For many, many years I have dreamt of owning a personal seal written in traditional Chinese seal script. Watching the various Emperors of China issuing edicts in films and spiritual mediums stamping on powerful talisman only cemented that love for the ancient craft of seal engraving.
Having a notably horrible signature did not help with times when I needed to put a personal signature on an artwork and thus, with a strange feeling that it was now or never, I drove straight to Malacca after an interview session to catch up with Mr. Tham, an artist who specialises in seal engraving and portraits. He operates out of a family run art gallery at 49, Hereen Street. Below is a step-by-step rundown of the process of getting a seal for myself and the company.
- Step 2. With a traditional character dictionary, the next step is to find the correct characters, written in seal script. A single character may be written in an infinite number of styles, each dependant only on the artist. The style to be selected is also dependant on the shape of the seal and the available area for the character. I chose a more squarish style to fit all 4 characters onto a square.
- Step 4 (optional): Tham showing off a a ring attached to a seal which was carved out of a single bock which is one of his personal favourites. Right behind him is a collection of seals labeled NFS, which conveniently stands for Not For Sale. The prices of stone blocks ranges from RM20 all the way up to RM20,000. He casually mentioned how some seals can cost up to millions to make, especially those made out of a solid block of jade.
- Step 6. Quality control. In some cases, impurities and cracks in the stone will reveal itself only when the artist begins to prepare the stone for carving. In my case, the block had random air pockets that might interfere with the strokes later on. Cracks are more common in modern rocks as quarries are blasted with dynamite rather than carefully cut. As a result of the blast, most rocks will carry very minute cracks that only reveals itself while engraving or sculpting. Older rocks were carefully chiselled and therefore do carry such flaws.
- A box of good quality cinnabar paste will practically last your life time. The cheaper variant is a small tin of sponge soaked with red ink.From Wikipedia:
There are two types of seal paste depending on what base material they are made of.
- Silk: The red paste is made from finely pulverized cinnabar, mixed with castor oil and silk strands. The silk strands bind the mixture together to form a very thick substance which one would have to stamp on to catch the ink.
- Plant: The red paste is made from finely pulverized cinnabar, mixed with castor oil and moxa punk. Because the base is a plant one that has been pulverised, the texture is very loose due to the fact that it does not bind. The appearance is sponge like and not oily and tends to be a darker shade of red.
Plant-based paste tends to dry more quickly than silk-based pastes because the plant extract does not hold onto the oil as tightly as silk. Depending on the paper used, plant pastes can dry in 10 to 15 minutes. The more absorbent the paper is, the faster it dries as the paper absorbs most of the oil. Also, plant pastes tend to smudge more easily than silk pastes due to the loose binding agent.
The paste is kept covered after it has been used, in its original container (be it plastic or ceramic). It is kept in an environment away from direct sunlight and away from intense heat to prevent it from drying out.
- The artist explaining the use of seals to create balance in artworks by ancient masters. Seals are often used as part of the composition to create a sense of harmony, thereby including the seal as part of the painting and is to be equally appreciated. In some cases, art collectors would include their own seal onto the artwork and it is said that a properly printed seal does not affect the value of the artwork and perhaps in some cases, actually enhances it.
- Step 12. The final step is when the artist attaches a sample of the print on the box to make identification easier. This is especially useful when you have a whole collection of seals.The most important aspect of getting a seal made is not so much the process of engraving but rather the process of deciding on a style and the appropriate character. Seal script is an ancient style of writing that very few today would be able to read, let alone write. Styling aside, the choice of characters can make or break a seal. One has to consider the multiple meanings a single character can carry and the extended meaning of a phrase when combined with other words. Only an expert on the Chinese language will be able to advice you with the selection of suitable words.
A good (and responsible) artist will guide you through the process with detailed explanation to help you make your choice. In my case, I had a rough idea of how I wanted my personal seal to look like and which 4 characters will represent the name of the company. He will also give you space to not only make a decision but also to change it. One has to remember that the process of creating a seal is a very personal endeavour and the final impression should be representative of you and your personal taste. The artist only helps you express that existing personal taste through the medium he is most experienced with.
Personally, the making of a seal documents important periods in one’s life and the changes in taste and preference one goes through in different times. In years to come, I will demand a different seal with a different style and perhaps, with a different material altogether. I would love to experiment with a different selection of characters and appreciate the masterful craft of a different artist. I can only hope I am fortunate enough to have a seal made in the Japanese style or by a master craftsman in China.
I was lucky enough to have had Tham engrave my very first seal, and I trust there are many more to be made.