Seven Tips for Sumi-E Painting
Docks on Spider Lake, MI - 1
#27 of 30 in 30 Days
Tip #1 -- Use Proper Supplies
The art of Sumi-E is Japanese ink painting. My first tip is to get all of the proper supplies, don't settle for using ink sticks and paint on watercolor paper even though that's how I started. The ink behaves very differently on rice paper or xuan paper (sometimes spelled shuan, it's a translation from Chinese). You can get all the supplies at many online or offline art supply stores including Dick Blick, Oriental Art Supply and Acorn Planet. The last two carry artist grade archival xuan paper in various brands. Blick has student rice paper pads that are good enough to start.
The full supply list for Sumi-E painting is as follows:
1. Chinese or Japanese brushes -- these are made from different hairs like wolf, goat or rabbit. Many are constructed combining a stiff core with a softer outer coat and very long hairs. Many are exaggerated rounds with a very good point and a fat belly. A Japanese hake brush is softer than most watercolor flat brushes. While you can do the strokes with Western brushes, they work much better in painting and calligraphy with the right brushes. Kits come with the right brushes.
2. Japanese or Chinese stick ink. While you can use bottled sumi-e ink, diluting it to get four lighter values from full strength ink, I agree with author Yolanda Mayhall that there's a benefit to preparing for a painting session by grinding an ink stick in a suzuri stone. The process is a quiet meditation for twenty minutes to a half hour, time to think about what you're going to paint and how you're going to do it. Planning and meditation can greatly improve your painting.
Also, the bottled ink is quite expensive while the ink sticks are sometimes much less expensive and they will last a lot longer than a bottle of ink. Even expensive ink sticks will make a lot more ink than you get in a little bottle so it's cost effective over the long run.
3. Suzuri ink stone. The stone for grinding your ink stick isn't a necessity if you use bottled ink, but it can save you money in the long run to use one and an ink stick as well as giving a sense of historical connection with thousands of years of painters who came before you. It's a lovely artifact with a very special use. Acorn Planet has some gorgeous historical ink stones carved with dragons or phoenixes and other beautiful designs at high prices but normal suzuri stones are inexpensive. If you take good care of it, that stone is a once in a lifetime purchase.
4. Red seal paste. Available from Acorn Planet and Oriental Art Supply, as well as included in most kits, red seal paste is for signing your paintings. I didn't use it on these examples because they're practice but when you do a serious painting, you should sign it with a chop and use red seal paste. Acorn Planet has it to refill the container if you have used up one from a kit and don't want to throw out the little porcelain dish.
5. Carved stone seal. I bought a couple of beautiful ones on eBay, there are some individuals who will carve them with anything you like. Oriental Art Supply and Acorn Planet both carry seals carved with various designs. If you purchase a kit, the stone chop (seal) may be provided, then you'll need to research a Chinese character or Japanese kanji to use for your signature and carve it yourself. Seals are made with soft stone that's easy to carve, so if you just do your initials in reverse this can also work.
6. Paper -- Xuan also called shuan paper is called rice paper. Acorn Planet and Oriental Art Supply carry fine artist grade shuan/xuan paper and explain the difference. Acorn Planet suggests you use student rice paper only for practice because the professional quality xuan paper in any brand is much more archival. It can last thousands of years with good care. Both also carry practice paper. Blick has a pad of Sumi-E Practice Paper that I used for my examples.
Xuan paper is also environmentally safe -- it's harvested from ancient trees in China without killing them. So it's a renewable resource. Like using all-cotton art papers, it will help save trees because those trees are protected by the villages that harvest them. You're not using pine pulp when you get used to xuan paper.
It's soft and acts like a blotter. If you have too much liquid on the brush, your strokes will fuzz out at the sides and everything you do, even wet on dry, will look like it's wet on wet watercolor. Rice paper, student or artist grade, isn't sized usually so any crisp strokes need to be made very fast and done on the next item. Practicing on watercolor paper is no preparation for how rice paper or xuan paper behaves.
7. Felt or soft cloth blotter! You need this! When you set up to paint, spread a felt blotter under the rice paper. Black is good because ink stains won't distract and become implied false marks on the surface of the white paper. The difference is striking. I had much more control with the blotter and was able to produce some clean-edged marks, where every previous rice paper experiment became so blotchy that all I did on it was use it for colored pencils!
