Friday, December 4, 2015

Carving an Artist Mood Seal

Henry Li of Blue Heron Arts really inspires me. A friend who does intense calligraphy introduced me to his web site as a supply store, but Henry has much more than supplies. He has an online calligraphy-Chinese-style painting course, hosts painting seminar programs at his own home, does custom seal carving and just exudes talent and passion in his art. He also has many YouTube videos on how to paint, the process for custom carving his seals, and more. Basically, the man is an inspiration! 

I ordered some brushes from him, especially my experience with calligraphy style painting is limited and Henry gives detail on how to use each of the brushes he markets. On his web site Henry explains the function of each brush and has application video clips so that the customer can clearly see the value of each brush or even each kind of artist paper. I went all over his web site just looking and soaking up information. What really caught my attention most, however, was one of his pre-carved seals. (Am writing this a couple months later) It seems to be either out of stock or no longer an order option now, but the message was powerful—something like, “the overflowing of creativity” or “creativity without one boundary”. I loved it and I wanted it!

But because I’m in Korea where there are tons and tons of Chinese calligraphers who do traditional seal carving, I took the four-character Chinese expression and went to Insa-dong to have my seal of choice done by a local, who I could watch and talk with during the whole process. Korea has a hot trend of seal-carving, but the popular seals for foreigners and young people are not for professional use, just something to have that are cutesy. I wanted a professional one though.

Some of these are really clever. I especially like the pair of cats in the yang style.
To carve in yang, the background is carved out leaving the characters or pictures in bas relief - a much more time-consuming method than carving in the yin style.
All of these are done in the yin style of carving, the easiest style.
To carve in yin, just the characters or pictures are carved out.
After checking out the many booths for the silly seals, I started popping my head in at calligraphy brush shops (and there are several). Finally, I found a guy who was friendly, reasonable, and very important, was willing to interact in Korean and a smidgeon of English on the seal carving process. He liked my interest; I liked his style. Harmony was created and he carved my seal.

Because my mood seal was about creativity overflowing, I didn't want to have a typical shape (rectangular, square or, less commonly, round) or a typical material (jade - too expensive anyway - or soap stone). I browsed through the large selection of blank seals/chops and selected two cut stones—both had tapered oval faces. I gave them to the carver but my favorite stone had an area in the face that was too hard to carve. The other one was a bit smaller so I wasn't sure he could carve all four Chinese characters in its face. He looked it over, did a quick practice-write on paper, and said it was possible.

He then prepped the face of the stone by grinding it across 120 grain sandpaper and then briefly across 300 grain sandpaper to make it satiny smooth.

To write the character, he consulted a calligrapher's book which seemed to tell how to stylize the characters—drawing characters like people write is not the goal of the professional carver —and I think the book also guided him on how to write the character in mirror image so it could be readable when stamped.

With the stone dust wiped off, he dipped the face in a gummy solution similar to rubber cement, which became the medium for writing the pattern to be carved and making the pattern viewable.

Once the pattern has been written (and revised if necessary) it is ready to be carved. This rubber cement mixture and all scratchings on it do not affect the actual stone in any way. And if a mistake is made, when writing with a felt-tipped brush over the scratchings, an alcohol solution can erase the mistakes, or, in worse case scenarios, the rubber cement mask can be peeled off and the prep marks can be done again.

The stone, to protect it in the hard-wood clamp, is wrapped in toilet paper. It prevents any fine scratching to the stone and gives the clamp a better grip, especially as my selected stone was so irregular in shape.

Once the stone has been carved, it is wiped free of stone dust and then vigorously tapped in the seal paste. My carver tested it two or three times and then did some fine-tuning carving to ensure that all the details were clearly visible. When he was satisfied with the results, he stamped out the newly created seal pattern on his professional paper and asked for my approval. If I hadn't liked something, I could have asked for more minor revisions but I was very happy.

He then selected a small padded seal case and tucked in the seal to protect it. And he gave me the stamp print of my seal in a folder. Not sure but this could be for "legal" purposes to state that this seal is mine and I have a printed copy for my file to prove in case someone counterfeits it.

Also, not pictured, but after he was finished carving my seal he asked if I was left- or right-handed. I'm right-handed so he took the seal and carved the season (one of the 12 traditional seasons—spring, summer, fall, winter, and each are divided into three sub-seasons) on the area where my right thumb would be positioned while stamping. The season told the mood in which it was carved, and the position of thumb-carving is for easily picking up a seal and not painstakingly figuring out which is top or bottom but to confidently and accurately stamp an artwork each time.

Just a few days after getting this seal carved I was wandering with a couple of friends in the 서울풍물시장—Sinseoldong station, exit 9—and saw calligraphy brushes and a calligraphy set, and at very reasonable market price! Now I'm ready to use my overflowing-of-creativity!

various brushes, a calligraphy paper weight (sandstone), inkstone and ink, a water dripper, three uncarved seals/chops, and bamboo holder for transporting brushes (even damp brushes) so that they remain aerated and mold free.
And yes, that is a 1.5 kilogram chunk of turquoise. Why not create a great mood while painting!
My heart's joy!

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