Sumi-e Painting: Capturing the essence

Philsophy of Sumi-e

The Philosophy of Sumi-e is contrast and harmony, expressing simple beauty and elegance. The Tai Chi diagram demonstrates the perfectly balanced interchange of the two dynamically opposed forces of the Universe, the dot represents integration. Sumi-e employs these principles of nature's vitality in its design and execution. The balance and integration of these forces and the eternal interaction of Yin Yang are the ultimate goal of Sumi-e. The art of brush painting, aims to depict the spirit, rather than the semblance of the object. In creating a picture the artist must grasp the spirit of the subject. Sumi-e attempts to capture the Chi or "life spirit" of the subject, painting in the language of the spirit. Patience is essential in brush painting. Balance, rhythm and harmony are the qualities the artist strives for by developing patience, self-discipline and concentration. The goal of the brush painter is to use the brush with both vitality and restraint. Constantly striving to be a better person because his character and personality come through in his work.

Sumi-e Tools

The tools which are essential to a brush painter are called "THE FOUR TREASURES". These are the Ink SUMI, Grinding Stone SUZURI, Brush FUDE and Paper KAMI. The ink is not ink at all but consists of a formula of soot from burnt pine wood and lamp black combined with glue and camphor which is then molded into a stick. The ink stick in dipped in water and ground in a figure 8 or circular motion, always in the same direction, on the Ink stone until it forms a creamy black ink, this takes about 25 minutes, this is a time of contemplation. While preparing the ink, the artist focuses and prepares himself mentally to paint. The artist's mind should become tranquil, reflecting on the painting, the brush strokes to be used and the subject. Special brushes made in the Orient are used, brushes are considered the most important of the artist's tools because success of the painting depends on masterful brushwork. Although there are hundreds of different kinds of brushes, made of several types of animal hair, they fall in two three basic categories: hard for drawing, soft for coloring and a combination of the two. The paper is hand made and generically referred to as rice paper but it is made basically from bamboo pulp. Rice paper comes in many varieties, papers which are sized with alum and glue have a less absorbent surface and are best suited for fine line work (bone painting). The most common paper used is Xuan, a soft white absorbent paper.

Sumi-e Technique

Ink painting has evolved from the elegant Calligraphy of China. The stroke that forms the character for number one, becomes the trunk and branches for the bamboo tree. If you look closely at the Chinese word for horse, you can see the legs, tail and mane. The basic brush strokes learned in calligraphy are the same used in painting, they are considered to be the "Twin Arts". The fundamental brush techniques are best learned by practicing calligraphy, this allows the painter to concentrate on the brush strokes without becoming concerned with color and composition. It is necessary for brush painters to know enough calligraphy to sign their names and add characters of descriptive or poetic calligraphy to their finished paintings. The artist must learn to use the ink freely with a controlled brush stoke. The goal is to capture the essence, the Chi, the Qi, the spirit or the life of the subject in the painting, evoking the poetry of nature. 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. For painters trained in the Western tradition, this seems clumsy, to say the least. As one wise teacher would say, "If holding the brush in this manner seems uncomfortable, too bad, get used to it." No sympathy! Well, he was right, in time (a long time) it seemed natural.

by Greg Conley

September 11th, 2015