Mastery takes practice and practice makes perfect. Perfection is the mastered art.
In my post last week I provided a description of sumi-e as an introduction to this style of painting. In this post I cover some of the techniques that I have tried. I need lots more practice but the skills learnt will be worth the effort, not only for sumi-e but also for watercolour painting. I am certain this training will take a considerable time, but it’s fun.
When one considers the time and effort of making the tools for sumi-e (or guo hua in Chinese or, simply, Chinese brush painting) then the act of painting deserves appropriate care and consideration. It should not be rushed. While speed applied in watercolour painting adds to the liveliness and spontaneity in the resulting piece, the deliberate placing of marks on paper in the sumi-e process allows nuances to be created with no more effort than is required to portray the subject.
Slowing down to think through and apply each stroke is enormously satisfying.
Over the past weeks I have dabbled with sumi-e though this has become a more serious pursuit this week. My experience is described below in respect of how I prepared for the exercises and the techniques learned (or attempting to learn!)
I have two Chinese painting sets – each with 4 fude (brushes), an ink-stick (sumi) and an ink stone (suzuri). And I have paper that, while not ideal, is fit enough for purpose, at least for my entry into this genre.
“Washi” ie Japanese paper is unsized and thus absorbent. My watercolour paper is either surface sized or internally sized so not ideal do get a real experience from sumi-e. I do have some Fine Art photo paper which seems to be absorbent so I have experimented with that.
One of the most popular subjects to paint and, therefore, to practice is bamboo. The stem or trunk is easily rendered with a standard brush, as are the leaves, while the stalks and twigs are easily drawn with a fine detail brush.
Bamboo, orchid, plum blossom and chrysanthemum are the “four gentlemen” of Chinese and Japanese painting. Hence bamboo was the subject of my initial sumi-e attempts. Bamboo also allows an artist to apply all of the techniques, described below, to be applied.
The ink is prepared by placing some water in the top of the ink stone and then rubbing the ink stick in the water. More rubbing makes the ink gets stronger in blackness. More water is added to make up enough black ink for the painting. Practice tells you how much is needed.
A little of the black ink is placed in a small bowl and diluted to create a grey.
As mentioned in last week’s post, the key elements of sumi-e, by nature of the medium, are the white paper, the black ink and the grey tones produced from diluted ink. Tonal value is important while white space is as important as the black or grey marks made on the paper. White space gives the impression of air, breezes or water.
Marks are made on paper with thought, feeling and with a single stroke only. A stroke can be short, long, twisted or multi-directional – starting when it touches the paper and ending when the brush is lifted off. The movement of the brush on paper is done with the whole body and not just with the wrist.
The key techniques are, obviously, in the brush-strokes. Adding ink to the brush is just a single method of application. There are, additionally, techniques in the way ink is loaded onto a brush that are creative. Watercolour painting has a number of similar techniques but, being a monochrome medium, sumi-e allows one to focus on technique rather than a variety of colour to create a variety of effects. Each technique has a name.
The following is a simple bamboo effect – essentially a dry brush stroke with the side of the brush.
I don’t know if there is a specific term for a dry-brush stroke but I have found a number of ways of applying marks that have been given names in Japanese.
Some basic strokes:
a. brush held at a slight angle and drawn down
b. brush held flat and drawn left to right
c. brush held vertical and drawn down
The difference between a. and c. is in the point at the top versus the rounded top in c.
d. is simply dots painted with the tip of the brush
e. is painted with the brush held vertically, the bristles bent into a horizontal state and the brush then twisted through 90 degrees. Useful for petals, leaves etc
f. this is a line painted with the brush pressed in position as in e. above, then drawn left to right while lifting the brush. Refer to kataguma below.
And now some formal techniques:
This technique begins with loading grey ink onto the brush, squeezing the bristles to form a triangular shape with the apex on the underside. This is then gently dabbed into black ink and applied to the paper. As the brush is drawn across the paper the centre of the line is black while each side is grey.
This is particularly useful in painting leaves with a strong central vein, or feathers
Kataguma, or sanbokuhou, is achieved by first loading the brush with a grey ie diluted ink before adding black ink to the end of the brush ie about 1/3 or less from the tip. When drawn across the paper a graduated mark is created, darker at the top.
This technique is good for painting tree trunks.
Ryonguma is the opposite style to uchimyaku. The brush is loaded with grey ink, then flattened. Each side of the brush is then dipped lightly into black ink. When drawn across the paper the line is dark at the sides and pale in the centre.
This, again, is useful for tubular shapes such as branches or tree-trunks
Sakiguma is a technique useful for painting leaves or petals. The brush is loaded with grey ink and the point of the brush then dipped into black ink. When drawn across the paper the line begins dark then graduates to grey.
Motoguma is the opposite of the kataguma technique. The brush is loaded with black ink, ink is then removed from the tip of the bristles with a cloth. The tip is then carefully rinsed. When drawn across paper the mark will be pale at the top and dark at the bottom.
I have tried these techniques a couple of times but need to practice more till I achieve consistency and confidence.
Hopefully after a few journal pages I will be able to put my learning into practice in a few paintings. Results next week!
Quick and easy substitutions
Anyone wishing to experiment simply with sumi-e style need not spend money unnecessarily.
In place of sumi one can use black watercolour paint, or Indian Ink (in fact Indian ink or India ink is made in the same way as sumi). A suzuri is therefore not required.
In place of fude one can use a number 10 round watercolour brush and, optionally, a number 1 watercolour brush for fine details.
In place of washi, simply use office paper!
This sketch was done with these alternative materials. Maybe not sumi-e perfection but certainly fun and simple.
Thanks for following. Feel free to comment or ask questions.
Next week I shall provide examples of some of the paintings I have completed.