Seal ink

In the last few posts we discussed the use of seals, hope that you are already applying these rules and suggestions in your own artworks! Today, let us take a look at the seal ink. The seal ink is literally called seal mud (Yin Ni, 印泥) in Chinese, which results in these pretty additional colors in a piece of artwork. These tiny add-ons in fact also have quite a lot of science about them.

Example of a Leisure Seal

Brief Introduction

The seal ink has a rather sticky quality, and you may find some stringy fibers when using it. This is because the seal ink is made from natural ingredients such as cinnabar, herbs including mugwood, castor oil, and aromatic ingredients such as musk. The main color comes from cinnabar, but in using this material, two distinct colors could appear: the top layer is more orange whereas the bottom is more red. Therefore the most common colors of the seal ink ranges between these two shades. However, the more orange color (硃磦) is more precious than the redder variety (朱砂), and the prices of the two kinds can differ quite a bit. In the photo below there are a few seal ink colors that are common on the market. But the best color of the seal ink is quite a personal decision, it depends on the personal taste, but it should match the seal styles – strong characters perhaps work better with a solid crimson color for instance.

Seal Ink, photo from the internet


Seals are in fact used by three groups of people the most, the civil servants, the artists, and the seal craftsmen. The civil servants have rather basic requirements of the seal ink, therefore the most common kind of the seal ink on the market is meant for this use. These seal inks often appear in a plastic or metal box, round or rectangular, sometimes in the form of foam. The artists have higher standards regarding the seal ink. These seal inks have to be moist enough so that the rice paper can “grab” the best shine of the seal impression, but the oil in the seal ink cannot escape from the border to tarnish the rice paper around it either. The craftsmen have yet again different requirements of the seal ink because of the paper on which the seal is pressed is not the same. For us, it is the artistic style of seal ink that we need.


Seal ink of the artistic style should be stored in ceramic containers, because the characteristic of the oil in the seal ink is a tad acidy that reacts with metal. Once the seal ink is oxidised, it will become hard and dark, rendering it unusable. Ceramic containers are their best friends, but a certain amount of seal ink could only last 3-5 years, depending on the uses. The color pigments or the oil will ran out eventually, and that will be the time for some new seal ink.

Seal ink in a container

If you wonder about when it is time to change the seal ink, it is generally not hard. Once your seal ink become super oily, which happens when the color has been more or less used up, it is normally time for a change. However, first you need to see whether you have been keeping the seal ink in its best state!

Stirring of the seal ink

Tips & Suggestions

  • Be sure to mix the seal ink once in a while! Use a wooden or plastic spoon or wide stick to stir and mix the seal ink once every 6 months or so. This way the fibers, oil and color can mix more evenly, so that it displays the best result;
  • Keep the seal ink container in a place that is relatively warm and preferably constant in temperature, because extreme temperature change also alters its property;
  • Keep the seals clean, so that when using the seal ink, it is not only the fiber being brought up – dirty seals tend to do so!

Hopefully this post can be of some help when you select your seal ink! Even though the oriental art cherishes its simplicity, but you probably can see by now how much complexity is involved in it! It is precisely why we love it, isn’t it?

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

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How to use seals in artworks (3)

We have talked quite a lot about seals, what are the appropriate places for them, what their functions are, and what they represent. Today let us put together a convenient list of the “do”s and “don’t”s in seal using.

Example of a Leisure Seal

Some Rules and Suggestions

Use name seals and leisure seals

A good piece of artwork should be accompanied by nice seals. So do not forget to add them!

Use good seal ink

The material of seals can range from a few types of stones, some more precious than others, but on the artworks it is the results of these seals that we see – the impressions made with the seal ink. Seal inks can have different colors and quality, cheap seal inks are quite obvious – perhaps we can take a closer look at this in the coming days. So please pick decent seal inks to match your art!

Seal Ink, photo from the internet

Be Stingy

When deciding the number of seals on a piece of artwork, it is better to stick to the rule of “less is more”. Remember that we discussed this point in a previous post, try to stick to 1 or 3 seals max. in an artwork.

