The Japanese art of sumi-e

Sumi-e (墨絵), also called suiboku-ga (水墨画), is Japanese ink wash painting. Sumi-e painting evolved in the 5th century from Chinese calligraphy. The main subjects are taken from nature. In the 12th century Zen monks brought the technique to Japan where even today Sumi-e painting has a decisive influence on lifestyle. Translated “Sumi” means “black ink” and “e” means both “path” and “painting”. The style of brush painting is both a simple and yet highly aesthetic drawing made of powerful, mostly chasing and rapidly executed lines. The philosophy of sumi-e is to capture the subject’s ki (life spirit).

Autumn Landscape (Shūkei-sansui). Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), Japanese
Autumn Landscape (Shūkei-sansui). Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), Japanese

Patience and inner harmony are essential in brush painting to capture the spirit of the subject. Sumi-e is therefore not only an Asian painting technique but also a form of spiritual relaxation therapy and is becoming increasingly popular in Europe.

Sumi-e provides a powerful lesson concerning the use of color, communication, and restraints. Sumi-e is an art deeply rooted in Zen, embodying many of the tenets of the Zen aesthetic including simplicity and the idea of maximum effect with minimum means. In Sumi-e, great works are achieved with only black ink on washi(rice paper) or silk scroll. Using the black ink to achieve several variations of tones, we learn that powerful visual messages can be created with a single “color” in the form of different shades and tints.

Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610). “Pine trees”, end of the 16th century. Ink on paper. National Museum, Tokyo.
Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610). “Pine trees”, end of the 16th century. Ink on paper. National Museum, Tokyo.

Zen monks studying in China often returned with samples of Chinese art. In the 14th century they brought back “ink and wash” paintings, a monochromatic style of landscape paintings popular during the Song Dynasty, that held special appeal for Zen Buddhists. The style was called sumi-e in Japan. Sumi-e drawings use only black ink, and in line with Zen principles, the negative space is as important as the positive, which leads to sparse compositions and suggestions rather than renderings.

Sumi-e requires four different tools.  The preparation and use of each has its own process and meditation.  These tools are the ink (sumi), the ink stone (suzuri), the brush (fude), and the material to be painted on, usually paper (washi) or silk.

Sessō Tōyō, Haboku-style landscape, a hanging scroll painting
Sessō Tōyō, Haboku-style landscape, a hanging scroll painting, British Museum, London

Sumi is generally produced out of pine or bamboo ash and a binding agent made from fish bones.  In order for sumi to properly set in its molded form, humidity and temperature must be just right.  For this reason, the highest quality ink blocks are only produced between October and May.  To get an even better ink, artisans will often allow a block to age for several years before selling or using it.

As per the Zen way, when an artist uses an ink block, they should consider the amount of time and hard work that went in to its production.   Having this connection to the ink gives it a sense of being precious, and adds to the delicacy required for each stroke.

Sesshū (1420-1506) “Landscape”, 1495. Vertical hanging scroll, ink on paper. National Museum, Tokyo.
Sesshū (1420-1506) “Landscape”, 1495. Vertical hanging scroll, ink on paper. National Museum, Tokyo.

Although sumi ink is typically described as monochromatic, this does not necessarily mean just black and white.   It is often produced in four common colors: black-black and brown-black, both of which are used mostly for rocky landscapes and winter scenes, as well as black-blue and black-purple, which are generally used for spring scenes.

In the Japanese art of sumi-e, strokes of ink are brushed across sheets of rice paper, the play of light and dark capturing not just images but sensations, not just surfaces but the essence of what lies within. Simplicity of line is prized, extraneous detail discouraged.

Kanō Tanyū (狩野 探幽, 1602 – 1674). “Spring Landscape” hanging scroll, 1672. Ink and tint on silk. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington.
Kanō Tanyū (狩野 探幽, 1602 – 1674). “Spring Landscape” hanging scroll, 1672. Ink and tint on silk. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington.

8 key lessons from Sumi-e (Source: Presentation Zen)

  1. More can be expressed with less.
  2. Never use more (color) when less will do.
  3. Omit useless details to expose the essence.
  4. Careful use of light-dark is important for creating clarity and contrast.
  5. Use color with a clear purpose and informed intention.
  6. Clear contrast, visual suggestion, and subtlety can exist harmoniously in one composition.
  7. In all things: balance, clarity, harmony, simplicity.
  8. What looks easy is hard (but worth it).

Reference

Ink Treasures

3 comments

  1. Hi Nikos Excellent – thank you. I am in China at the moment and this morning went to a museum with early Tang frescoes in Xi’an. We will be in Shanghai later this week to look at this kind of sumi ink on silk art. Beautiful ! Best wishes Elaine

    Sent from my iPad

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    1. Thank you Elaine!

      How wonderful to be in China!

      Enjoy it!

      When are you returning back to base?

      Keep well,

      Nikos

  2. Hi Nikos, I had forgotten about this little conversation. China was amazing! I am back in England. Now trying to learn a bit more about blogs and I bow to your great example with this blog. A rich vein of wisdom and broad variety of subjects. Hope the sun is shining in Greece and that you are very well.
    Best wishes
    Elaine

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