What Is an Ink Brush?

Debra Barnhart

An ink brush is a traditional artist’s tool for calligraphy and painting. Developed by the Chinese, the ink brush has a fine tapered point that is suitable for producing delicate variations in line and tone. Quality ink brushes are made from the hair of an animal such as a goat or rabbit. The brush handle is often constructed of bamboo, although materials such as jade or ivory also can be used.

In traditional Chinese calligraphy, brushes are dipped in ink.
In traditional Chinese calligraphy, brushes are dipped in ink.

Ink brushes have varying degrees of flexibility, depending on the kind of animal hair used. A goat hair brush is more flexible, and a rabbit hair brush is more firm. A brush made with weasel hair is very stiff. According to experts, a high-quality ink brush should have a long, semi-transparent tip.

Unlike the fountain pen, the ink brush is designed to draw strokes of varying thicknesses.
Unlike the fountain pen, the ink brush is designed to draw strokes of varying thicknesses.

The hair on ink brushes varies in length as well. Personal preference and subject matter dictate what kind of ink brush the artist chooses. Small brushes are suitable for small designs. Large ink brushes work well for paintings.

The excellence of the brushstroke and the quality of each line are among the most important elements in traditional East Asian calligraphy and painting. Elements such as color, shape and texture are significant in Western art but are less important in traditional East Asian painting and calligraphy. The artist using an ink brush must excel in hand-eye coordination to create the right brush stroke and line quality. The brush stroke must demonstrate self-confidence, especially in calligraphy. Any hesitation or tentativeness will be reflected in the artwork.

Several ink brushes have a distinguished history and are still manufactured in China. The xuan writing brush and the huzhou ink brush are examples. The xuan writing brush was used as far back as the Jin Dynasty and was the favored writing instrument of Chinese scholars. The huzhou ink brush is considered one of the “four treasures of study,” along with xuan writing paper, the ink stick from Huizhou and the ink stone from Duanxi.

In traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, the artist grinds an ink stick on an ink stone and adds water. The artist can produce ink with various levels of opacity. Opacity, or the darkness or lightness of the ink, is a particularly important element for creating the shading and tone in the paintings that are popular in both the Chinese and Japanese cultures.

Chinese style had a strong influence on East Asian calligraphy and painting. According to some sources, the first well-known calligrapher living in Japan was actually Chinese. Both the Chinese and the Japanese used ink brushes for calligraphy and for paintings. The Japanese eventually developed their own style which was less structured and more free-flowing than the Chinese style.

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