Rule of Two Seals

If you need to add 2 seals on your artwork, it is better that they are of the same sizes;

If your artwork has 2 seals, they cannot be one square and one round, nor one rectangular and one oval;

If your artwork will contain 2 seals, and you have to use one Yin style and one Yang style seal, then the rule is to use the Yin on top and the Yang below.

Yin Style Seal

Seal Size

Important reminder about the size of seals – they should match the content of the artwork. Giant seals are too overwhelming for a pleasant viewership of an artwork, and tiny ones are simply too weak.

Write Over Seals?

No. Once seals are made, no writings can appear over them.

Where Not To Seal

Do not add seals on the tree or mountain tops, over a flower or above the head of a bird.

The above are some must-knows about using seals, although the list is definitely far from exhaustive. Nevertheless, in the artistic creation such “courtesies” shall be followed, and such cultural tradition shall be cherished.

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

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How to use seals in artworks (2)

Sealing requires rather strict rules, a good piece of artwork needs to be paired with courteous and proper sealing. There are many rules about the various places where the seals are allowed to appear, these seals have their corresponding names, and even their shapes. Today let us start with the categories of seals and then take a look at some of these rules!

Examples of a Leisure Seal


There are square seals, round seals, rectangular seals, and irregularly-shaped seals.

Square Seals

Amongst the square seals there are name seals, family seals, seals bearing the name of the studio/study, leisure seals, appreciation seals, etc. Generally speaking, the seals representing a family, a location such as a study or used for appreciation and collection are large and rather formal. The square seals are in fact the most formal, which is why almost all official seals are square. The name seal in the older days included the “extended names” as well, ranging from surname, first name, to courtesy name, pseudonym and even nickname. Some people have even more names such as posthumous title and alias. This has everything to do with the naming system of the older days, making it a lot more complicated than what we have now – let us talk about this in a separate post.

Rectangular Seals

Rectangular seals often include leisure seals that appear at the “beginning” of an artwork. For calligraphy this is more obvious, because the beginning of an article is at the top right side of the paper. We give such seals the function of leading the way for our viewers, introducing this artwork to them, and such seals rarely contain images. On the right side of these seals there will be no more writings. Sometimes the rectangular seals can also be appreciation seals, used by critics and collectors. The three rectangular seals in the painting below are all appreciation seals.

Cat Painting, Emperor Ming Xuan Zong (1399-1436)

Round Seals

Chinese use round seals for appreciation seals a lot, whereas the Japanese use them for name seals mostly. The top right corner of the painting above has a round appreciation seal in fact. The round seals can also have images, and are used as regular leisure seals.

Irregular Seals

Oval is the most often seen irregular shape of a seal. These seals can serve the function of leading the viewer at the start of an artwork, as the rectangular seals do. The other irregular shaped seals are mostly leisure seals that can appear in the middle of an artwork.

Various Seal Shapes, photo from the internet


Leading Seals

We have already mentioned that both rectangular seals and the oval seals could lead the way in a piece of artwork, which can be seen in the painting below, on the very top section. This section was added to the original artwork during the mounting, so that the writings of a later Emperor could appear in this artwork. The top right seal serves to lead the way.

Flower Bird Painting, Emperor Song Hui Zong (1082-1135)

Middle Seals

At the “waist” of the an artwork, so somewhere in the middle of a long vertical piece, there can also be seals, so that the weight of the artwork is more evenly distributed. Such seals can be any leisure seal.

Corner Seals

The corner seals most often appear at the bottom corner of an artwork, either left or right. These seals are usually square – rectangular, oval or any irregular shapes are not supposed to appear here. These seals are used to hold together the artwork, and therefore they have to be strong, square, and usually compatible in size to the name seal above.

Therefore, in the previous post the question about which seals may have been the original seals from the artwork above, the answer should be much clearer! The top left side overlapping with the name of the artist is the name seal (an emperor remember, the name seal is rather large), and most likely the only other original seal is on the bottom right corner, the square one which is the corner seal. The small writings in the middle on top did not belong in this piece of painting, because it disturbed the flow of the composition, and therefore any seals involved there must have been new. The other round seals and the very large square seals are all appreciation seals. Did you get it right?

In the coming post we will talk about the “do”s and “do not”s in sealing, so stay tuned!

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

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