Maintenance of the “Four Treasures” (1)

The painting brush, ink, Xuan rice paper and ink stone together are called the Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Chamber. These are clearly the most essential tools that facilitate our artistic creation since ancient time, and their maintenance has to be discussed. These art supplies can be quite expensive, however, they could accompany us for many years to come if kept right. So today, let us focus on how to keep each nicely!

The Four Treasures of the Study


A Weasel Hair Brush

A brush has to undergo many complicated processes in order to be made. A nice brush requires carefully selection of the hair and other related materials, and the skills of a competent craftsman. You can read more about the making of a brush (1) and (2). It is very normal to loose a few hairs when you use a new brush, as a handmade brush cannot have all the hair bound to its root, but if your brush looses many hair all the time, then either this was a bad brush or you have not used or kept it right. The maintenance of a brush is much easier in comparison to its making, but it requires habit formation.

Once a brush is open and used (if you need help please check the video below), the most important thing to remember is to clean and dry it correctly.

  • Clear water is the only thing necessary to clean a brush, and you can always make circular movements in the water container or hold it under running water to rinse off the residual ink. Do not use any chemical (soap or other cleaning products) on the brush. Remember the brush is made from animal hair, it is similar to our hair, but the difference is that our hair can grow new ones, while the brush hairs cannot regenerate, and the amount of fat on each hair is essential to its function;
  • Pay attention to the brush root when cleaning, you may never clean the roots totally without forcing it into the sink (please do not do so), but sufficient rinsing will do;
  • After rinsing the brush rather clean (there is almost no color or ink that comes off the brush anymore), you can gently squeeze the brush hair to remove the extra water or use paper (I prefer kitchen paper that does not shed lint) to absorb the excess dripping water, return the tip of the brush to its central state before hanging it vertically to dry. If you do not have a hanger, placing it flat on the desk is also fine. The key is to make sure the brush dries thoroughly after each use before storing it away in a brush wrap
  • Never dry your brush with its hair pointing upwards in a pen holder, this is the worst that can happen to a brush

Attention: If the brush dried with its tip not in the center, it will be rather difficult to use the next time. Simply soaking it in water will not help, only after hours of use perhaps the tip will return to its original state. If the brushes do not have the opportunity to dry consistently, there is a high chance of the root rotting, the result will be many hair falling out all the time, and your brush will loose all its strength – this is an irreversible state.

Do not be worried about your brush though, once you have the habit of rinsing the brush and drying it well, your brush can accompany you for many many years. The weasel hair brushes will loose its sharpness first after some time of use, but then you can always use it for a different purpose or paint other things that require such tips, so it will live on.

Prepare and hold a brush


Ink Stick

The ink is much easier to maintain. We have another post talking about the making of the ink, if you would like to find out more about them, you can read it here.

Liquid Ink

When it comes to the liquid ink, the only thing you need to remember is to keep the cap closed when you are finished using it. This helps the ink stay fresh, it also limits the chance of “accidents” in your study – if you use ink to paint or do calligraphy, you will discover sooner or later that a tall water container shall never be used, and ink bottles need to stay a certain distance away from your papers or clothes – not all accidents are happy ones.

Ink sticks are also rather easy to store, keep them away from direct exposure to the sun and you are going to be alright. When using, remember to remove it after grinding over the ink stone, otherwise the ink stick and the ink stone both will suffer. Never soak your ink sticks in water either, it is just a very painful waste of money and craftsmanship.

Attention: Another ink using hygiene is try to use only fresh ink, whether it is ground ink or liquid ink from the bottle. Old ink may not always smell bad (it can be though), but old ink is usually not ideal to use for the art creation. In the mounting of an art piece, old ink have a higher tendency of “escaping” from its original place and leak out. This will create unwanted trouble for you, or it can ruin your entire artwork that you have spent hours or days working on. Another issue that arise from old ink is that once the ink dries up, there are chunks of solidified ink that can even hurt your brushes. I am against waste in fact, so my solution is to use old ink with old brushes, for practice or something, if necessary. However, the better solution I believe is to always grind a smaller amount of ink at a time, the same goes for pouring ink from a bottle. Nowadays the bottles are quite well made, and you can always rely on it to add only a few drops of ink at a time.

In the next post we will continue our discussion – hope that you pay attention to your beloved art supplies, so that they can help you create nice artworks one after another!

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The life of an ink brush (2)

Continuing from the previous blog, we are going to discuss how a brush is made, and what are some criteria for distinguishing brushes in order to make good selections.

Brush Making

How Are Ink Brushes Made

Processing Selected Brush Hair

Making ink brushes is not an easy task – some say there are over 120 processes involved in making one. Some also say that all the bamboo stem brushes are hand made, because machines can only shape wood. I do not know how much truth there is in this statement, but a good brush requires true skills and is indeed hand made.

