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!

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

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Ink sticks, somethings you should know

Ink came into our lives after the creation of brushes, and in the early days people used natural ink to make markings, but around the Spring Autumn period (770BC-476BC) man-made ink was already in use according to historical findings. In the following periods of time, a great number of remarkable craftsmen arrived on the historical stage and identified their best practices of ink making, some of which is still in record. Ink (墨) generally referred to the black color (黑), which is very clear in the character build, but later it developed into other colors too. Among the various manufactures, An Hui Ink was especially famous.

In the An Hui province, traditionally merchants and trades stood out, the Hui merchants earned their name of being credible and trustworthy. Among their traded items, the high quality ink and paper especially were widely loved, and this location has been the royal appointed one in such supply ever since. This province, An Hui is filled with natural wonders, magnificent mountains, located at the heart of the rich Yangzi river delta, it is full of natural resources and was the birth place of a great number of scholars and artists. The Yellow Mountain resides in this place, and some of the famous Hui Ink was created from these mountains.

The Yellow Mountain 黄山, photo from the internet

The ink sticks rely mainly on the smoke particles collected from the pine or oil burning, which is mixed with over a thousand herbs, including pearl powder, musk, borneol and many others for the scent. The proportion of these ingredients and the methods are strict trade secrets, but we do know that the making of a single ink stick takes over 1 year, and requires great strength and repeated pounding. Let us start from the beginning, the collection of the pine (sometimes oily) smoke particles.

There are generally two categories of ink sticks, the pine or oil based. They are both dark ink, but the pine kind allows for the creation of more layers, the transparency and the transition is displayed well. The pine from the Yellow Mountain has especially high quality, and the ancient pine smoke ink stick that used the trunks of the pine trees produced particularly wonderful ink. However, now the pine use is limited to the branches, no more trees are harmed anymore, which also reduced the quality subsequently. The oil kind (oil smoke from Jatropha curcas tree, rapeseed, flax seed and so on) gives a powerful shine, almost metallic (purple, black are the best), something unique to this type. The two kinds are preferred for different purposes, neither is superior. For paintings most people prefer pine based ink, the oil ones are mainly used in the coloring stage or calligraphy.

The traditional ink making is a tiring task, wielding the hammer does not make one feel like Thor, but worthy nonetheless. The sticky ink chunks are pounded (over 200 times) into pie shapes, ready for further processing. At this stage they are similar to a good dough, flexible and elastic. From these pies smaller chunks are taken and weighed before being made into a certain shape. The modes are made from very dense wood, but a mode can only be used for around 100 ink sticks only before it needs to be replaced. The last process involves drying, which could last between 4 and 6 months or even longer during the rainy seasons.

Ink sticks have to be ground over ink stones. This is a rather mindful and relaxing process, but only good ink sticks combined with decent ink stones can produce decent ink. A good ink stick or ink stone is a collector’s item, and there are some really luxurious selections on the market. However, the opposite is equally true, the cheap types are as good as concrete, the cheap ink sticks could scratch the ink stones, and the cheap ink stones would waste the ink and your time. In the next post let us take a closer look at the ink stones!

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

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