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Water Dropper in Ink Painting and Calligraphy

A water-dropper, known in Japanese as suiteki - 水滴 , is a unique container made especially to hold water for usage in ink painting and calligraphy practice. This container design vary in size, shape and material, with the single intention to allow only one drop of water, at a time, to be poured out onto the ink or colour pigments palette.

When you think about it, water is the main substance used with ink for painting and calligraphy. And so its container has a significant importance. It is the water that connects together the ink, the brush and the paper, known as the 'treasures'. The water is the plasma that allows for beautiful ink marks, and flow of calligraphy writing. Thus the water-dropper, even though it has not officially been included with the traditional ‘four treasures’ tools of painting and calligraphy, is of great value, and is known as an essential part of the calligrapher desk and the ink painter studio kit.

Ceramic water dropper in the shape of a chrysanthemum  I 18 C. I porcelain with cobalt blue under transparent glaze I Mikawachi ware I MET

How does it work?

Although small and humble, water-droppers are highly sophisticated objects. The container has to have two holes in its design, one to allow drops of water out, whilst the other allow air to go in. In this way the pouring of water is controlled by the artist. The angle with which the water-dropper is held, determine the speed and how many drops will flow.

ceramic water dropper in the form of a folded lotus Leaf with crab and frog I 19th C I Hirado Mikawachi ware I porcelain with celadon glaze, blue and iron glazes I LACMA

The design of a water dropper

Considering its function, the design of a water-dropper is quite challenging. To create a small container with two holes that can be held in the palm of the hand.

It needs to be simple and practical to function.

These small containers have become objects carrying symbology and meaning. They have evolved as miniature sculptures of complexity and a collectible highly valued items.

metal water dropper I shaped as a hare I Momoyama Period (1568 - 1600)

The materials used for making these fine objects are multiples. From metal such as bronze, copper, silver or brass, to various types of stones such as jade and amber.

Most popular are water-droppers made of ceramic with decoration and various motifs.

The design of the pouring spout can be with a handle, or just a drop like hole. It can also be a more open shape with larger opening.

The shapes of the container has many times a reference to the value of water. It may be from shapes of traditional water container designs, such as a gourd, a tea-pot or even a water droplet. Or a shape with references to plant or an animals living in or by water, such as a lotus flower, a water-frog, a dragonfly or a fish.

ceramic water dropper I Boy with an ox I private collection

Other designs carry a particular symbolic meaning relating to the nature of the year, such as the year of the hare or other zodiac animals. Or it may be a reminder of well known Zen teaching, like the boy and the ox motif, reflecting on a well known zen lesson about the nature of enlightenment.

These unique containers can also be engraved and painted with fine landscape decoration, or a reference to a source of water, like reeds by the river, a waterfalls, a mystical landscape with water source. Even cracked ice as in the sample here.

ceramic water dropper with cracked-ice design I 19th C. I Hirado Mikawachi ware porcelain with underglaze blue I LAMCA

How to fill up a water-dropper ?

The way to fill up a water-dropper is by dipping it in a larger container of clear water. Once you place your water-dropper inside, you will see air bubbles coming out. That means it is getting filled up. When no more bubbles coming up, it is full, ready to be used. Take it out of the larger container, wipe it dry on the outside surface and you are ready for your practice.

Care for your water-dropper

To care for you water-dropper, make sure you keep it clean and wrapped with a piece of cloth when you travel with it so it does not crack or break. Every so often you can place it in a bigger container with water and few drops of vinegar. This will clean any scaling that may have built up. You can leave it overnight and make sure to wash well and refill with clear water.

Further research

As you can see from this brief introduction, water-droppers hold a world within them, not just water. With quite an ingenious, simple and ancient technique, they have become a unique collectors items.

You can further your study of water-droppers by visiting selected Asian art museums fine collections around the world, usually they can be found in the calligraphy or ceramic display section. Also, you may find them coming up from time to time at Asian art auction houses and galleries.

So when you next see these kind of little sculptural objects with two holes in them, you will know what they are and what they are used for.

Getting your own tool-set

As an ink practitioner you may wish to have your own water dropper. In the three sets, curated by Talia for students, you will find water-droppers as part of the tool-kit.

Traveller Set This set has a small blue and white rectangular water-drooper with flowers and water reeds elements painted on it.

This set has a beautiful circular celadon water-dropper.

This set has a circular blue and white water-drooper painted with a mountain landscape surrounded by water and a boat.

To read further comprehensive essays on the ink artist practitioner tools-set and more - check out ArtBrush Library


Find out your favourite Japanese ink painting courses with ArtBrush Online HERE




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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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