The Chinese Chop or Seal

In Chinese and Japanese painting, the personal chop or seal establishes the artist's identity and is used to authenticate the painting. This authentication seal is more important than the artist's signature, which serves only as a secondary identification. The artist also may use mood or side seals to convey transcendent themes.

In ancient China it was customary for each successive owner of a painting to add his own personal seal to that of the artist. This custom provides a valuable history of the work and accounts for the proliferation of seals found on old master paintings. In those dynastic days, only persons of great privilege, wealth, and position could own or sponsor such works of beauty.

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Seals are either carved in relief so that the characters appear in Red on a White background, or intaglio so that the background appears in Red and the symbols are White. As you will see in my collection, it is important not only to have a variety of shapes but also seals carved in both relief and intaglio. In years past, seals were carved from elegant materials such as jade and ivory; today, most are carved from soapstone. Many have interesting flowers or figures carved on the side or top of them, making the seals themselves aesthetically pleasing. Seals are great fun to collect. If you find an interesting-shaped seal that is uncarved on the top or side, you can have your own saying carved on the stone.

For your name, I recommend a name chop or seal that is carved in relief and about three-quarter-inch square. Your name will be translated phonetically with a Chinese character representing each syllable. The carver will pick the loveliest meaning for your sounds.

I place a maximum of two mood seals in addition to my personal chop on any painting. Mood seals are used to enhance your painting, so great thought is given to their placement. Before making your imprint, take little pieces of paper with your seal imprints and move them about on your painting until you are pleased with the placement. A triangular seal placement works well, as does lining up the seals to balance the composition. Whatever placement you choose, always keep your seals along the borders of the painting.

Making a Good Impression

Seals usually come with a little tin container of Red Cinnabar Ink paste. This paste is inexpensive and will last a long time. If desired, you may purchase a more elegant ceramic dish filled with paste.

Lightly press your seal into the paste several times and, as you do, blow on the seal to help warm and soften the paste. Always test the seal first on a piece of painting paper. If the imprint looks good, tap the seal into the paste a few more times, and then place it on your painting in a firm manner. Do not wiggle the seal around or you will blur the image. Just exert firm pressure on it for a moment, and then lift straight up.

To get a sharp image, place a magazine under your painting before stamping. As an undersurface, a magazine offers just the right amount of yield and support. A softer undersurface can wrinkle the paper, while a harder undersurface could result in a poor contact. Practice placing your seals so that they appear straight. Always completely wipe off your seal before putting it away.

This personal authentication seal
says "Auspicious Orchid,"
my Chinese name. It is
Red with a White background
carved in relief.

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