The main and the most crucial task is the making of a brush head. After selecting the brush materials (such as which hair to use), the craftsman has to remove the stench from it first, taking about two weeks of soaking, and then comb the hair to remove the unusable parts, such as the fluff hidden under the long hairs, to ensure the usability of all brush hairs. Such combing could be repeated hundreds of times, so that what remains are the best. After removing the fat from hairs, they are then cut and arranged into usable sheets.

Hair Sheets

From the user‘s perspective, I must underline the importance of the brush head production processes, the stem of a brush can be made from various materials, some fancier than others, but the head is the only part that matters. The exact length of each hair within a brush head matter, where each hair length is located also matter – all the hairs need to work together as one in the painting or calligraphy making, and a good brush can be made possible to contain just the right amount of liquid for just the right amount of brush strokes. If the brushes are low in quality, no matter how skilled a painter is, he or she would never make the correct strokes with it.

Brush Heads & Tools

Once the hair sheets are ready, they may be mixed with another sheet to make the previously mentioned mixed hair brush (generally weasel hair or synthetic hair surrounded by goat hair), combed carefully together, and then rolled into the brush head shape that we are familiar with. They are tested many times to determine the location of the center of the brush tip, whether there are uneven hairs within a brush head, and once it is all satisfactory, a brush head is tied and will be hanging for several days so that the ties are tight.

As the brush heads get ready, brush stems are selected. Naturally bamboo is the perfect option, it is light weight are very sturdy, but for certain brush types, the stems may be selected for their thickness, straightness and even patterns. Once the brush heads are fixed in the stems, this new brush also has to be tested to see whether the hairs work flexibly, or if there are bad quality hair that went unnoticed. Once satisfactory, a new brush is born!

The Four Criteria of Brush Selection

Oriental Ink Brush

1. Sharpness

A good brush tip is sharp once moist, this means all the hairs group towards the very same point. Having brush hairs pointing towards the same tip allows us to draw lines or make brush strokes with the least effort, and all lines would come out smooth. Even for a skilled painter, a bad brush create spilts in a brush line just as easily.

2. Roundness

The belly of an ink brush must be full. By full I mean that there is enough actual hair that is long enough naturally filling the brush body. I personally have used quite a few rather “empty” brushes, that has no body but a few very sharp tip hairs; Some on the other hand have very short inner layers, the painting brush becomes a fluffy-headed makeup brush after each stroke. If a brush is not “full”, the brush strokes would lack substance, as if there is not enough gravity to support its weight, every brush stroke floats. With a full figured brush, we can create thicker areas of a brush stroke with ease, allowing changes to appear in each brush stroke.

3. Tidiness

This refers to the brush tips, when flattened, the brush hair should neatly form one straight line. In my previous experiences using cheaper or poor quality brushes, the inner layer of hairs may be rather untidy, they may be shorter or have fluffy hair (the kind that needed to be removed during its making), the brush may appear full and even flat from the surface, but such brushes cannot create decent works. With untidy brushes, we cannot create smooth lines or brush strokes at all, the brush strokes may resemble those made by a mop.

4. Toughness

Chinese Calligraphy

The last but not least tip of brush selection is to examine the strength of the brush hair. Once a brush stroke has been created, pay attention to your brush head, see whether it can slowly return to more or less its original position. There are differences between the soft hair brushes and tough hair brushes in this test, because goat hair soft brushes may need more help in general to return to its previous position. However, when using a brush, either style of brushes allows the user to inject strength inside each brush stroke. Feeling the strength of a brush could take some experience and practice, but if your brush appears to be too easily shaped, as if using cotton to write, then perhaps this brush is not a good one.

The length of the brush hair also affects the creation of a brush stroke, especially in writing Chinese calligraphy, the five major scripts have different requirements. Although a safe choice for a beginner of any script is the mixed hair brush, generally the brush heads are medium in length, and the hair quality is between soft and hard, easy to manage. For painting purposes however, both soft and hard hairs should be required, medium length for a beginning use would suffice. Brush sizes would matter in this case, the most common and useful types would be medium size (in thickness), but a larger brush (goat hair or mixed hair) and a smaller brush (weasel hair) would come very handy for almost any type of painting subjects.

If you are a fan of pretty brushes, then choosing brush stems can give you quite some pleasure. Remember however, it is the brush head that matter the most for using. These blogs hopefully can bring you some good tips regarding brush selection, happy inking!

