When examining manuscript books, often, one of their most striking qualities is sharpness. Scribes used sharp nibs and primed paper that didn’t feather. They wrote small, clearly defined letters with sharp edges very much like printed letters nowadays. In the historical example above, the letters are just a few millimeters tall.
The current exhibition in the Palace Museum in Taipei displays examples of Chinese handwritten documents from the Song dynasty that also show a sharp quality. Seized paper and sharp-tipped pointed brushes allow quick variations from hairlines to broad strokes that keep clear and sharp edges. In this example by Cai Xiang (1012–1067) the characters are about 2cm high.
The first fundamental quality or first principle of formal penmanship is sharpness (followed by unity and freedom) wrote Edward Johnston: ‘It is very important that the nib be cut “sharp”, and as often as its edge wears blunt it must be resharpened.’
Traditional ink-sticks make the best ink, but, like other China inks, are pigments and suitable for dip pens,and not for fountain pens (they clog the feed). Fountain pen ink ideally shouldn’t feather. Writing paper is smooth and doesn’t feather or bleed ink. It also keeps its properties over time. The properties of paper affect the look of handwriting, like pen and ink do. Clairefointaine, Ipaper and Rhodia, for example, are writing papers. Paper for office printers (unless primed) is not meant for handwriting. The image shows how different results are obtained using the same two inks and pens on four different papers.