Optional Supplies: A porcelain brush rack is nice to be able to set out your brushes with their hairs not resting on the table to stain it. That's included in many kits or inexpensive. A hanging brush rack is beautiful and traditional, it's also the best way to store brushes and let them drip-dry that I've ever seen. I don't have one yet but plan on getting one and maybe attaching loops to my best Western brushes too since it makes sense to keep their points hanging them hairs down.
Porcelain palettes and palette dishes are great for Sumi-E because they don't stain. You can mix the ink, put it out in them and rinse it clean easily unlike inexpensive plastic ones. A good tightwad alternative is to look for old teacups and saucers that are white porcelain, they can be cleaned just as easily and you're recycling something. I wouldn't drink tea out of any cups used for art supplies though, not knowing what minerals and substances go into making ink sticks and Chinese paint chips.
Watercolor can be used with sumi-e ink or there are colored ink sticks available from Acorn Planet. which also carries Marie's Chinese Watercolors. While Marie's Western watercolors are good student grade, the Chinese ones are artist grade and very different in color and transparency. Colored ink sticks come in red most often by itself, various reds, or a set of five colors that includes white, red, yellow, green and blue. I have also seen this five-color set of ink sticks at various fairs and Asian import stores. They are a lot of fun for color painting and Chinese painting,
Water containers can be anything, but having several ones or a compartmented one will let you rinse the brush in one and then pick up water from the clean one. This is also useful for using watercolors.
Sumi-e ink is waterproof once it dries, like India ink. Watercolor is rewettable. If you are adding color to a sumi-e painting, get the ink down first. The colored ink sticks are not rewettable and so they can be used at any stage.
Docks on Spider Lake, MI - 2
Tip #2 - Hold the Brush Correctly
Read some good books on Sumi-E and Chinese Painting. All of them recommend that you hold the brush vertically from the middle. Techniques like twirling the brush while making a stroke take practice. All of the Four Gentlemen strokes take specific ways of holding the brush and moving.
They may seem awkward at first and you may not have as much control as you did with more familiar Western ways of holding brushes, but using Chinese brushes and holding them the way painters in Asia have for thousands of years is just a new manual skill. If you do it right the first time, you will build good habits -- and learn by practice how to get the spectacular effects that calligraphers and sumi-e painters have in their serious paintings.
Some of these beautiful effects can only be done in the traditional ways. So try to follow the instructions exactly even if you don't like your early results. It's worth practicing until you gain control again using different muscles rather than just applying skills from other types of painting. An added benefit is that practice using Asian strokes can come into your Western painting to improve it and add more techniques to your art.
Don't expect perfect results at first. Relax about it and just do it for the meditation and sense of history. The more often you paint, the easier it becomes. It's like learning anything physical, the five fingered beasts on the end of your arms are trainable and may take longer to learn than your eye and your mind. Training them will help deepen your understanding.
Tip #3 - Simplify
Many Asian artists will look at the subject and study it while not painting, then pay attention only to the painting visually while they paint. A photo reference or something in front of you is full of detail. Sumi-E and other styles of Asian painting reduce all that complexity to the essentials of a subject, focusing on harmony and balance.
Poetry is concise. Sumi-E painting is like writing a haiku. It's important to fill the space in a balanced way and think of the white space in the painting as part of the painting too. The idea of yin and yang come into this, as opposed to a western idea of light as good and dark as evil. Both are equally important to compose a good painting.
So many times paintings from the masters may have only a few elegant strokes yet show a koi or bird in perfect motion. The more you simplify your paintings yet manage to show the important things that are there, the truer you are to the spirit of Sumi-E.
Wooden Boat Framed by Lilac Leaves
Tip #4 -- Use Five Different Values
In monochrome Sumi-E painting, color is implied by value -- by how light or dark your ink is. While you are grinding the ink, pour off some of it early to make the lightest value. Then add as much water as you poured off, grind some more and get it a bit darker and a bit darker.
Test your four lighter values of ink on scrap paper till you have them evenly spaced, adding more water if any of them are too dark. The difference between each of them and the next should be about the same. This is tricky to accomplish but it makes the painting go so much better to have those five values out in front of you as if they were different colors.
Many techniques involve double or triple loading the brush with water, lighter ink and darker ink. When you have the five values -- full strength, dark diluted, medium diluted, medium light and lightest out in a flower shaped palette, then choosing the right one for that part of the painting becomes very easy.
Always rinse the brush in the rinse water before going into a lighter value from a darker value.
