Oct 7, 2011

The Art of Sumi-e Painting

By Sue Hulen

I've been a sumi-e artist for almost 5 years now and before sumi-e I was primarlily a Chinese brush painting artists. Chinese brush painting was a branch off of sumi-e. It should show the chi (life energy or life spirit) of what the artist is painting.

The Philosophy of Sumi-e
The sumi-e philosophy is harmony and also contrast. Showing simple elegance, but also beauty. The yin-yang symbol below expresses opposites that actually connect in perfect harmony and balance. The dot is the symbol of integration of the two.

Sumi-e is a way and means for the artist to show and express his spirit. His soul. Showing the spirit of what the artist is painting is more important than the actually subject of the painting. Anyone can paint a subject, but without the spirit of the subject the painting is less effective and not as authentic. It would have no soulful force.

There is a beautiful Chinese quote regarding brush painting that goes like this: "From heart, to arm, to hand, to brush, to paper." How perfect. It all begins with the heart, but we also need to see the brush as a teaching tool. It should teach us patience, focus and self-discipline. With those qualities will come balance as well as harmony that is so very important in sumi-e. Concentration is a must, as well. There are many wonderful lessons to be learned that will help us in other areas of our lives as well. Using chi/energy is important as is using restraint and not over-doing the subject.

Sumi-e and brush painting are also called "sitting meditation" because of the rythem and how relaxed it makes you feel. Even grinding the ink is meditative. Moving the ink in a circular motion going the same way all the time has a rythem to it and can help us feel relaxed. It's the repetitiveness of it that is relaxing. It can make you a more patient and grounded person. It's important to be relaxed and meditative while painting. A stiff painter will make for a stiff painting and will not represent his best work of art.

The tools that a sumi-e artist uses are also called "The Four Treasures or The Four Gentlemen." The ‘Four Gentlemen’ are represented by four very beautiful painted plants depicting the unfolding of the four seasons:
The orchid (spring), bamboo (summer), chrysanthemum (autumn), and plum blossom (winter).
When painted in a group they're always known as the Four Gentlemen of Chinese brush painting. They've been used since the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

They are essential and very important. The artists consider these the most important tools they have because their work depends on them. The Four Gentlemen are:

INK: Sumi

A warm brown-black permanent liquid ink.
Vermillion Ink

THE GRINDING STONE: Suzari (the water reservoir is called "the ocean"and flat part of stone "Land")

BRUSH: Fude        
      The first one is the Idea brush and the second is the Happy Dot Brush                            



Sized Silk

Sized Shuen

The ink is actually a formula combination of burnt pine wood soot and lamp black mixed with camphor and glue. Thus, the ink will most always have a bit of a strong odor to it. They then can mold the ink into the ink stickes which are used to grind into the ink for painting. It takes about 20 minutes or so to grind the ink on the stone until it has a creamy texture to it. When it's creamy and has some bubbles in it, it is ready. Dipping the end of the ink stick into the water in the reservoir of the ink stone is what will help make it creamy. The stick is ground in a circular motion in the same direction until the ink is ready to use. The time it takes to grind the ink stick into a creamy texture is time that the artist takes to get ready to paint. He's thinking about what he's going to paint, how to paint it and feeling the spirit of the subject he will paint.

Ink Sticks
There are specific brushes used in sumi-e. There are hard brushes, soft brushes and a combination of hard and soft. They are made all made of animal hairs. Brushes are the most important tool the sumi-e/brush painting artist has. Because it's brushstroke work, it's vital that the brushes be the right ones and be in good condition. If the wrong brush is used or a worn out brush is used, his work will not be the work of a master.

The paper that is used in sumi-e and brush painting is rice paper. Papers are most always handmade paper. Xuan paper is the nicest as it's absorbant, soft and very white. Paper that is not soft will be hard on the brushes and will not allow the brushes to move across the paper smoothly. It would be too rough. Now days, many artist not only use rice papers, but also other papers such as Bristol board which is white and is smooth and accepts inks and paints nicely.

Brush painting evolved from calligraphy strokes in Chinese calligraphy. Bone strokes and other strokes are used when doing the Chinese letters. It's a help to learn calligraphy, but a must. Artists should at least know how to sign their own name to their paintings. Many paintings will have a lot of calligraphy on them that is a poem and their name as well. Some poems are very long and some very short. Some paintings (many) will have no poetry at all on their paintings. Because the calligraphy strokes are also used in brush strokes it is considered "Twin Arts."

It can feel very awkward when using a brush painting brush for the first time. It's help perpenicular (straight up and down) with your last two fingers behind the brush. The brush will lean on the ring finger, which is behind the brush, and the pinky finger can brace itself on the paper or just do whatever it wants...maybe just hang around. It feels very awkward, but in time, you get used to it and it becomes second nature.

Here are some examples of sumi-e. Some are older paintings I'd done and one of them I had just finished this week:


Rainy Day Bamboo

Baby Bamboo

Asian Orchid
First Lady of Spring

I hope this has been an informative and fun explanation of sumi-e and brush painting art. I love it and really does take me to another place when I paint. Maybe one day you, too, can try sumi-e and feel the spirit of the subject, within.

May you have many Chi' moments of your own.
Sue Hulen
To see a video on Sumi-e painting go to this site:

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