Thousands of elderly Chinese citizens have started spending their mornings drawing large calligraphic characters on sidewalks or in parks. The government does not count this as vandalism or property damage, instead, they actively promote this art form. This is because these people are not using ink to trace beautiful letters, but water. These works of calligraphic art are not meant to be permanent, as they evaporate within a matter of hours, depending on the temperature. Why, then, is this hobby gaining so much traction across the world, and not simply in China? To understand the truth behind water calligraphy, we must first delve into how this art form came to be.
Calligraphy across the world
Calligraphy is the art of lettering in a beautiful, harmonious and expressive manner. It is used in any number of contexts, ranging from legal documents to wedding invitations. Since it is a visual art related to writing, it has developed independently in many nations across the world. Each script has developed its own aesthetic and styles, but the root of calligraphy, beautiful lettering, is found everywhere.
Some of the most famous calligraphic styles come from Arabia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Tibet. Western calligraphy has been in use for a long time too, which includes scripts like Cyrillic or Greek alphabets along with English.
Different scripts have developed different tools and methods. Calligraphers use a wide variety of tools to work their art, including pens, brushes, quills, dip pens, qalams and fountain pens. The ink is often non-standard too, with Chinese calligraphers using inkstones, which need to be ground down and mixed with water before they become usable.
But when it comes to water calligraphy, all the previous requirements become irrelevant.
Water calligraphy Philosophy
The practice of water calligraphy is rooted in aspects of Zen Buddhism. Roughly 20% of Chinese citizens practice Buddhism, with a further 20% practicing aspects of it, in terms of superstitions and animist views. This religion has strongly influenced the development of water calligraphy. This is due to one of the core concepts of Zen Buddhism, called anicca, which is usually translated as impermanence. Zen Buddhist doctrine states that all existence, without exception, is impermanent. Nothing is stable, everything is in a constant state of change. Objects come into being and dissolve.
According to Zen Buddhists, accepting this aspect of reality helps free the mind from many burdens. To meditate on the concept of impermanence, people use water calligraphy. They train themselves to understand that no matter how beautiful or shapely their calligraphy may be, it will evaporate with the passing of time. They are then supposed to apply this lesson to their lives, and as such move closer to enlightenment. Of course, not every person who picks up a water calligraphy brush is a monk in training. Some people simply do it because they enjoy it and it gets them out of the house for a while.
The further an art form develops, so does its equipment. Calligraphy has developed very far indeed. Chinese calligraphers use hundreds of brushes made from all kinds of materials, both natural and synthetic. However, there are certain differences between brushes for water calligraphy and those that use ink. Chinese calligraphy inks are thicker than water, so brushes of a slightly different makeup are required.
While calligraphy is mostly treated as a written art form, many calligraphers treat it as performance art. As such, there are two major types of brushes, with the water calligraphy brush usually a hybrid of the two.
How does this work?
Small handled brushes are usually used for small or delicate pieces of calligraphy. Typically wielded with one hand, they are by far the most common type of brush.
Large handled brushes, on the other hand, are massive. They are usually a few feet long, and the brush is often made of animal fur. They are used primarily in calligraphy performances or in the making of large projects.
These large brushes were often used by warriors in the past, and people claimed that a warrior’s skill with a sword could be seen in his calligraphy.
Water calligraphy brushes are a hybridization of these two concepts. They are usually long, but usually are not designed to be swung around violently for performances. They come with a sponge tip, which is ideal for soaking up water and releasing it without unnecessary splattering. While brushes that allow better control exist, most water calligraphers use this option because it is cheap and easy to use.
For those people who wish to practice their calligraphy without buying expensive brushes, inks, or papers, a product called a Buddha Board is available. It can be used to practice calligraphy using merely a wet brush, and once the water on the board evaporates, it can be reused. Because the water evaporates so quickly, some artists have started using it as a rudimentary animation medium, in a form that resembles stop motion animation.
Reverse water calligraphy
There also exists another form of water calligraphy in America, but this form is entirely opposite to what we have explored so far. A young street artist by the name of Peregrine Church developed a form of superhydrophobic paint in Seattle. This paint becomes invisible once it dries, and repels any water that lands on it. Due to this, any artworks made using this paint cannot be seen normally, but they show up anytime they are splashed with water or it rains.
There are over 20 such art pieces in Seattle, and Peregrine Church sells the spray paint he has used to make them. Artists are encouraged to purchase the paint and create their own pieces. These pieces are temporary, don’t harm property, and don’t advertise anything. Due to this, they fall into the same category as chalk art, so most places consider it legal or quasi-legal.
Since Peregrine Church sells this paint in spray cans, any calligrapher who wishes to use it must use stencils to write whatever they want.
China has a relatively low retirement age. Women retire by the age of 55, while men retire by the age of 60. With lifespans usually hitting 75, most retirees have over 20 years of life left to enjoy themselves. But rather than sitting at home and being bored, many retirees have come together for shared creative exercises.
A major one of these exercises is, of course, water calligraphy. Water calligraphy started getting popular in the 1980s, and has since spread across the world. There are over ten thousand water calligraphers registered at local calligraphy associations worldwide, with even more unregistered people.
How to do water calligraphy on your own
Finally, we move on to how to do water calligraphy. While a significant portion of this article has focused on Chinese water calligraphy, the fact is that it can be adapted to any language or script. Any aspiring calligrapher simply needs practice creating art, nothing else. Well, other than a brush or two.
While top quality brushes can be ordered from China, making a water calligraphy brush is as simple as attaching a piece of sponge to a long stick. The stick should not be too long or too short – it should allow the user to grip it with both hands without bending over too far. Aspiring water calligraphers can find videos of professionals online to emulate.
Water calligraphy is usually performed outside, on flat pieces of stone, such as sidewalks. The surface must be somewhat porous to ensure that the water stays and does not spread. Shiny tiles and non-porous rocks are unsuitable, as the calligraphy will not hold its form.
The entire point of water calligraphy is to meditate upon the nature of impermanence. As such, calligraphers must develop their patience and acquire the proper mindset before practicing this form of calligraphy.
Finally, any aspiring water calligraphers need to practice regularly. The only way to master art is through practice. There are thousands of calligraphy tutorials and fonts available online. Anybody can use them to understand the basics and start on the path to mastering an incredible if short-lived, art form.
Water calligraphy is a beautiful art form, one that practically everyone can take part in. While it is relatively niche right now, its popularity is growing. Since it combines aspects of meditation, beauty, effort, and spirituality, it can bring inner peace to numerous people.
As this art form grows, it will boost public interest in calligraphy and fonts, bringing this wonderful skill into the mainstream. Since this is a relatively new form of calligraphy, there is a lot of space for young, up and coming artists to establish themselves in this field. The world of water calligraphy is vast, and we have no idea how it will change in the future. One thing is certain, though, which is that a water calligraphy is an art form unlike any other.