What are Types of Chinese Seals and their Application in Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy?

Introduction of Chinese Seal Types and their Usage in Chinese Art

The seals applied to Chinese artworks most often fall into three types according to the characters inscribed upon them. If a work has only one seal, it will surely be the name of the artist, his name seal. The other two types are the leisure seal and the studio seal. A leisure seal will most often contain a motto or auspicious saying, while a studio seal, as the name suggests, proclaims the studio of the artist.

Seals are further differentiated by the characters they possess. Seals may either have the characters etched into the surface, creating white characters on a red field, or they may be raised from the surface, resulting in red characters. The former type is known as an intaglio, or red-character seal (朱文印/Zhu Wen Yin/Chu Wen Yin), while the latter is known as a relief, or white-character seal(白文印/Bai Wen Yin/Pai Wen Yin). When selecting seals for a work, it is important that the seals are not of the same type. Having two intaglio or two relief seals in close proximity is considered a poor choice, as the values of variety and balance are just as important in the application of the seals as they are in the creation of the artwork.

Finely engraved seals are just as much a part of the artists’ tools as are the Four Treasures: without them, no serious connoisseur would take the work seriously. Seals may be made of many materials: jade, porcelain and even metal have served over the centuries. Yet, the most common material is stone. The stone selected must be soft enough to be easily carved and not chip, yet hard enough to hold the engraving and not wear out from use. The most sought after stone for seals comes from Fujian and is known as Shoushan Stone (壽山石/Shou Shan Shi/Shou Shan Shih). This type of stone is renowned for its ease of working and its multitude of hues. More common is the Chicken Blood Stone (雞血石/Ji Xue Shi/Chi Hsueh Sih), which appears to have been spattered in dark blood.

How to Place and Apply a Chinese Seal on a Painting or Calligraphy?

Most calligraphic works contain an inscription, but even if you choose not to include one, a seal should be applied. A name seal will generally be applied at the end of a work, and may be accompanied by another seal of a different type so that the characters in the two seals are of a different colour (one red, one white). Leisure seals can be placed almost anywhere, but it is important that they balance not only the work in general, but the name seal. As such, if the name seal is at the end, at the lower left-hand side, a leisure seal might be placed at the beginning, to the right of the first column. In general, however, a leisure seal will not be placed directly above the initial characters, but should be brought into the composition. Placing it above the initial characters can have a disruptive effect.

Remember: it is the brushwork that should be the most immediate focus of the work. As in the writing of the piece, try to place each seal so that it responds to the unity of the piece, neither being too close nor too far from the characters or the edge of the page. There are no hard and fast rules about seal placement, as in all art forms, the artist is required to make aesthetic choices to ensure the unity of the piece while enhancing its visual appeal. The introduction of red to the black and white surely provides the latter. The red seals of a piece have often been called the ‘eyes’ of a work, gazing back at the viewer and providing a point of entry into the flow of the brush.

When applying a seal, you should first ensure that you it is oriented correctly. Imprinting characters upside-down or sideways will ruin a good piece. Next, in order to ensure a good imprint, try to make sure that there is some degree of give in the imprinting surface. This is simply achieved by adding some extra paper beneath the work so that all of the seal’s elements register. Finally, press the seal firmly on to a red ink pad. Do not linger too long or press too hard, as this can cause too much ink to well into the inscribed lines and muddy the resulting emblem. Finally, press the seal firmly on to the paper, in the desired place, making sure that the sides of the seal register with the edges of the paper: a slanted seal is almost as bad as an upside down one.