Express Yourself with Sumi Ink Painting and Calligraphy

sumi calligraphyWhether you consider yourself an artist or just a “dabbler,” there is something so wonderful about the Japanese art of Sumi ink painting. A close relative of calligraphy, Sumi ink painting is usually a monochromatic technique that relies on water-based inks along with special pens and brushes. Whether it is calligraphic writing or Sumi painting, there are four essential implements in this East Asian art form: they are the paper, ink, brush and inkstone. In China these four items are known as the Four Treasures of the Study, and in Korea the Four Friends of the Study.

How can you become an expert Sumi ink painter?

One of the best ways to become a Sumi ink painter is by buying a starter sumi or calligraphy set and a book on the subject. Traditional Sumi and calligraphy sets also make wonderful gifts for people who with artistic “bent.” One of the best books on the subject is “Sumi-E- The Art of Japanese Brush Painting.” “Sumi-E” refers to the ancient Japanese art form (sumi) and the word for painting (E). Like traditional calligraphy, Sumi-e requires the simplest materials: paper, black ink, a brush and water. A single color of ink can suggest myriad shades, but much of the creative work in a Sumi painting is done through dynamic brushstrokes, particularly those that are characteristic of the Sumi style.

The book “Sumi-E, The Art of Japanese Brush Painting,” instructs beginners on the essentials of sumi-e, including the brush techniques for line drawing and ink gradations. It also demonstrates the best way to create pictures of rocks, trees, landscapes and bamboo, making “Sumi-e” an excellent guide for beginners that will provide hours of enjoyment.

Suzuri Bako Sumi Set

Sumi sets like this one are a bit different from traditional calligraphy sets. Imported from Japan, the Suzuri Bako set includes two natural hair bamboo brushes, a 3” Sumi ink stick and a 4 ¾” grinding stone.

Hosho Fine Sumi Paper

Making beautiful Japanese-style ink paintings will depend as much on the paper as it does on the brushes and inks. That’s why it is so important to use the best Japanese rice papers like those made by Hosho. These papers incorporate long fibers from Kozo bushes, making them extremely strong. This allows them to hold up to a variety of artistic processes.
Known for its thickness, texture and strength, Hosho is a highly refined “kozo” style rice paper that is smooth on one side and rough on the other. Painters prefer kozo for its response to watercolor and ink, while printmakers prefer its strength, absorbency and versatility.

Sumi Watercolor Ink Set

When it’s time to pick up a Sumi watercolor set, be sure to choose color-fast paints that will stay vibrant for years to come. Whether you use them for painting Japanese scrolls, calligraphy or landscape art, a set of 12 colors will be the best place to start. Look for a water color set that features found ceramic dishes in a portable palette. Colors should include: Crimson, Yellow Ocher, Lemon Yellow, Pearl Green, Viridian, Cobalt Blue, Indigo, Carmine, Red Ocher, Black, Chinese White, and Vermillion.

Zen and the origins of Japanese ink painting

Sumi ink painting and calligraphy were heavily influenced by Zen thought, in that the calligrapher has but one opportunity to create a work of art on a particular piece of paper. Because brush strokes represent a moment in time which cannot be corrected, the artist must focus on the work in order to be fluid with execution. Each brush stroke makes a statement about the calligrapher at that moment in time. Through its connection with the practices of Zen, calligraphy absorbed a distinct Japanese aesthetic that is often symbolized by the circle of enlightenment, or the ensō.

To the Buddhist monk, the ability to master the writing of Zen calligraphy was a noble goal. Throughout the history of Buddhism, monks and many shodō practitioners would become expert calligraphers. The art required one to empty one’s mind and, rather than making a tremendous effort let the letters flow out of themselves. Named by the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, this practice was called “mushin” or the “no mind state,” and is based on Zen Buddhist practices, which stress the connection between the spiritual and physical. It was not uncommon for people to look at a work of shodō in preparation for Japanese tea ceremonies.

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