Flower Vase in Sunlight
Tip # 5 - Make Practice Strokes an Actual Painting
This tip is directly from Yolanda Mayhall's The Sumi-E Book, which I've already reviewed. I agree with her 100%. Instead of just practicing the wild orchid leaf stroke, do a few leaves and then try to paint a wild orchid from her example. Or look at something shaped like the wild orchid leaves and paint it. Maybe do several strokes and see what they remind you of, like looking at clouds, then finish the painting to turn the cloud into a hippo.
If every practice sheet you use turns into a real painting, then you are also always practicing composition and balance. You get a better feel for filling the space in a good way instead of crowding it with too many things or having a perfect stroke at the end of a dull row of imperfect strokes. Some subjects really lend themselves to repetition within a painting that makes sense.
The wild orchid leaf stroke is very good for marsh scenes. The plum blossom petal stroke is repeated hundreds of times if you paint one of those massive gnarled plum branches so commonly found in Cantonese restaurants.
Besides, that way if your painting comes out well by serendipity, you can frame and hang it with pride. This is a reason to get good paper if you can afford it. Many of my practice paintings came out rather well, much better than I expected -- all because I stuck to this rule whether practicing with traditional materials or watercolors.
Tip #6 -- Try Non-Traditional Subjects
It's good to copy the classical paintings in a good sumi-e book like Yolanda Mayhall's. They come out beautiful and give a timeless sense of history. Very often though, you may be painting things you never saw like the wild orchids in Japan. They are unique plants and I've never seen one in life.
If you paint the everyday plants, birds, flowers, insects, scenes and animals that you know, you will get more of a sense of how these strokes combine to make up a subject. Paintings of modern objects like gas cans are still good paintings.
I'm not Japanese. I don't speak or read Japanese, I'm an American who never left this continent. In learning this ancient form I'm expanding my artistic vocabulary. Painting the things that are familiar to me and have been all my life are good for understanding this type of painting and how the classical paintings relate to the real pandas, koi, wild orchids and other classical subjects ancient painters depicted.
Sometimes the ancient paintings are very realistic, surprisingly so.
It's also a good exercise to try to paint from memory. It's easier to paint something from memory if you've painted it from life a few times first. That helps you remember its shape and proportions.
Some subjects can only be done from memory because you will only see a bird flying in a particular pose for the moment you saw it -- an instant later its wings are in another position. Even photos of flying birds often only show blurs for wings. You may want to use a blur like that to convey motion or do something better -- train your memory so that when you watch a bird fly past, you can choose the best instant's pose to put in your painting.
This gives paintings a very lively look and can accomplish much more than a camera in terms of showing what really happens when fast events like running cheetahs or flying birds pass in front of an artist.
Lake Scene with Raft
#7 -- Use All the Ink, Paint Many Pictures
This tip is a personal one. If I spend half an hour grinding ink and create five perfectly balanced values, it'll dry out unless I use it right away. It dries waterproof and can't be reactivated.
So I spread out and using half sheets of practice paper, did as many paintings as I could before I'd used up all the ink I had ground. It was less wasteful and that excuse of not wasting meant that I did a lot more practice than just creating one perfect painting. My last painting, this one, was much better than the first two landscapes I did because my hands were already in motion and my mind already settled on sumi-e.
I studied the subject differently after doing it for a while than the first time I settled down to it.
If you need to control stress or blood pressure, consider practicing sumi-e daily. The meditation of grinding the ink and focusing on painting for an hour can do a lot to compose you for the rest of the day. It resets everything in body and mind. Instead of the stressful world of other people's demands, it's an hour spent contemplating beauty and creating something wonderful. You will improve dramatically in a short time if you do this every day.
Also if you do more paintings in quick succession, it gets easier to relax and make confident strokes. There's less worry about messing it up because you know you can try again if you messed it up. On the first two, I like my trees more in the first one and my boats more in the second. I could easily go on to do that scene again combining good trees and good boats or trying something completely different.
Instead both experiences went to make the raft scene come out much better -- it has good trees and I used similar techniques for the raft that I did for the boats. I like it better than either of the first two.
So practice frequently and enjoy the process -- it's a lot of fun and it can reach deep into the soul to bring beauty and harmony in life. Painting fast without hesitation is its own kind of excitement, very different from conflict. It's creation and it's serene in its way. The more often you do, the more beautiful your results and the stronger you are as a person.