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Appreciating Asian Calligraphy

Calligraphy and painting in Asia are sister arts: they both use a flexible brush, ink, and paper or silk. Both arts are grounded firmly in tradition and are governed by rules of composition, balance, and brushwork. The aim of the traditional Chinese calligrapher or painter is to express not only the form of a Chinese character or the outward appearance of a landscape but also its inner nature—its energy, life force, spirit—and, in some instances, the calligrapher’s interpretation of this spirit.

Asian texts about calligraphy and painting often describe brushstrokes in the language of the natural world: bone, ax-cut, cloud-head, thunder rolling, or new moon rising. These terms developed as a means of capturing the primary qualities inherent in superior brushwork. To be truly great, the strokes must have proper structure, proportions, and energy. Although individuality and creativity play a part, they must be grounded in a thorough assimilation of orthodox or established styles of calligraphy and painting.

One test of great calligraphy or painting is that it should get better, more coherent, and more interesting the longer you study it. Try looking at a work of calligraphy or painting with half- closed eyes and follow the flow of ink down the page from top to bottom and right to left. You should be able to pick up the rhythm of the strokes, and through them the movement of the hand, arm, and body of the artist. The arts of calligraphy and painting are mentally and physically demanding, requiring great concentration as well as skill. Like the movement of the weapon in martial arts, the movement of the brush has to be calibrated, precise, and unhesitating, and as in martial arts, it requires both stamina and the appearance of effortlessness.

Judith A. Stubbs, PhD
Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art

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How to cite this page
Stubbs, Judith A. "Appreciating Asian Calligraphy." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020.

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