Techniques of Sumi-E Painting

Written by melanie graysmith
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Techniques of Sumi-E Painting
Sumi-e is a traditional art form using just a few materials. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Ink and wash brush painting have strong traditional roots In China and Japan. In Japan this art form is suiboku-ga, or sumi-e. The sumi-e painting style originated in China, and was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist monks in the 14th century. Sumi-e literally means "ink pictures." Only black ink -- just as used in calligraphy -- in varying concentrations is used. Unlike Western artists who paint at an easel, sumi-e painters sit on their hands and knees with their washi (paper) or silk spread out before them. This position gives greater arm and wrist freedom, which is essential, as sumi-e uses the whole arm and wrist in each brush stroke.

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Sumi-e requires few materials, which can be inexpensive too. Compared to other art forms, there are few supplies to buy, plus several of the materials are common and familiar. Sumi-e materials include: brush, ink stone or plate, ink stick, some bowls, cotton cloth, and paper. Sumi-e brushes are specific to the art form and come in a range of natural hairs. Common hairs used are goat, wolf, deer, badger and horsehair. The ink stone and sumi-e ink are distinctive to the art; the ink in particular has no substitute.

Techniques of Sumi-E Painting
Materials unique to the painting style highlight sumi-e technique. ( Images)

Preparing Sumi-e Materials

Preparation for sumi-e is precise and key to obtaining proper results. Begin by soaking brushes to remove the starch that is used to protect them until purchased. Hold the brushes under warm running water and fork bristles gently to loosen them. After this, put brushes in a bowl filled with warm water and soak them for at least four hours, although small brushes can soak for about one hour.

The ink stone is for grinding the ink stick, and both work together to give the correct ink consistency for sumi-e. Season the new stone by putting a wet brush into the ink stone, and using either side of the ink stick, grind the stick well until the ink stone is full. Now you are ready to paint. Every time you grind your stone, you improve the ink quality. Never wash your ink stone out, as the dirtier the ink stone, the better. You do not want to erase all that wonderful ink quality that has built up over time. Be careful as the ink stains badly, so watch that your sleeves and fingertips do not touch or smudge the paper. You may be able to cut off a small smeared end of paper, but fingerprints or larger smears cannot be removed.

Brush Strokes

Basic calligraphy brush strokes are used in sumi-e painting, and together they are considered the "Twin Arts." The aim of sumi-e is to use a few expressive strokes to capture the subject's spirit or essence. The most important quality is for a brush to be able to make lines of varying nuances, meaning the brush head must allow for light and heavy strokes, along with the ability to create tonal changes in one stroke.

First dip the brush in water and then into the prepared sumi-e ink. The brush must be used immediately to keep the correct balance of water and ink. Hold the brush perpendicular to the paper, at an almost right angle to the hand, using a firm grasp. In this way the unsupported arm does the work while the fingers stay almost immobile. The skilled artist learns to use the ink freely, yet with controlled brush strokes. Determining just the right consistency to use through intuition, experience and skill, the artist creates seamless tonal strokes, from deep ebony to the palest grey. These tonal strokes can convey emotions, environment or moods from serenity to boldness.

Techniques of Sumi-E Painting
Sumi-e aims to capture the essence of the subject in one brush stroke. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Name Seals

A seal is used after a sumi-e painting is complete to identify the artist and give added meaning to the art through names, messages or moods. These seals, called Han or hanko, come in several sizes and shapes, which dictate the seal's placement on the painting. If the seal is large or square, it is usually placed in the lower corner, while irregular, oval and rectangular seals are placed on the sides. Name seals are usually square, while message or mood seals come in a variety of shapes. Honko is used with a distinctive red ink, which essentially becomes the signature on anything it stamps.

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