When first beginning to learn the use of the brush with Shodo, it's difficult for the student not to treat it as something that does the work “for you”. It will do, exactly what “you” make it do. Though different brushes will sometimes have individual peculiarity’s, the majority will react in a similar fashion to any other. That's not to say that there isn't “Good”, and/or “Bad” brushes, only that most will do the job required (if the “'handler” is skilled enough to compensate for an individual brushes tendency's and/or inadequacy’s). It's for that reason, that the initial purchase of a “Good”, “Quality” brush is the most important item to acquire. Though “poorer” brushes may be able to be handled/used by an experienced shodoka, the beginner should always use a quality brush to learn and practice with. The brushes I use, come from the Nihon Shuji and are of as high a quality as your going to get (depending on “how much” you wish to spend). They also happen to be the least expensive I have found (for the same quality, and frankly, I've located none of any “higher” quality).
When you first purchase a brush (Fude), the hairs of the brush, will have been soaked in a “rice starch”. This is of similar consistency to “glue” (and serves much the same purpose). Only the beginning 1/3rd of the brush (from the “tip”) will need to have this “starch” rinsed out of it (for use) when first beginning to use the brush for Shodo. Only removing this amount will assist the brush in maintaining a semi “stiff” state (making it easier to create the “Kaisho” style of kanji/strokes that the student will be initially working with). As the brush is used, and cleaned, varying amounts of the starch will be removed, and the brush will become (hopefully “gradually) “looser” and more supple. If this happens slowly, the student will often not even notice the change in suppleness, and will naturally adapt to the minor changes needed to perform the strokes as it does so. It is not uncommon to become “comfortable” with a particular brush, knowing exactly how “it” responds to your direction. Person's often get quite “possessive” of a personal brush, and much like a “sword”, it's considered an insult to use a brush without first asking permission.
Once the brush has been initially “cleaned” of starch, the student can begin to use it for practice. For this course, we will be using bottled ink. The difference in quality from “ground” ink is negligible at this level of study, and save class time(from not having to “grind” one's ink). We will (at some point) spend a portion of 1 of our class periods to have student's “grind” their own ink (for that class). The ability to produce one's own ink, though sometimes inconvenient, can provide a variety of “appearance” from the manner/consistency that one grinds the ink-stick (“lighter”, “darker”, varying shades, etc.). It also is vastly “cheaper” to produce one's own ink, and removes the necessity of “proper” storage (“bottled” ink, can go “rank”, and if/when it does, it smells BAD).
In order to “hold” the ink (for us to use it), it will be placed in an inkwell called a “Suzuri”. The suzuri is also used to grind the inkstick on, mixed with water, and collected in the deep end of the suzuri. The brush itself, will hold a larger amount of ink than is initially believed. With practice, it's common for “poems/sayings” and such, to be done with a single “loading” of a brush with ink (this is considered an exhibition of “skill” by the Shodoka). If one is brushing a large document (with a number of kanji per line), it's usually the “norm”, to do each line with a single “loading” of the brush with ink.
When one first places the brush into the ink, the brush will absorb a large amount of ink. With practice, the student will learn how much will need to be removed (before beginning to brush). Experience will show the student how much ink should be left within the brush, for the particular project they are working on at the time. For “practice”, it's not relevant “how many” times one needs to “re-load” the brush. If the student is more comfortable, they can re-load for every stroke (though having to do so, will generally make the student frustrated enough to start loading more ink on to the brush).
The student should (when practical) use the beginning of practice time “warming up”. This is to allow the student to both “relax”, and to “focus” on the practice at hand. Once one has learned all the basic strokes, and is confident in their execution, the practice of “grinding” one's ink is used for this “focus and relaxing” time.
“Warm-up Strokes” are used (initially) to reinforce the student's use of the “whole” body, while performing the required strokes. Student's who “get in a hurry”, will often use only the arm/wrist to make the brush stroke actions (and it becomes very obvious when they do). All the brush movement's, should come from the waist, the wrist and forearm, act as one. The elbow (of the brush hand) should rarely motion beyond it's normal position (at one's side, and slightly in front of the shodoka.
Before the brush is “placed”, the student should take a short “breath” (inhaling), then, as the brush is placed, and moves through the required strokes, the student should “exhale” accordingly (“pausing”, in that exhalation, as the brush “pauses” during the brushing process). The beginning shodoka, will commonly utilize several (separate) “breath's” during the brushing of the individual strokes of a kanji. As they become more comfortable with the process, they will become “smoother” with varying the level of exhalation during this process.
As the student prepares to make their first stroke (of the present project), they should empty their mind of any other (distracting) thought's or concerns. Their only thought should be to envision the kanji (or the individual stroke) they are about to brush in their mind. The student should then “transfer” it (the desired “stroke”, or whole kanji) upon the paper, and place the brush where they are “seeing” it (in their mind). For this reason, it becomes important that the (beginning) student have a “Tehon” (example) to work from.
The study of “Graphology” (Hand writing analysis), has been recognized in the “western” world (Europe) since the 17th Century. It was also notated in China during the early 12th Century. This “science” is utilized today by such organizations as the FBI and Interpol (for developing “personality profiles” of/for criminals). In the east (Japan, China) Business's commonly utilize it in/for career job placement (within their organizations).
