Japanese Calligraphy Lessons

Yesterday I took my first Japanese Calligraphy lesson. There I was, the only non-Japanese in a class of five, nervously dipping my newly purchased Sumi-e brush in a well of ink and making my first marks on the fresh rice paper.

Shodō, the Japanese word for calligraphy, has been a fascination of mine for some time. When we moved to Hong Kong in 2006, my daughter started learning Mandarin and it soon became her favourite subject at school. I loved seeing her first attempts at drawing characters and whenever we had the opportunity, we would stop by exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy, especially older works, and admire the brushstrokes.

Since moving to Japan and trying to learn Japanese, I’ve played with brush pens, which are like art makers with a brush tip, but not with traditional brushes. Going into an art store in Tokyo can be overwhelming, and while my Japanese is good enough to ask for a recommendation, it’s not enough to navigate the vast array of choice in brushes, inks and papers.

A Little About My Calligraphy Goals

I don’t harbour any secret desire to become a calligrapher. I’m not about to switch careers. These lessons are a chance to explore a passion, play with a new medium and develop a slightly deeper appreciation of Japanese culture.

As a kid I was into calligraphy. I had a couple of flat nib pens, I liked to mimic old European styles of lettering, or try to invent new alphabets. After all, we didn’t have cable TV or internet in those days. You had to make up your own fun!

Last year, when I got to hang out in James Victore’s studio, I enjoyed being around people who could letter and draw and generally make marks on paper with grace and ease. I felt clumsy around them at first, but it was liberating to loosen up and enjoy what I could do, then gradually include more creative marks and illustrations in my own journalling, note-taking and day to day life.

Types Of Learning And The Beginner’s Mind

At this point I would normally say something about the beginner’s mind, the benefit of trying new things and the importance of being open to challenging experiences. I wrote a little bit about that before in this piece – Why We Are Always Beginners.

This time though I’m thinking more about how and why we learn and what the purpose of knowledge is. Describing my first class to my family, I joked that I sat down, drew two characters, then repeated that for three more hours, before washing my brush & going home.

In one sense, that’s all it was. My teacher opened a page in a textbook with two characters on it, gave me a quick run down of how to hold a brush, how to fill the inkwell, how much ink to apply, and then she checked whether I had the correct stroke order for the characters. But, then I was largely left to my own devices to try and recreate those two characters and the style used. Nothing but draw, observe, evaluate, think, draw again. Towards the end of the lesson, the teacher showed me the best set of characters I had drawn, before demonstrating a couple of brush strokes I was struggling with. Then I had another half hour to practice some more.

The Japanese have a different word for the kind of knowledge we acquire intellectually, through studying books, or history or ideas, and the kind of knowledge we acquire through experience, through doing things with our hands and bodies. This class was all about the later. The more I drew on the paper, the more I had to look closely at those two characters, the lines, the marks, the relationship between one part and another.

The Art Of Seeing Well

In a sense, the distinctions between photography, design, visual art and calligraphy are kind of arbitrary, the products of the marketplace for creative work. The tools and products are different. But all are obsessed with seeing well, making things seen and shaping the way we see.

The first characters I drew were totally functional. I was thinking about how I held the brush, whether I had the right amount of ink, if my strokes were legible and correct. Then that started to fall away. My shoulders relaxed, my body loosened, I started to enjoy the sunlit room I was in. My strokes became more free and the characters I drew improved, yes, but something more profound happened, I start to notice all sorts of details in the characters I was copying, I started to see more deeply, what was was going on in this work.

There is no shortage of inspiration around us. Our cities crammed to overflowing with design and nature is an endless source of shapes and patterns. Often our struggle is to be still long enough to actually pay attention. We see in an intellectual sense; “oh yeah, I saw that,” then we move on. But, the real art of seeing is to see with our bodies, in that way where the bridge from our eyes, to our mind then to our bodies feels alive, hot with connection like a high power electrical cable.

That’s why I’m taking this calligraphy class. Drawing the characters is fun, rewarding, a nice thing to experience. But, having to sit still long enough to remember what it really feels like to see, that’s priceless.


Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisBuffer this pageEmail this to someone
  • Ruth - 7th February 2017

    This was good reading. Very Zen to have the “beginners mind”
    Where did you study in Singapore?

    • fernando - 7th February 2017

      Ruth – thank you. I didn’t study in Singapore. I lived there for two years and had a small music and photography studio in Clementi, to the west of the City.

Leave A Comment

In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer and writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.


Sign up for a monthly summary of my best writing, images and work, and get a free chapter from my book, No Missing Tools.

© 2017 Fernando Gros | All Rights Reserved