Calligraphy – Ancient Art, Modern Faces

An individual sat motionless, staring at the blank page before him. The deafening silence of the basement studio was broken only when the brush first touched the paper. With perfect posture and unbroken concentration, his right hand moved in meticulous, swift motions to make art out of mere words. Mark Chan is a young calligrapher currently studying in Australia and this is his escape for 3-4 hours a couple of times a week. “I enjoy each little moment when I’m painting, when I’m focusing on drawing, the concentration makes me calm down my emotions. It’s a great way to release pressure.” 

Calligraphy is an ancient tradition which has lasted thousands of years in Chinese culture. It has a rich history, originally being an expected skill of all upper class members of society. Today the art form is still practised very widely throughout China and is spreading to the rest of the world. Although many of the styles remain traditional, modern updates can be seen throughout the process.

Mark Chan, began his journey into calligraphy over seven years ago in Hong Kong and hopes he can inspire young artists to learn about the culture and expand the art form. Originally, Chan didn’t choose to study Chinese art but preferred to create Western style oil paintings. However, around the age of 15 his school required him to expand his extra-curricular activities so he entered a calligraphy class. Since then, Chan hasn’t stopped painting, becoming the youngest member in the Chinese Calligraphy Association NSW. 

“The group helps connect artists to hold joint exhibitions and provide feedback on each others work” says Chan. It allows the younger less experienced artists to learn from professionals and provides “a good place to meet people with similar interests.” 

One of Chan’s favourite works to create

In a single sentence, Chan describes calligraphy as “using ink and water to describe how to experience the spatial character of a natural landscape.” He even notes using the spatial aspect in his landscape architecture degree. “The perspectives on the page are easy to understand, the way the water will run and the distant hills.” 

Combining both his background in Hong Kong and traditional Chinese art alongside his current experience in Australia, Chan creates unique illustrations of native Australian landscapes. “It’s better to draw what you see and what you’re experiencing,” he says, “It will be different because we are in Australia and mapping the Australian landscape.”

Mark carves both sides of the stamp to save materials

There are many other aspects to the artwork aside from the painting, especially in the stamped message. Rather than purchasing expensive custom stamps, Chan prefers to carve them out himself, adding another layer of personalisation to his artistic works. Calling it a “valuable skill,” the young artist merely sees this as another opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and challenge himself.

Calligraphy is often characterised by the meaning within the piece. This is stamped by the artist on the artwork and can be anything from a sentence to a poem followed by the name of the creator. Chan’s favourite personal work is that of a snake and its shed skin representing life, death and rebirth and how they are all interrelated within nature. “[It is] one of my latest but also one of my favourite because I spent a lot of time on perfecting the composition… it took definitely more than 100 hours.”

A snake and it’s skin showing the closeness of life and death

In 2018 the 24th World Peace Calligraphy Exhibition was held in Australia, and held pieces from many artists both from Australia and worldwide. Chan had two of his pieces featured and received the World Peace Art and Calligraphy Exhibition 2018 Platinum Award for his works. Following this, Chan is now creating an exhibition with two friends which is scheduled for November this year. His ultimate goal is to amass enough works to hold his own personal exhibition, admitting, “it might be a bit further in the future.”

Marks winning artworks in the 24th World Peace Calligraphy Exhibition

Chan believes that calligraphy and Chinese art struggles to appeal to many young Australians “especially because it’s not a sport.” However there is still an increasing popularity in the ancient art form as it provides another way to connect with Chinese culture. 

Connie Tse is another member of the Chinese Calligraphy Association who believes that they need to break the stereotypes, “Once people come to an exhibition they will understand the energy and passion we have.” Both artists believe that additional assistance from other groups, such as cultural funding from the government and local community organisations will increase exposure and interest for calligraphy.

One of Tse’s most recent artworks

For older artists like Tse, they enjoy seeing the art grow and continue in the next generation. Creating traditional Chinese artwork for over 30 years she believes the core of calligraphy is “the dynamic relationship between the components and the blank space.” 

“Some would say calligraphy is the way to practice patience” she said, “I think it shows the inner spirit of the artist.”

She noted that young artists like Chan are very important and are the future of the art. “[Chan] is a really talented artist… especially for someone at his age. The young mind inside his heart somehow made him see the art from a different angle,” Tse said. “I remember he said how much he values the cultural context in his artwork. It is amazing to see how the young artists start to participate in the promotion of cultures.”

Extra information – Creating the ink is often done by rubbing inksticks on an inkstone with a small layer of water. This process can take anywhere from 5-20 minutes depending on how much ink is desired and the consistency and quality of the ink. However, many calligraphers use pre-made packets of ink to save time and money. The materials in the brush are also very important, with the body most commonly made from bamboo and the head consisting of animal hair. Similarly paper quality is considered carefully, often being made from a combination of bamboo, rice and other plant leaves such as paper mulberry and tatar wingceltis.