How to do Japanese Calligraphy

By Umiko Sasaki
Japanese calligraphy is well known for its simplistic elegance.

Japanese calligraphy, known as shodo, is a popular art not only in its native region but in countries all over the world. With its focus on flowing, clean lines and minimalistic elegance, shodo adorns the walls of Buddhist temples and individual households alike. Drawing your own Japanese calligraphy takes a bit of practice and patience, but a clear idea of what you want to draw and how to proceed will help you achieve your goal.

Research the kanji or Japanese phrase you want to say in your calligraphy, and the style of script you want to use. Kaisho is the typical block style used in Japanese newspapers and official documents, and the script most Westerners find easiest to read. Gyosho is the “middle road” of the scripts, bearing a semi-cursive style printers use to separate certain words from kaisho text. Sosho is a fully cursive style also known as “grass script” that's used the most in Japanese calligraphy.

Set up your calligraphy station. The shitajiki—a thin piece of felt placed under your sheet of paper—should lay on the table in front of you, with your fude, or brushes, on the right-hand side. Even if you're left-handed, you will generally use your right hand for shodo. The suzuri or ink stone, goes to the left of the fude, and the sumi stick goes to the right of them. The mizusashi, or water container, is placed above these tools at the top of the felt; if you're using liquid ink instead of a sumi stick, put the bottle here. The shodo paper goes on the left-hand side, with the elongated paper weight known as a bunchin placed at the top to prevent it from sliding as you work.

Paint your Japanese kanji or phrase onto the paper, paying careful attention to the angle and pressure of the brush strokes. Curved lines are thin and delicate, while straight lines are generally thicker. Each character itself tends to have varying thickness among the strokes as the brush is moved across the paper. The amount of ink should ideally remain consistent throughout the entire work of art to avoid any unsightly splotches.

Frame the finished work after it's dry. You could either use a Western-style picture frame, or attach the top and bottom of the calligraphy to wooden dowels and hang it like that.

Tip

Many people like to use a bottle of liquid ink if they're not used to mixing ink with water and a sumi stick. This is a convenient option, but mixing your own ink gives you greater control over the color and consistency.

About the Author

Umiko Sasaki has been writing for newspapers and trade magazines since 1999. Credits include Software.com, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Mayo Center for the Performing Arts, and several regional charities. She holds a Bachelor's degree from Drew University in playwriting and has owned a copywriting business in New Jersey since 2005.