Shodo: the Art of Calligraphy

By Lorrie Hayman


Shodo is the art of Japanese calligraphy – a unique way of telling short stories and poetry by painting symbolic characters. It’s similar to performance art in that it is often done with musical accompaniment and the artist keeps time with the music. Shodo is sometimes done with enormous brushes instead of pens, pencils or feather quills.


Image credit: Youka, a famous Shodo artist.

Image credit: Youka, a famous Shodo artist


In Japanese schools, students study shodo using with smaller brushes and pieces of paper. But they are learning much more than just storytelling. Mastering shodo takes patience and the commitment to practice the characters over and over again.


Image credit: Megumi Mnaturalz - Artists practicing shodo

Image credit: Megumi Mnaturalz – Artists practicing shodo


It’s a challenge to paint shodo characters that are stylized and good looking. Students who manage to do this often progress to the shodo performance art, which involves more structured and specific sweeps, footwork and a very large piece of canvas.


Image credit: Pinterest

Image credit: Pinterest


Did you know that shodo can often be illegible? In these instances, the look and technique are more important than readability. Each stroke shows the artist’s skill and should exude elegance. The characters can be seen featured across Japan from temples to restaurant menus.


Image credit: Wiki Commons - Shodo in a Tainan Confucian Temple

Image credit: Wiki Commons – Shodo in a Tainan Confucian Temple


Shodo originated in China. It was later adopted in Japan so the artform has close historical links to Buddhism and Zen philosophy. As a result, Buddhist monks are usually very good at it. It’s a skill you can experience in certain temples in Japan, where the monks write out visitor’s hopes and dreams using shodo. The artistic black sweeps on the white pages represent the Zen philosophy of yin and yang – the opposite, but equal forces in nature like water and fire.


Image credit: OndeDropZen

Image credit: OndeDropZen


Shodo is not simply fancy writing, but a philosophical Buddhist art movement. And, it’s a popular hobby in Japan for people of all ages!


You can learn alot about ancient Japanese art and philosophy through shodo. The steady process of learning not only the brush strokes, but also the methodology behind shodo, will give you a peek into Japanese culture.


Shodo is an excellent art to practice individually at home. However, first, you will probably need to seek the guidance and expertise of a shodo teacher to give you the basics in the art of the brush and philosophical approach.

If you take a class, tell us about your experience. And don’t forget to share your art with us! Use the form below or tag us @ArtsmithNY on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and use the hashtag #ArtsmithJABS.


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