Chinese Seals

Seals have long history in Chinese painting and calligraphy. Use of seals is also strictly regulated. For example, different types of seals should be different shapes; also, different seals should be used in different places on the artwork. Companies also have special seals, also known as chops, for use on formal documents. This article will talk about the different types of seals, and how to use seals properly.

How many types of seals for Chinese art works?

姓名章 Name Seal

This is the seal with your name one it. It tells people who made this painting or calligraphy. Since in China different names are used for the same person and in different occasions of your art work different names need to be used, there is also a complicated system to make different names seals and use them for different occasions. (read this article for details of names system). Therefore, strictly speaking, one person normally has several name seals for different occasions.

Nowadays, people are not as strict as ancient Chinese people on using name seals. However, it is still a common practice to prepare two name seals: one is carved in Ying and the other in Yang. One piece of art work needs a pair of such seals. Both should have similar size. Regarding the shape of the name seals, Zhang DaQian believed that name seals should be best in square shape; round shape is acceptable. Except square and rounds shapes, all other shapes should not be used for name seals.

In conclusion, a pair of two seals in square shape is perfect. Both should be similar size and in square shape. One seal should be carved in Yang, while the other in Ying.

  • Yang (also called 朱文 zhu wen, red character in Chinese):

  • Ying (also called 白文 bai wen, white character in Chinese):

闲章 Decoration Seals

literally means leisure. Although its name sounds unimportant, it is an important contributor to the whole artistic effect of the painting. This type of seal is used strictly for several specific places of the art work, for example, the start point of the painting/ calligraphy, the edge of the art work, the middle of the art work, etc. Therefore, such decoration seals are also referred to as ‘ location seal’ 布局章. 布局 means to locate, and means seal. Decoration seals can be further categorised into several types:

  1. Introduction Seal 引首章: this seal is used at the starting place of your art work. Normally the shape is not recommended to be strict square shape. It is perfect to have a natural irregular shape. One important function of introduction seal is to keep the art work vivid. For example, if the art work is too strict/ dry, using an introduction seal can help make the whole art work more vivid by breaking the strict pattern of the art work. Or sometimes, when the end of the art work seems a bit too heavy, using an introduction seal can help balance the whole art work. This trick is used very often in China.
    • Studio Seal 斋号章: since Tang dynasty, it has been popular to make special name for your study/ studio. A seal for your studio’s name is used for your painting to tell people your studio name. For example, studio for inkston is called 墨漪, and our studio seal is using natural irregular shape of the stone.

    • Elegant Interest Seal 雅趣章: this seal is for a personal message. This can be one philosophical expression or any special words which are used to describe your value of life, your mood, your hobby, etc.

    • Year Seal 年号章: a seal carved with the year is used to record which year the art work is made. Since there are two systems in China to record years, the Year Seal can use either system. Historically the year used to be recorded by name of emperor and year of reign, now as years since the first Yellow Emperor, by this count 2017 is chinese year 4715 (starting on Chinese New Year).

    • Season Seal 月号章: an artist may have a set of four seals carved with the four seasons. Then each artwork can be stamped with Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Winter according to the season it was made.

  2. Edge Seal 拦边章: this seal is used on the edge of the art work in order to ‘gather’ the ‘art atmosphere’ of the work.
  3. Corner Seal 压角章: this seal is stamped on the diagonal corner of the art work. Similar to the Edge Seal, the Corner Seal is used to keep the balance of the whole art work. It is common to put the corner stamp on the lower left hand to match the introduction stamp which is placed on the up right hand of the painting. However, sometimes, it is also stamped on the lower right hand when the name seals are stamped on the right hand of the painting. For example, in the painting below you would see the use of these stamps in practice.

Yun Shou Ping [恽, yùn, 寿平 (1633——1690) ]  (Yun Shou Ping gallery)

In fact, these Decoration Seals are very useful for a painting/ calligraphy and have the same function as strokes. Influential Chinese artist Pan TianShou 潘天寿 once commented that using decoration seals properly is important to keep the balance of colours, structure of the whole painting.

鉴赏章 Collector’s Seal

This is special type of seal are used by collectors. This tradition started in Tang Dynasty. When collector gets a valuable piece of art work, for example, painting, calligraphy, or book, he would use his collector seal to stamp on the art work. However, you need to be careful with where you stamp the seal. The principle is not to destroy the original painting balance. However, this principle is very easy to be broken since every collector wants to leave a stamp on the art work. For example, Lanting Xu 兰亭序 is an example of using collector’s seals.

Lanting Xu 兰亭序, imitation attributed to Feng Chengsu (617 – 672), Tang Dynasty

Documentation Seals

Does your Xuan paper have a red mark on the edge?  This is an edge seal may be applied to the edge of the whole pack, which is only readable if you have the whole pack, with the sheets together in the same order.  This is a mark of authentication to show the pack has not been tampered with since stamped by the maker.

Similarly, Chinese company seals (a prescribed round shape) are used to stamp across the pages of contracts and official documents so part of the seal appears on each page. This makes it more difficult to change a document, since if a page is reprinted it won’t have the exact same stamp.  It also defeats most photocopiers/printer: since most printers don’t print right up to the edge of the paper (or on the edge), it is easy to tell which copy is the original one, with the seal markings over the edge of the pages.

 

How to use seals?

– Principles of using seals properly

Although seals help improve the art very much, if it is not used properly, it would destroy the artistic effects too. In order to avoid such mistakes, there are several principles to consider when using seals.

  1. Proper size: the size of the seal shall be in correct proportion to the whole art work. Normally the size of the seal shall be the same size as or smaller than the characters written on the painting/ calligraphy. If you plan to use different sizes of seals on the same painting, it is always better to position the smaller seal above the bigger one. If the painting is done collaboratively by several people, the seals of these people should be around the same size.

  2. Proper number of seals: in history, it was recommended to use odd number of seals on the same painting. In order to emphasize the painting, it is necessary to control the number of the stamps to make sure that the stamps will not take over people’s attention away from the art work itself. Also, if several seals are used, it is better to avoid using the same type of stamp. For example, it is better to use Ying and Yang stamps than using two Yang or two Ying stamps.

  3. Proper location: the stamp can help balance the whole art work. For example, sometimes the painting is not very much balanced. In this case, a stamp on the sparse area can help balance the painting. For each painting, there is artist signature and date. If there is still space for stamp below the signature and date, then the stamp can be placed below the signature and date. If there is not enough space below the signature and date, then the stamp is recommended to put on the left hand of the signature and date.

  4. Proper colour: Ying and Yang have different visual effects. If the painting colours are generally light, it is more recommended to use Yang seal; otherwise, Ying seal. If several seals are used on the same painting, then you need to pay attention to the balance of the stamps and painting. If there is a lot of empty space on the painting, then it would be better to use Ying stamps; otherwise, more Yang stamps.

  5. Coherent style: the seals have different styles and the style of the stamp shall match the style of the painting. For example, if the painting style is detailed, sophisticated, then the seal shall be the same style. If the painting is passionate, it would be better to use the same style seal designs.

 

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