Learning Japanese calligraphy with an app vs a brush and ink

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書道, shodō

While on exchange in England I decided to teach myself how to hand letter and write with brush pens (just one way to entertain myself while I burrowed inside, out of the cold). I found the experience really enjoyable and even though I wasn’t very good, it was fairly easy to learn. Because of this, I’ve decided to focus my DA on learning the art of Japanese calligraphy (書道, shodō) while looking at the popularisation of brush lettering.

I studied Japanese for a year in high school but I honestly can’t remember a thing about kanji and hiragana. This will be an almost entirely new experience for me. While searching on Google for any and all information about Japanese calligraphy, I came across an app called ‘Shodo Expert’. I thought it would be interesting to compare my experience of using an app to learn calligraphy and using a more traditional method of a calligraphy brush and ink.

Shodo expert is a free app that I downloaded onto my iPhone from the app store. I found it be an extremely easy app to navigate and use but it didn’t provide the overall experience I was hoping for. I felt a bit disconnected from what I was supposed to be learning and the interface was a bit slow for my liking. There was a lot of time spent loading pages when I wanted to switch between the different characters and I was asked, after completing every character, if I wanted to save the photo to my phone. I found it a but difficult to get the correct stroke when using my finger as it was a bit hard to see where I had to stop, where in the character had a flick, etc. It might work better on a device that has a bigger screen and with a stylus, instead of a finger. I used Shodo expert in the same place that I would usually do my other hand lettering; in my bedroom. I thought that a place that was comfortable and fairly quiet would help me concentrate more. After figuring out that the app didn’t really work out for me, I went on to try the traditional method of brush lettering.

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My setup

My local Eckersley’s art and crafts supplies store had everything I needed for this part. I purchased 100mL of sumi ink paste for $12.50 and a sable hair brush for around $18. This was set up in a room much bigger than my bedroom because I was worried about spilling or dripping the ink onto something. Once I got home from the shop and actually read the box that was almost entirely in Japanese (can we just talk about the fact that the Eckersley website has the ink listed as ‘Chinese Black Ink’ when it says ‘Made in Japan’ in several locations on the box…), I discovered that the ink was actually a concentrate and I would have to dilute it with water before use. How much water exactly? I wasn’t sure. After using the ink and trying to write with it, I think I mixed too much water with the concentrate and it was no longer black but a patchy grey. I had never used a brush like this before, so I watched a tutorial on YouTube while setting up to see if there were any pointers that could help me. I learnt that I would need to let the brush soak in the ink for a little bit to soften the bristles as the movement of them proved to be important when trying to write. One of the other key points from the tutorial that stuck out to me was that it was normal and expected to write slowly.

I found that using an actual brush, ink and paper was a much more enjoyable experience and is a method that’s much easier to learn from. I used the lessons from the app to pick out a couple of characters to draw out. I ended up only writing out two characters – ichi and hito – but it felt natural to be using these products that I was unfamiliar with. I’m excited to use this method more and hope that with a bit more education, I will be able to correctly write a bunch of different kanji. I will also continue to test out the app on different devices to find a way that works best for me.

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7 comments

  1. Oh wow. I have vague memories of being a kid and getting a kit my parents brought back from Japan. I never really used it, sadly. This art form is really beautiful, yet seems so simple. Good on you for giving it a go! I like how you have compared the analog technique (hand painted) to the technological one. Also how you acknowledged that your experience might have been different if you’d tried it on a different device. Nice work 🙂

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  2. You’ve painted a lovely picture of the journey you took for this post, describing your experiences with both styles of calligraphy.
    It was very clear how you felt about both processes and what critiques you had of either the app or your personal mistakes. It would be good to have you clarify your epiphanies, as they are a key aspect of the autoethnographic process. If you impact the points you found most important, then the reader is better able to connect to those moments and understand why you choose to link to them in your second post where you analyse your engagement.

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  3. This is a fascinating and engaging recount of your experience with Japanese calligraphy. I like that your initial epiphany came from an interest in exploring Western calligraphy and further down the line has evolved into an ideal bridging point between you and a foreign culture.

    I’m fascinated by your detailed description of how a low-budget electronic experience through a free app, quickly evolved into an expensive physical process that eventually required a room “much bigger” then your bedroom.

    In a way your narrative is the perfect metaphor for the autoethnographic experience, in that our findings and investment in a particular study expand to the point that we must find more “room” to dig deeper into a particular topic.

    I appreciate the touch at the end that you found the physical process more enjoyable too. Epiphanies can occur at the end of the process as well!

    Great work, this is very inspiring!

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  4. I really enjoyed reading of your experience trying to learn Japanese calligraphy through the digital and analogue mediums.

    What stood out to me in your experience is the way that your environment was altered when you changed over to using the brush and ink moving from room to room. You mentioned you were worried about spilling or dripping the ink onto something but with this transition you immersed yourself within the art-form further “being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011), where your productivity was perhaps influenced by your surroundings and ability to be less confined by the app.

    I look forward to seeing more!

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  5. The idea you chose to go with for your autoethnographic narrative and how you developed it was brilliant. You definitely approached this in a way to describe and even analyse your personal experiences when learning how to properly write Japanese calligraphy, and in the end, you started to show an understanding of the cultural experience.

    I liked the idea of learning with both ink and paper and the app you chose, doing this highlighted the differing learning environments and how one was more efficient than the other. I think this is an effective example of reflective and narrative ethnographies that were in the Ellis reading.

    Great job!

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