (17th-18th c.) the holistic approach of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting. Wong quotes:
“Painting (also calligraphy) comes from ink; ink flows from the brush, brush from the wrist,
wrist from the heart… just as all things come from earth, are born in heaven.”
— Shi Tao (17th-18th c.)
Wong’s approach to learning calligraphy/brush painting is first to introduce the reader to the “Four Treasures” of the art: brush, paper, ink and ink stone. These are the main tools of the art form. To illustrate, Wong gives a glimpse of the details and a little of the history in how to dissolve the glue that holds the animal hair tip of a new calligraphy brush and how to make paper from a bamboo screen – a method developed 1,500 years ago. Ink may be black soot of carbon or oil smoke that comes in the form of an “ink stick.” An ink stone is made to “grind” ink from the ink stick while the ink stick is dissolved in a little water.
There are questions to ask in reading and following the instructions to practice calligraphy. To the untrained eye, not literate in the Chinese language, is calligraphy easily learned, grasped and mastered? Is the calligraphy of Chinese words like the “font type” of letters in the alphabets of romanized languages?
The other set of questions about Wong’s primer to learning calligraphy and brush painting is the connections between art and meditation. To live with disorder is, for the most parts, a staple of life for most of us in the Western world. But going through Wong’s instruction book, the “meditative” power of calligraphy/brush painting restores “order” to our hectic, Westernized American life.
An aspect of this “meditative” power is the “musicality” of calligraphy/brush painting. The grinding of the ink stick in the ink stone is “melodious.” Moreover, Wong uses the example of a conductor that the movements of the the calligrapher/brush painter are like those of a conductor directing an orchestra, “gliding” with the relaxed postures of his/her hand, wrist, arm and body, and only then moving the entire arm with each breath he or she takes.
Is this calligraphy/brush painting primer accessible to beginners? Yes, even figuring in the strangeness of the unfamiliar pictorial representations, if the reader does not know the Chinese words. Like reading a poem, the reader sees his/herself reflected in the poem, and vice versa, the poem sees itself reflected in the image of the reader.
Frederic Wong will lead a workshop in non-action painting using tea and ink on various materials as part of an ArtCrush event on Oct. 8 at ArtXchange Gallery, 512 First Ave. S., Seattle. Call (206) 839-0377 for more information