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Sumi-E Painting Supplies

Sumi-e, also called "suiboku-ga", refers to Japanese monochrome ink painting, a technique that began in China during the Sung Dynasty (960-1274) and was assimilated by the Japanese in the 14th century with the help of Zen Buddhist monks. Sumi-e ultimately has its roots in Chinese calligraphy; indeed, the brush strokes learned in calligraphy are the same used in painting.

Most importantly, sumi-e represents not only a unique and beautiful form of art, but a philosophy as well. While most classical Western painting had as its goal the realistic depiction of the world and its objects, sumi-e was the expression of the artist's perception. Painters attempted to capture the essence of an object, a person, or a landscape. More importance was given to suggestion than to realism.

Western painting uses color to convey shadows, tones, and a sense of space. Traditional sumi-e, on the other hand, uses only black ink. In oriental painting, black ink is actually the highest simplification of color.

Traditional Chinese painting was comprised of three main categories: landscapes, flowers and birds, and earlier human figure painting. The art, while enthusiastically supported by rulers of the T'ang and Sung Dynasties, was more political and educational. Paintings were more rigid and serious, and they also tended to be elaborate and ornate. Art in general had social and moral functions.

As time went on, literature began to play a more important role in painting. The "court" style of painting fell away, and the art became the domain of the literati. As a result, painting became more spontaneous and original. Painters included poems and writings with their images. Later, when Chinese painting had been spread to Japan, sumi-e was viewed as poetry itself. Many pictures were visual haiku accompanied by written calligraphy.

Chinese and Japanese painters alike added signatures, or chops, to their works. These were usually cut by hand into jade (for the emperor and nobility) or copper (for the general population). Chop engraving was done to indicate a painting's authenticity, as well as to add another dimension to the painting's composition. The eye is drawn from image to writing to signature in a pleasing circle of connection.


Chops & Stamp Pads
Chinese calligraphy has long been associated with spiritual communication and a writer's spiritual attunement. This as well as the Taoist and Zen Buddhist philosophical traditions came to deeply influence sumi-e. Much of sumi-e revolves around the harmony of existence: change within the changeless, or separation with integration. As the sea meets the land, there is generative harmony at the shoreline where the two remain separate yet mix a little. Land and water, control and spontaneity, male and female - these and other dichotomies are manifestations of the yin-yang dualism.

This yin-yang dualism is very much present in sumi-e. For example, unlike Western painting, the white background of the page is always an integral part of the image in oriental painting. There is both contrast and harmony between the empty 'nothingness' of white and the living marks of ink.

In practice, therefore, much of sumi-e is meditation. From planning the composition of an image, to preparing the materials, to the actual painting, sumi-e is very much a spiritual exercise associated with mindfulness and contemplation.

Nature plays an important role in sumi-e. Sumi-e expresses the need for humans to understand the patterns of the world and to live in accordance with them. Inanimate objects are never painted for art's sake; they are living expressions of the unseen forces at work in the universe. As a result, much of sumi-e is symbolic.

There are many different symbols present in traditional Chinese and Japanese painting. Most common are the "four gentlemen" - the plum tree, the orchid, bamboo, and the chrysanthemum. Pine trees are also very common, representing survival in a harsh environment or the unconquerable spirit of old age.

Sumi-e requires relatively few materials, and they can be inexpensive. The following is a brief list:
* Brush
* Ink stone or grinding stone
* Ink stick
* Water Bowls
* Cotton Cloth
* Plate
* Paper

Sumi-e brushes are made from a variety of natural hairs. Most commonly these include goat, wolf, and deer hairs, although badger and horse hairs are also occasionally used. It is most important for a brush to be able to make lines with different nuances. That is, the head of the brush must allow for both heavy and light strokes, as well as toning. A good sumi-e brush will allow you to create different tonal values and change the shape or form of the line at the same time. While some good watercolor brushes are suitable for sumi-e, they also tend to be too springy for ink painting. Another good thing to look for in a brush is how well it balances when you hold it in your hand with the head of the brush pointing straight down.


Quality Brush made from weasel, horse, and deer.

Student Hake made from sheep hair.

Hake Rempitsu made from sheep hair.
Some grinding stones are carved out of natural river rock - usually a particular kind of slate. These are preferable to the fabricated, machine-ground stones. A grinding stone usually has a reservoir for water next to the surface on which you grind the ink blocks. The most famous type of grinding stone is the Chinese Tan-kei. The surface of the stone is very important; if it is too rough, the particles from the ink block won't dissolve properly, and the ink will lose its brilliance.
Natural Stone Man-Made Stones
Ink blocks or sticks are made by pressing different pigments together. Sumi-e distinguishes between blue and brown ink sticks. Very popular in Japan, blue ink is made from the soot of burned pine wood. Blue ink sticks sometimes have rough particles from the burning process; however, blue ink has more nuances in its spreading effect. Brown ink is made from the soot of rape seed oil. The brown ink pigment particles are smaller and reflect more light. Chinese painters and calligraphers often favor brown ink.

Ink sticks often contain animal fats as binders. As a result, they can spoil or mildew quickly if they are not stored properly. Take great care in drying the ink stick after use and wrapping it. Ink sticks are very sensitive; they can also dry out and become brittle. The ink stone must also constantly be cleaned, as the ink will clog the surface.


Inks Sticks & Grinding Stones
In addition to ink sticks, there are also ready-made liquid inks available. These are less expensive and require no preparation time (although this defeats the traditional purpose of sumi-e as meditation, both in preparation and in the actual painting). Pigment particles in already-prepared liquid ink are larger and reflect less light. Liquid inks therefore have much less nuances than ink sticks, and they appear less three-dimensional. For this reason, the intense black of liquid inks is better suited for calligraphy.

Liquid Sumi Inks
When painting it is important to have a couple of containers - one for water and another for diluting and mixing different shades of ink. Be sure that the containers do not have sharp edges, as these can damage the hairs of your brushes. Also, a damp rag or cotton cloth will help control the amount of ink in the head of the brush.

There are several different options for surfaces to paint on, but the best papers are made from either gampi or kozo (mulberry) fibers. Kitikata is a good type of gampi to use. The Japanese names for the general types of paper are Gashen-shi, Kozo-shi, and Ma-shi. Usually they are named for the different areas of Japan in which they are produced. Hosho, Kochi, and Sekeishu are other examples of kozo papers. When coated with a layer of glue or other size, silk is also a common option for painting. This tends to give a washed-out effect, as though the subjects painted were viewed through a thick fog.


The fundamental techniques of sumi-e are best learned by practicing calligraphy. This allows the artist to focus on the brush stroke without having to worry about color and composition. For it is the brush stroke that is the most important aspect of sumi-e. It is impossible to correct a mark once it is on the paper, so the artist must have a complete picture of the painting in his or her mind before starting.

This requires a mixture of control and spontaneity. There must be inner harmony that guides the hand, leads the brush toward a full expression of the artist's feelings. Again, sumi-e is traditionally a spiritual exercise, so meditation and planning are paramount. For example grinding the ink stick on the ink stone takes a long while, and is a time for contemplation. It is done in a figure eight motion, constantly going back and forth from the reservoir of ink (ocean) to the grinding surface (land).

Learning to trust the actual process of painting with a sumi-e brush is difficult, but rewarding in the end. The brush is held upright, perpendicular to the paper. It should be grasped lightly between two or three fingers and your thumb. The brush should be held in the center of the handle, away from the head, so that your arm is nearly parallel to the painting surface. When making brush strokes, the hand and wrist hardly ever move. Instead, the arm does much of the work.



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