In Japan, It is believed that one's “soul” is expressed through their “brushwork”. Various martial arts students utilize the practice of “copying” the writings of famous “swordsmen”, “karateka”, and individual's of noted martial accomplishments, in the attempt to “emulate” their mannerisms/style (through the “copying” of their calligraphic “works”).
With this knowledge in mind, the student will note that if/when “they” have some “issue”, or “problem” (on their mind at the time, during “practice”) they will usually experience “problems” with their execution of the strokes, the “sizing” (of “characters”), maintaining vertical alignment, etc. Mental state, can play an important factor in one's ability to do their brush work (to their satisfaction).
The practice of Shodo can (often) be utilized to assist in alleviating the daily “stresses” that one experiences (one can correlate it to being a form of “meditation”). By learning to “empty” those problems/thoughts from their consciences(in order to “focus” on the practice of Shodo), they can alleviate the (internal) stresses that they have (freeing their thoughts, to “focus” on present “needs”).
When people state that they “need a break”, this usually means that they need to “escape” from the stresses that they are presently experiencing. Shodo, can be (and is) a method of doing so, without the requirement of anything beyond the basic “tools” that are required for it's practice.
I often encourage student's to invest in a “brush-pen”, these are ink “pen”(size/shape) utensils sold at various art supply stores. They will have a “brush”(type/style) writing end, and have a “cap”, so they can be closed and conveniently carried/stored when not in use. Some are of the “magic marker” type, and some actually have a reservoir of ink contained within them. This allows student's to be able to practice the brushing of “small” character's and strokes, regardless of their location, or the time they have available to do so. Also, the writing of “small” kanji, is something that is not as commonly practiced when working with a brush. The “standard” practice brush, has (approx.) 2-2 1/2” hairs, though “small” character's “can” be brushed with this size of brush, it is more common to utilize a brush which only has “hair's” of 1/2-1” in length. From the ability to utilize a “brush-pen”, one will have the (convenience) ability to practice (brushing “small” character's) without the need to “drag out” (and of course “clean-up” when done) all the standard practice materials (the “brush”, “suzuri”, “ink” and paper).
Another practice method that I have my student's utilize, is to purchase a small (8” X 12”) “chalk board”. The student need only use “water” (instead of “ink”) upon the surface, which is then wiped away after making a stroke/kanji. This is an easy (and inexpensive) method of practicing individual strokes, or kanji without “wasting” paper/ink (on something you obviously don't wish to retain).
“Financially”, the practice of Shodo is (fairly) “inexpensive”. The initial investment is commonly around $50 (when purchased through the association). A beginner's brush, can be purchased for around $8-12, a suzuri (inkwell) for approx. $15, and the “ink”(sumi) depending on the amount, for around $4 (for 360CC of ink). This amount of ink, “should” last the student for a couple of months (of “regular” practice). For “paper”, the use of old phone-book listings, or newspaper, can be used (for “practice”). These have similar characteristics to the “rice” paper that is usually used, and is “free”. Though “rice paper” (which is actually made from “mulberry”) is available at “most” art supply stores, it is MUCH cheaper when purchased through the Calligraphy Association(and can be purchased in “bulk”, of “which-ever” size the student would like).
The Association has a variety of “lined” practice sheets available. These can prove useful to the beginning student, as they have faint “lines” upon them for placement/reference of the character's. If one joins the association, they will receive their assignment’s with these lines shown on the examples provided(of the monthly assignment's). These “practice” sheets, come in a variance of “lined” styles, they are designed for 4, 6, 8 and even 28 character practice (all being on an approx. 12” X 20” sheet). ALL of these are about $4 for 100 sheets These will assist the student in becoming familiar with the correct “spacing” of character's upon a piece of paper (when doing a project of their own).
As when beginning to learn any new activity, one must spend a fair amount of time on “basics”. In the case of Shodo, that entails learning the correct manner of creating the initial strokes (as I have presented here). To some, this is a boring endeavor, and to some degree I would agree. None the less, it is a necessary step in being able to create the character's correctly. If these individual strokes are done incorrectly, then the whole character/kanji will have either a “jumbled”, or a “boxlike” look to it. Kanji should have a look of “wholeness” to them, they shouldn't look as if they were “thrown together”. This is why student's should always use a “practice model”(Tehon) to work from. With time/practice student's will aquire an “eye” for correctness. As with any learned skill, this “inner-eye” will gradually become developed to where one requires a “model” less, and less. This “inner-eye” does not necessarily develop equally with one's ability level(of using a brush).
The (possible) “draw back” to this (development of an “inner-eye”), is that one tends to become “critical” of examples of brushed calligraphy (of their own, or of others). As “Shodoka”, we strive for “perfection”(of execution), but we “rarely” attain it(and will quickly recognize it in viewed examples). We need to remember, that we are “human”, and perfection is rarely(if “ever”) attainable. The challenge, is to “attempt it”. We must learn to accept/recognize when an attempt (be it by ourselves, or others) is “close”.