Seal script is an ancient form of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy with a special appeal to the artistic eye. This ancient Chinese writing form has a particular expressiveness and magic. Artist-calligrapher Nadja Van Ghelue shows you how to brush small seal script in various video demonstrations.
Seal script, the embodiment of rest within Japanese calligraphy
If we organize the different styles of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy on a scale according to the amount of rest and motion of the brush, seal script would show the largest amount of rest and cursive script the highest degree of motion.
We could compare seal script to a sitting meditation with one-pointedness of the mind and cursive script to meditation in action.
Seal script is the exponent of rest within calligraphy, which means that the calligrapher only requires a few movements of the brush to shape the calligraphic strokes. But of course this does not mean that the brush strokes become flat lines lacking any kind of life. Japanese and Chinese calligraphy embody the continuous interplay of rest and motion of the writing brush and according to the oriental view there is no sound rest without motion and vice versa.
How to brush seal script
What matters in seal script is that you instill motion into rest as seal script is rest with motion. How is it done?
A. With the right technique
In contrast to the regular or standard script where the calligrapher apprentice has to learn many different brush strokes and movements, the seal script has only eight different brush strokes written with few movements of the brush. This makes it easy to learn seal script in a short time.
The different brush strokes are:
- Horizontal brush stroke
- Vertical brush stroke
- Diagonal to the right and left
- Curve to the right and left
- Square and
We can divide the writing of each brush stroke in three parts: the attack, the development and ending part. Although we brush each brush stroke in one go, the three following sequences make it easy to build up every stroke.
This is how you perform:
- Touch the paper with the brush tip slightly bent inwards
- Press to shape the rounded beginning
- Raise the brush slightly
- Move the brush slowly, maintaining the brush tip in the center of the stroke
- Hold the breath
- Press the brush to shape the rounded ending
- Raise the brush slightly
- Leave the brush stroke and
These are the basic movements required to shape the eight brush strokes of seal script. As for the curved elements one should rotate the brush between the thumb and the index finger, maintaining the pressure.
To brush seal script it is of outmost importance that you establish the correct tension between the brush, wrist and arm.
You should hold the brush in the traditional Japanese or Chinese way, vertically and with all fingers wrapping around the brush handle. Grasp the brush as near as possible to the tuft, at the beginning of the brush handle. This ensures an immediate response of the brush tip to the slightest change of direction or pressure.
Build up tension within the brush stroke; make the brush engrave. When writing seal script you should maintain the brush tip in the center of the brush stroke and move the brush slowly and with steady pressure. In so doing you create an artistic tension comparable to the strength and depth of signs carved into wood or written in sand.
Many calligraphers let the wrist rest upon the table or hand. I advise you to write seal script with the hand raised above the writing paper. This is one of the methods that energizes the brush stroke with your very own life breath.
To increase the artistic appearance of the brush strokes you should shape well the beginning and ending of each brush stroke; pause, shape and give volume.
The inhaling, holding and exhaling of the breath are optional. To hold the breath while writing seal script concentrates all your strength within the brush stroke. But one has to be careful applying this technique as it effects ones energies. If done, do it gently and pay attention to how you react to it and if it suites you well.
B. Create a harmonic tension in composition
You should compose the seal script characters well, exalt their simplicity and purity. Therefore keep yin and yang balanced with brush strokes neither too round nor too angular, strive for a general smooth appearance. Here again you should apply the oriental approach of letting opposites meet; round should contain angular and the other way around.
The seal script characters are pictograms taken from nature. So if you observe the pictogram as an organic composition, you can feel the connections and the characters will show a smooth balance.
The basic features for composition of small seal script are:
- The character stands within an imaginary rectangle; with a ratio of height to width of about 3 to 2
- Symmetry of left and right
- Balanced spacing
- The stroke order in seal script is less fixed than in standard script, you have some more freedom but generally spoken we could say that the order is:
- First the left part, then right
- First horizontal then vertical
- First the parts outside, then inside
- From top to bottom
C. Choose the right brush
I myself almost always prefer the sheep’s hair brush for any calligraphy style. But some people might find the mixed hair brush more comfortable as it is easier to handle when lifting and rotating the brush.
Choose length and width of the brush in accordance to the size of the characters. But do not write seal script to small as this might make it more difficult to allow the brush to expand.
Video demonstration of the Heart Sutra in Calligraphy
In the videos I show you how to brush some of the seal script characters in my book The Heart Sutra in Calligraphy. A Visual Appreciation of the Perfection of Wisdom
With the video demo you will gain a clear understanding of the brush handling and the general stroke order of the characters.
I hope you enjoy viewing them and feel inspired to pick up the brush and gradually brush the entire Heart Sutra in seal script.
Below I have added some etymological details about the characters brushed in each video. But if you are eager to learn more about the etymology of seal script characters you can look up Chinese Characters by L.Wieger and one of the best The Origins of Chinese Characters by Wang Hongyuan
Videos of the first seal script characters of my book the Heart Sutra in Calligraphy
How to brush the character MA in seal script from MAka hannyaharamitta
In the upper part we can recognize a roof or shed with two hemp stalks, which means keeping the harvest under a shelter. The lower part shows a left hand.
How to Brush the Japanese Character KA in seal script from maKA hannyaharamitta
The left part of the character shows the radical to speak. We can see a mouth at the bottom from which sounds are uttered. The right part depicts an ax.
How to brush the character HAN in seal script from maka HANnyaharamitta
The left part of the character has the radical for boat, we can recognize the image of a flat-bottomed boat or sampan. ON the right we see a hand holding an instrument, possibly a mace.
How to brush the character NYA in seal script from maka hanNYAharamitta
We can recognize two hands. What are they doing? The image could depict someone who is arranging the hair with the hands. At the left stands the symbol for mouth. The characters han and nya together mean wisdom.
Seal Script Books and Brushes from Chinese Masters