Grinding your own Ink in Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy

Background of Grinding Ink

Ever since the Chinese began writing with Ink and Brush, scholars and artists have ground their own Ink. Although many beginners may choose pre-prepared liquid Ink (link: online store prepared Ink) due to its consistency, ready availability and cheapness, experienced and novice calligraphers alike take pride in grinding their own Ink Sticks (link: online store Ink Sticks) (墨/ Mo). Not only is the grinding of Ink a great way to prepare the mind and wrist for the forthcoming writing, but it is also the best way to get a variety of Ink effects.

The Role of the Ink Slab in Chinese and Japanese Brush Painting and Calligraphy

In order to grind your own Ink, you need only three things: an Ink Stick, water, and an Ink Slab (硯/ Yan). The quality of the Ink Stone is important for getting the best result from your Ink Stick. If the Stone is too smooth, it will take far too long to yield even a small amount of Ink. If it is too rough, the Stick will not be ground evenly, and the resulting Ink will contain unsightly pieces of unground Ink and be of a generally uneven consistency. Ink Stones are often fine pieces of art in their own right, with carvings and inscriptions in great variety. Many Ink Stones also have a lid that serves not only to preserve the Ink for brief periods of rest between writing, but also to protect the grinding surface when not writing. Many Ink Stones have both a Grinding Surface and a recessed Ink Reservoir at the edge into which the Ink flows from the Grinding Surface. It is from the Reservoir that we refill the Brush.

The Process of Preparing Ink for Grinding

Before you set out to write, make sure you have ground enough Ink for all the writing you are planning to complete at the time. In general, artists prefer all the Ink in a single work to be from the same batch, and of a uniform darkness and consistency while sumi-e artists require the changes in the color of the ink. For this reason, and because no two batches of ground Ink will be precisely the same, it is important to be able to accurately assess how much Ink you are likely to need. In the beginning, it is good practice to aim for slightly more Ink than you think you will need. It is better to have too much Ink than to run out mid-character!

How to Properly use your Ink Stick and Ink Slab

Now that you have an Ink Stone and Stick, it’s time to get grinding! For a normal session of Calligraphy, about 2 tablespoons of water should be sufficient. Pour the water on to the Ink Stone. Then, holding the Ink Stick firmly near the end you want to grind from, start grinding the stick in small circles against the Grinding Surface. It is important not to press too hard into the Grinding Surface. Let the Grinding Surface do the work! Pressing too hard may cause pieces of the stick to break off into the Ink mixture. Also, ensure that the Stick is held vertically and that the surfaces of both the Stick and Stone are as flush possible. Grinding your Ink Stick at different angles can also result in an inconsistent product and is to be avoided. As you grind, you will notice the Ink thickening. This is the desired result. Pay attention to the Ink around the area where you are grinding. As soon as you notice that there is a small dry area trailing the motion of the Ink Stick on the Surface, the Ink is ready for use!