The Art of Sumi-e

While I’ve often admired the simplicity and zen-like qualities of ink paintings, I was too daunted by the plethora of beautiful ink sticks and natural brushes hidden behind a glass case at my local art store to delve into this style. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start, so I often find that a workshop is great way to make the leap into the new. Last summer, I participated in a Sumi-e workshop with the talented Roslyn Levin and learned about this ancient art form. 

Rolls and rolls of rice paper. 

Rolls and rolls of rice paper. 

WHAT IS SUMI-E? 

Ink painting originated in China and then was later adapted by the Japanese. The word sumi-e translates from Japanese to mean “ink painting." Using the same materials today as were used hundreds of years ago, sumi-e artists use contrast and harmony to create paintings that embody the spirit of the natural world. This contemplative art form is based on the idea that less is more. It’s about taking a deep look at an object or scene, and leaving only what is absolutely necessary to invoke the essence of the object. Traditional sumi-e features inspiration from nature; flowers, trees, mountains, and animals are common subjects.  

Set up

From the set up of the workstation, to the preparation of ink, to laying down brushstrokes, everything is based on intentioned placement. The workstation is set up to follow a Zen philosophy, to calm the mind and create a clean space for focus and contemplation. 

Tools of the trade: beautifully embossed ink sticks, a simple ink stone, and bamboo brushes. 

Tools of the trade: beautifully embossed ink sticks, a simple ink stone, and bamboo brushes. 

Materials

Sumi-e supplies are fairly basic, requiring only an ink stick, an ink stone, rice paper, and a brush. The ink stick is ground into the ink stone with some water to make a fluid ink; depending on the amount of water used, the pigment will be lighter or darker on the gradient scale. The brush is held perpendicular to the paper, which differs from other forms of painting (and feels a bit strange at first). The amount of water and ink loaded onto the brush will dictate the texture or contrast of the brushstroke. Learning to hold the brush and add the right amount of ink takes practice. 

A more rare hue of ink stick (violet), brought back from Japan. 

A more rare hue of ink stick (violet), brought back from Japan. 

Basics

There are 4 main brushstrokes, also know as the Four Gentlemen. From these basic strokes, it is possible to make all of the common subjects found in Japanese brush paintings. 

  1. Orchid
  2. Bamboo
  3. Chrysanthemum
  4. Plum blossom

Breathing

With each brush stroke, your whole body (not just the arm or wrist) moves as you breathe out, following the stroke across the paper. For a long smooth stroke, like the ones used for orchids, the breath is long and smooth. For the tiny petals of the chrysanthemum, each petal would be marked by a small escape of breath. Think of it as yoga or tai-chi, but with a brush. 

The Results

These are my favourite pieces from the workshop, though some others did not turn out as well. Every piece might not work out as envisioned, especially when learning. It took me rolls of practice on the rice paper to improve my brushstrokes (and now I have rolls beautiful hand-painted wrapping paper). Many pieces had ink that bled too far, or imperfect lines; the lesson of sumi-e is to accept the imperfections and to move on. Sometimes when a stroke or painting doesn’t go as planned, the results can still be wonderful. That’s the beauty of art. 

Reflections

Sumi-e painting is more meditative than I expected. The simplicity of working only in greyscale allows you to focus on the brush strokes. As a watercolour artist, I found the techniques similar, though more precision was needed. In watercolours,  you have the opportunity to move the paint around, add another layer of colour, or even lift off excess paint. In Sumi-e, because the ink is permanent and the paper is so absorbent, you have one chance to get the brush stroke right. Each stroke must be made with intention and thought. 

Returning to watercolour painting after this workshop, I’ve found that knowing the Four Gentlemen brush strokes has helped improve my painting techniques. The cross-connections and sharing of skills is where I find so much value in learning and trying new things. 

Sumi-e in Summary:

  1. Less is more.
  2. Breathe with the brush stroke. 
  3. Learn the basics, then imbue your personal style. 
  4. Detachment is necessary. 
  5. Appreciate the beauty of “mistakes.”

The most important thing to remember is to make it your own. Do you like looser brushstrokes? More detail? Ink washes? Lots of colour? Art is all about adding your personality, your creativity, your passion. 

Resources

Interested in learning more about Sumi-e? There are some great videos online and most public libraries have books on Chinese or Japanese brush painting. A great place to start is the Sumi-e Artists of Canada site, featuring Canadian artists.