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6 Things to Know Before You Get Your Own Carved Seal

Carving a personal seal was always considered one of the artist's / calligrapher's skills. The seal completes a painting and is an important part of it. Artists used to make their own seals as part of the creative expression and expertise. Having more than one seal to symbolise different periods in artistic progress was common.

Sampled seal of AI/LOVE - Talia Lehavi
Sampled seal of AI/LOVE

Brief historical background

Seal carving has a fine history of over a thousand years in Japan. The tradition originated in China and is over two thousand years old. The ancient seal script, known as tensho in Japanese or zhuan-shu in Chinese, is still used in most seal carving today.

In 221 BC the first emperor of China united the many states of the continent, and had a Jade seal made to represent sole heavenly authority over the land. This seal was passed on from one emperor to another as part of the ritual of power and control. During the 10th century upheavals, this legendary seal was lost, and from then on other seals were used throughout history by the rulers.

The seal represents authority and authenticity of the author and writing. Used by emperors early on in history, it later became a tool for government officials and institutes, schools, teachers and scholars, as well as artists and collectors. With the development of paper, seals have become more important to confirm the writer and writing authenticity, be it official papers, poetry or painting.

Materials and design

Ancient seals were made of hard materials such as Jade, bronze, gold, silver and agate. Other less successful materials, in terms of longevity, were used, such as bones, amber, wax, clay, bamboo and wood. During the 14th C., soft stones became popular and an easy material to carve seals from.

New styles and designs developed, and the craft of seal carving became an art form of its own. Poets, calligraphers and artists specialised in making seals and developing both design and technique. High quality seals have become sought after. They showed knowledge of scholarship and high aesthetics.

Sourcing the right stone was important. The place where the stone came from connected the owner with that place. Therefore, ancient temples, well-known calligraphy centres, sacred mountains, and the like, were places from which seals stones were highly praised.

The stone quality, like a small sculpture, would be selected according to its colour, texture, shine, and transparency. Seals would be cut into various sizes and the carved areas could be square, round, oval or a unique irregular shape.

A high quality seal will have a good, precise and balanced contrast between the engraved white area of the seal and the red parts. The script could be engraved or a relief.

Left: Engraving - ‘where there is a will there is a way’

Right: Relief carving - 'the years fly like an arrow - how alarming’

Content and aesthetic

As the first purpose of the seal was to identify the owner, seals most commonly would have the name of the owner, their initial, chosen name, artist's name or birthdate. The birth year animal zodiac symbol was also popular.

Artists seals were more sophisticated and, in particular, represented a personal philosophical idea, riddle, personal statement or sentiments. The seal and signature were considered part of the whole composition, and an integral part of the painting. Unique graphic script designs were developed, making the seal a ‘stone calligraphy’ work of art. Here are a few examples:

Top left: ‘Fence’ script - ‘Who realises that books are immortals’

Top right: ‘Cloud’ script - ‘Long life of ten thousand years’

Bottom left: ‘Crooked’ script - ‘Prayer for longevity‘

Bottom right: ‘Crooked’ script - ‘To keep wealth and health always‘

Seal paste

The red paste against the black ink creates a contrasting element which completes the artistic aesthetic.

Traditionally, various colours have been used as seal’s paste. However, red paste has become the most popular. This paste was made of Cinnabar (mercury sulphide) mixed with seed oils and the moxa plant. Emperor seal’s paste, would have, particularly expensive mixed powdered materials, such as corals, pearls and rubies.

How to use your seal

Place the finished painting on a ‘semi’ soft surface, like felt. Carefully choose the area where you wish to seal the artwork, and place the seal evenly on the surface. Make sure to put even pressure on all parts of the seal. Keep pressing until you feel the seal is evenly marked on the paper. When you lift the seal, do so with an upward, firm movement to prevent smudging the paste on the paper.

Allow the red paste to dry on the painting, or place a soft cloth to pick up any residues.

Care for your seal

After sealing the painting, make sure to clean the red paste away from the seal with a clean cloth or paper towel and keep it in a safe box.

Get your own seal

Get your own Japanese hand carved seal and high quality red paste on our store - HERE

Order your own seal with the year of the Tiger (2022) on top from Char4U shop - HERE

Or hand carved other suggested seals :

Note: Included in this article are affiliated links to Char4U seals and if you choose to use these, the studio may earn a commission for purchases you make with no extra cost to you. Thank you.


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About the Author

Japanese Ink Painting Instructor & Artist, Talia Lehavi - Standing with a brush in front of Notes on Pine collection in Mallorca Studio

Talia LeHavi is a professional artist and a certified teacher of Japanese ink painting. Exhibiting both in the UK and internationally, she is known for her cross-disciplinary paintings, prints and ceramic tiles.

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