How to make a realistic digital personal Chinese seal

One of the timeless manifestations of the Chinese language is the oriental seal, a unique, personal essence of oneself, an object whose physical symmetry adds to its hypnotic attractiveness. Seal carving and usage have a long and fascinating history; read more about the materials science and engineering of seal carving in James Eckman’s article which also has numerous links to more valuable information. The present article will guide you through the main steps in making personal digital seals that look reasonably realistic, using my seals as examples (scroll further down to skip the part about the meaning of my name).

Malaya Straits Settlements 50c Japanese Occupation Okugawa Seal

This red seal, in Japanese kanji script that looks similar to Chinese, was used during World War II. Read more about it here.

What does my name mean?

There are often interesting hidden meanings in a person’s Chinese name that appears on a seal. For example, my surname 林 (Lin) means ‘forest’. Albeit by coincidence, I grew up in the shadow of the great Dipterocarp rainforests of Malaya and Southeast Asia and came to appreciate their diversity and grandeur. My first name 揚塵 (Yangchen) is derived from the idiom 塵土飛揚, literally ‘dust-soil-fly-spread’, meaning dust flying everywhere. What? This derivation is only the first level of hidden meaning. The next level of hidden meaning in my name as conceived by my parents is even less obvious, but Ken Rockwell hits home with this statement in his (caution, may be subjective) review of the Nikon D4 (which I do not own):

The Nikon D4 is Nikon’s fastest, tightest professional camera ever made for sports and action photography. It leaves consumer cameras like the D800 and Canon 5D Mark III completely in the dust. — Ken Rockwell

Metaphorically, my parents wanted me to be the Nikon D4, the fastest horse, the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 into space. It has become one of the great asymptotic challenges in my life, a boundary condition that mathematically cannot and need not be attained but that my parents hoped I would perpetually strive towards.

Instructions for making your own seal

1. Design the seal. Two alternative methods, automatic and manual.

Method A: automatic. Input your name in Chinese characters at this online Chinese seal generator. It offers a variety of typefaces and other options and carves your png seal in two seconds. It automatically adds the character 印 (‘seal’) to make up four characters if your name has three. It’s a really nice programme.

Raw output from the online Chinese seal generator at chinese-tools.com

Open the resulting png file in Adobe Illustrator. Convert it to vector graphics using Live Trace with the ‘detailed illustration’ preset. The vectorization gives maximum flexibility for subsequent manipulations. Expand the trace and change the colour to one of your choice. The traditionally used seal paste is a luxuriant red obtained from mercury (II) sulphide (HgS).

Use the Direct Selection Tool to select and remove the square rim, which looks especially digital because the round corners don’t merge smoothly with the straight edges. Replace the rim with a self-drawn one, most straightforwardly accomplished with the Rectangle Tool. I went for a square with thick borders, considerably thicker than the weight of the character strokes, and unrounded corners (see figure below) to convey the kind of authority and formality you’d experience in an Imperial setting.

For the Chinese characters themselves, you may want to square off the ends of the strokes rather than leave them rounded, again to accentuate the feeling of Imperial strictness. I did this by adding rectangles, making sure that the edges were lined up precisely—Illustrator helps by snapping to paths. You may have to subsequently shorten a couple of strokes whose squared-off ends venture so close to other strokes that they appear unsightly and, worse, joined together when viewed at small sizes. Do this by drawing a shape over the part you wish to remove and clicking ‘minus front’ in Pathfinder. Avoid simply drawing white shapes to hide things, as it would be preferable to maintain background transparency to enable the seal to be used over any background.

After Live Tracing, changing the square rim and squaring off the ends of the strokes.

Method B: manual. Look up the seal script for each character in your Chinese name at chineseetymology.org. Using the Pencil Tool in Adobe Illustrator, trace out the characters over their images or just write them yourself. In this case I used rounded caps on the strokes for a less regimental, more artistic air. Avoid perfectly straight and perfectly vertical or horizontal lines. Fine-tune the stroke thickness after you have finished tracing all the characters and grouping the objects (strokes) within each character, so you can judge how it looks as a whole. I went with relatively thin strokes this time to give it some gracefulness, but not so thin that the characters vanish into the pixels at small sizes. Update: you can also look up your characters in fonts of small seal script available here.

Use the Pencil Tool to draw the smooth irregular boundary of the seal. Then use Live Paint to fill in the shape (e.g. this tutorial). Why not the Pen Tool that’s specifically designed for drawing closed shapes? Because it’s more difficult to make the well-behaved Pen Tool do those warts and dents that impart a handmade feel.

Next, manually and individually position the characters within the shape, focusing on filling the space evenly rather than aligning the characters to one another. Perfect alignment isn’t part of the analogue beauty of prehistoric writing. Refrain from rotating the characters—this could easily detract from the vertical flow of the language. Finally, Object > Expand the characters to turn them into shapes, and use Pathfinder’s ‘minus front’ to punch them out from the seal.

Hand-drawn vector reproduction of Large Seal Script (Zhou Dynasty, 1045 B.C. – 256 B.C.) by Yangchen Lin, based on characters from the chineseetymology.org database. I also tried to emulate the transverse section of a stone worn smooth over the eons by the rushing waters of rivers and waterfalls in the great gorges of China.

Although the ‘manual’ design looks more hand-carved, both still scream DIGITAL. A little more work on them would make them more consistent with the fact that there were no computers during the Chinese dynasties.

2. Paste the seal into Photoshop. Next up is an ingenious trick I learnt from graphic designer Owen Jones: apply Gaussian Blur to the image and use Unsharp Mask to make the edges hard again. What for? More details can be found at his tutorial for creating a rubber stamp effect. What this trick does is to create the subtle impression of ink being absorbed into the fibres of the paper as the seal is applied (see figures below). You might try tweaking the transparency also but I didn’t do that since seal paste tends to be thick and opaque.

3. The final step is one of the various methodologies to realize what is popularly known as the grunge effect. In essence, one makes a logo look used and worn by infusing a texture—grainy, scratched, brushed—into it by Layer Masking it with a contrast-enhanced photo of a surface with the desired texture. Here’s a helpful video tutorial by YouTube user Digital Yard Sale:

I did an additional step at the end, hiding the textured backgrounds to reveal the seals in their naked glory. The texture photo I used for my seals is from photoshopscrap.com. The final results:

The Official Seal of Lin Yangchen (surname is written first in Chinese tradition). Notice the subtle blunting effect of the Gaussian Blur + Unsharp Mask treatment.

The Seal of Lin Yangchen

The strokes are still somewhat too neat to be totally convincing, although that is less obvious at the smaller sizes in which personal seals are usually seen. The particular texturization I used may have been reasonably successful at emulating scratches and abrasions, but it doesn’t go far in the way of simulating the kind of random yet nonrandom irregularities that would be produced by a less than perfectly even seal surface and patchiness in ink colour caused by variations in ink consistency and muscular pressure.

Despite the sophistication of Illustrator and Photoshop, truly realistic effects are difficult to achieve, requiring much manual tweaking. There is no instant automatic substitute for a 2000-year-old seal carved by hand.

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