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The life of an ink brush

The oriental calligraphy and painting both depend on ink brushes, 毛笔 in Chinese (毛筆 in traditional writing), meaning “hair pen” literally. A brush is composed of a rounded hairy head and a long stem. You have seen a brush being used, but do you know when it came into being, which hairs are involved, how complex is the making of one brush, or how to select brushes? Let us make an attempt to finding these answers here!

The Origin of Ink Brushes

Creator: Qin Dynasty General Meng Tian?

Early Brushes, War State

Many records attributed the Qin Dynasty General Meng Tian (250 BC – 210 BC) as the creator of the ink brushes as we know today. However, according to the archeological discoveries, with the discovery of some War State (475 BC -221 BC) brushes, the previous conclusion is directly contradicted, pushing the creation of ink brushes a few hundred years earlier.

Some scientists believe that after carefully studying the lines made on some clay objects dating back to as early as 6000 years ago, the patterns were drawn using hair brushes.

Coloured Clay (Ban Po Culture, around 4000 BC)

These scientists also concluded that the use of brushes preceded the use of characters, the brushes may have been invented to facilitate painting and to help apply makeup.

Therefore, I believe what can be more realistically analysed is that the ink brushes have been with us for at least 3000 years, and the very first brushes may not have been created to help us write.

Which Hairs Are Used?

Oriental Ink Brush

The most common painting brushes are made from either “goat hair” “羊毫” or “weasel hair” “狼毫”.

The latter is not to be confused with “wolf hair” – quite some mistakes have been made from the character “狼” which generally refers to “wolf”, but it also appears in the names of many other animals, including weasels, “黄鼠狼”. Notice also in the name of weasel, there is a character “鼠”, meaning “rat”, which is another point of confusion, as we also have a brush type called “rat whiskers”, “鼠须”, which may still have more to do with weasels than actual rats. I will explain why in a bit.

The goat and weasel hair brushes have been proven to be the best throughout history, however, in the attempt to make nice and useful brushes, people have had many tries, including using more locally available animal hairs, such as the hairs of rabbits, chicken, horses, dogs, etc.

Calligraphy by Emperor Shun Zhi (1638-1661), Qing Dynasty

Among these various hairs, two general categorisation can be drawn: soft hair brushes vs. tough hair brushes. Goat hair brush is the perfect example of the soft hair category. In using these soft hairs, one can load the brush with lots of liquid (ink or color) in the character writing or painting, creating shapes or lines that are typically with great strength but can be “beefy” – therefore larger characters can require such brushes, and such characters appear a lot in the main halls of old temples or palaces.

On the other hand, the tough category involve many hairs, typically weasel hair or rabbit hair. These brushes can contain less liquid in comparison, but the brush lines are finer, sharper, and therefore more suitable for details. The issues involving these brushes would be that they are generally smaller, more expensive than the goat hair brushes, and they are worn much more quickly. If you hold a brush to the light, at the very tip of it the hairs appear to be half transparent, and these are important in determining whether a brush a of high quality, and such tips exist in both soft and tough brush categories. However, in the tougher hair brushes, such tips are more prone to fray.

It is also common to mix the soft and tough hairs in one brush, with the soft hairs surrounding the tough core of the brush head, so that the brush contain the best quality of both categories. These brushes may also have synthetic hairs at the core for strengthening purposes. Skilled painters often have their preferences when it comes to brushes, but beginners may find these mixed hair brushes easier to use in general.

Lan Ting Xu, Jin Dynasty, Wang Xi Zhi (353)

Because of the need of certain characteristics of hairs in a brush, the selection of the animal hair becomes all the more crucial. The season, geographic location, region on the animal body, the weight of the animal, the length of the hair and more all effect the quality of the hair, they all play a key role in determining whether a brush is a good one. For instance, the rabbit back hairs along the spine are more acceptable, because these areas have fewer nature wear; Goat hair can only be taken from certain species of goats, the various locations of the body produce different strength and length of the hair, so for different purposes, we need to choose different part of the body to collect hair; Weasel hair typically come from the weasels native to the Northeastern China, and it is on the top side of their tails that the hairs are the top quality.

Rat whiskers on the other hand may not obtain the tip required for brush making, so even though it is widely believed that such brushes were invented in the Han Dynasty, its actual use may be rather limited, and the brushes may have very little percentage of rat hair inside. In addition, whiskers of animals do not even make good brushes, so either way, despite the stories and tales of certain calligraphers in the past (such as the famous Lan Ting Xu partially shown in the photo above), rat whiskers are unlikely the material for any brush making, especially today.

This blog is becoming long, so let us break it down to two parts, and in the coming blog let us continue exploring the life of a brush – we will find out about the making of a brush, and the selection of a brush! Stay tuned!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

Learn how to prepare and hold a brush here! Also, remember to give us a ❤️ subscription ❤️

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