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"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales
painting by Katie Bergenholtz

Sumi-e Painting

Sumi-e is an ink and wash painting technique that began in China and found its way to Japan. The philosophy of Oriental sumi-e is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its soul. Sumi-e may be regarded as an earliest form of expressionistic art that captures the unseen.
I first taught them about the Four Gentlemen, or the materials needed for this technique. The first two gentlemen are the inkstick, or sumi in Japanese and the inkstone. In wash paintings, as in calligraphy, artists usually grind their own inkstick over an inkstone to obtain ink. Most inksticks are made of either pine or oil soot combined with animal glue. An artist puts a few drops of water on an inkstone and grinds the inkstick in a circular motion until a smooth, black ink of the desired concentration is made. Our inkstick is decorated with golden Japanese writing. (I do not know what they say.) Other sumi are ornately decorated with landscapes or flowers in bas-relief and some are highlighted with gold.


The next gentlemen are the brushes. Wash painting brushes are similar to the brushes used for calligraphy and are traditionally made from bamboo with animal hair. I am not sure what animal hair are on our brushes, but they are white. The brush hairs are tapered to a fine point.
Once a stroke is painted, it cannot be changed or erased. This makes ink and wash painting a technically demanding art-form requiring high concentration. Because of the concentration and focus that this art form requires, this is one of the skills a Samurai must master.


The fourth gentleman is the paper, which is usually hand made and generically referred to as rice paper but it is made basically from bamboo pulp. Our paper is the most common type paper used called Xuan, which is a soft white absorbent paper.

In brush painting, the brush is held perpendicular to the paper, almost at a right angle to the hand, and is firmly grasped at a considerable distance from the point by the thumb, index and middle finger. During the process of drawing, the fingers remain almost immobile and the work is done by the arm unsupported. This was very hard for Westerners as it is not the way we normally write and paint. We all ended up holding our brushes like we usually do, but I noticed that the boys at least tried to paint moving their whole arm. To do this painting correctly takes a lot of practice.

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3 comments:

  1. Ooo, Phyllis, I love these sumi-e paintings. I am writing in response to your question about color-aid paper. It is ridiculously expensive. I use every little scrap of it. It is a wonderful tool and very inspiring to have hundreds of saturated colors to choose from. But I think you could get this in other ways. I collect paint chips from hardware stores, for example. I hope they don't mind....but that would be one way to have (small) pieces of colored paper to play with. Another thing you could do is get your boys to produce some finger painted/scratched/frottaged/painted/stamped papers for you to use for collage. With quality pigments I think you would get the same color-fastness as color-aid paper, and you could have as much fun as Eric Carle making pictures out of them. Let me know what you come up with! I first had to buy color-aid paper for a design class....it was hard to pay for but seemed like something I had to have afterwards because of the joy of using it. much love, Beth

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  2. Thank you, Beth for all the great ideas. We ended up doing some just with construction paper because the boys wanted to do it right away. We may, however, make some textured colored paper like Eric Carle for another session of collage making. This one was wonderful and fun. Thanks for inspiring us to do so. Yours are just gorgeous.
    -Phyllis

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  3. What a deeply interesting and intriguing activity...

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