Sumi-e – my tentative steps to mastery

Bluebird on bamboo

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!)

Preparation

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 small amount of water is placed on the inkstone
The ink stick is rubbed in the water

A little of the black ink is placed in a small bowl and diluted to create a grey.

Techniques

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.

Holding the brush

Some basic strokes:

Left to right a. b. and c.

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. e. and f.

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:

Uchimyaku

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

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

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

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

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.

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Sumi-e – the art of Japanese ink painting

Crane (based on a painting by Elina Lee) painted in my journal for practice

Sumi-e is, to me , a form of painting that is attractive in its simplicity. Having studied the work of monochrome photography masters such as Edward Weston I could easily relate to the genre. So I gave it a try.

The term Sumi-e is derived from the Japanese word “sumi”, meaning black ink, and “e”, meaning painting. It is also referred to as “suiboku-ga” which has the same meaning ie black ink painting but is the more formal way of naming the genre.

Sumi-e was a style introduced to Japan by Zen monks returning from China over 1000 years ago or so, though the inks and brushes were imported to Japan from China centuries before that. I shall not attempt to explain the history of sumi-e but the best that I have read are here and here.

It seems that sumi-e is more well-known than its Chinese parent style which seems odd given its origins. The equivalent term in Chinese is guo hua, and generally referred to as Chinese Brush Painting.

The four essentials required to begin sumi-e are:

  1. an ink stick (sumi),
  2. an ink stone (suzuri),
  3. brushes (fude) and
  4. paper, preferably japanese paper (washi).

I have provided a bit more detailed information on each of these at the end of this post.

The essence of the style is as much about blank paper as it is about the marks made on it, with each mark made with a single brush-stroke. One has to pre-imagine the painting and then apply the ink using the whole body (not just wrist movements), employing “ki” (“qi” or “chi”) ie life force to guide the brush, with each stroke.

In sumi-e there are several brush-work techniques that modify the marks made. These include the dilution of black ink to create a grey tone in addition to pure black. This gives rise to three main tones: the black of the ink, the white of the paper and the grey, though graduation in tone can be achieved when applying the ink. The paper can also be pre-wetted to permit bleeding. There are other techniques that I shall cover in more detail next week.

It is worth noting that washi (paper) is unsized so it will absorb ink directly (and therefore making it pretty well impossible to correct mistakes). I have not been able to find washi so am reliant on what I have reseached on the internet.

When painting, or undertaking calligraphy, the paper is laid flat and a weight is placed at the top edge of the paper. These weights are often decorated and made from wood, brass or porcelain. Stones can also be used.

A brush holder is also a useful accessory to avoid the ink coming in contact with the table.

Sumi

Sumi (ink stick)

The ink is prepared with ink sticks and water. The ink sticks are made from compressed soot, made by burning wood, mixed with a binder of animal glue that, when ground and mixed with water just before painting, dissolves to make the ink. The method of mixing requires the use of an ink stone, traditionally made with a type of slate, to grind the ink stick.

The process of making ink sticks is a long one, mainly by hand, with each artisan taking three years to learn the process. While I can try to describe the method of making ink-sticks I feel it doesn’t give due credit to the effort, skill and time required to make each stick. Some are decorated by hand with gold leaf, which hints at the value of good quality ink. But in summary:

Soot, traditionally produced from burning vegetable oil or wood, is collected. Modern industrial production creates soot from industrial petroleum burning. Each method of producing soot has differing properties.

The soot is mixed with glue made from animal bones, sometimes with perfume added to hide the smell of the glue. Thorough mixing takes an hour. The resulting mass, like soft black toffee or bitumen in appearance, is worked by hand during the winter months to avoid the animal glue going “off”. The mass, if left to cool, becomes hard to work so is kneaded by foot and kept warm by sitting on it until it can be divided into smaller amounts, weighed and kneaded again before placing in moulds. These are then pressed under pressure until they set. The name and size of the stick is impressed in the stick while in the mould. When the sticks are ready they are still flexible. Once removed from the moulds they have their edges shaved, individually by hand, and are then stored to dry until they set hard. Depending on their size, the sticks take 3 to six month to dry.

The ink sticks are then given a thin coat of glue to prevent then from becoming sticky from the heat of the person’s hand during the grinding process. In the final stage each stick is decorated with gold leaf, or painted as in the case of mine. I believe this final stage depends of each manufacturer’s process. Good quality sumi sticks are individually decorated, wrapped and boxed.

Suzuri

Suzuri (ink stone)

The ink stone (suzuri) is a flat stone that has an area for grinding the ink stick with water, and a shallow well that the prepared ink flows into.

Inkstones are made from slate or soft volcanic stone that can be carved by hand. They may also be manufactured from clay, bronze, iron, and porcelain and can be simple or elaborate in design. The more elaborate, traditional stones are treated as heirlooms as they are the only element in the sumi-e process (apart from the paper-weights) that do not need to be replaced. Ink sticks and brushes are consumables.

Suzuri with ink in the well area

I have two ink stones (photos above): a small rectangular one with a simple engraved design, and a larger rounded one with a slightly more detailed engraved dragon design. I am not sure what materials they are made from, probably stone.

A few drops of water are put onto the suzuri. Then the ink stick is rubbed on the wet stone to produce the ink. More water is added until the right amount is available and the ideal opacity achieved.

Fude

Fude – two types of brush

Brushes, or fude, are handmade from animal hair. These include horse hair, goat, weasel and others – including chicken feathers for specialist calligraphy! Each type of brush has its own characteristics, similar in many ways to watercolour brushes. These characteristics include how much ink the brush holds, the size of the brush itself (some being as large as a floor mop!), and the flexibility of the hairs. In Sumi-e it is common practice to have a larger brush for the main painting and a smaller, finer brush for detail.

Washi

Japanese paper for sumi-e is cellulose-based ie made from plants, traditionally mulberry. Again, the process is manual and time consuming.

Other accessories

Sumi-e and guo hua practitioners will use the following additional accessories:

  • paper-weights to ensure paper does not move during the painting process. Some artists use washi-tape. I use either a stone or a crystal.
  • bowls to hold water for brush cleaning and clean water for use on the paper to wet areas, a bowl in which to hold diluted ink with which to paint grey areas, and a bowl to make adjustments to ink on the brush.
Small bowls for adjusting ink in the brush
  • cloths or paper towels to remove excess water or ink from the brush.
Porcelain brush rest

That is quite a long introduction to sumi-e so I shall continue next week with examples of how I paint and the techniques I have learned so far.

I hope this has been of some value. Please feel free to comment or ask questions.

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An unproductive week

Part of a magpie painting in sumi-e style

When I am lucky I can produce six or seven paintings in a day, assuming I have a clear idea of what I want to paint and knowing that there will be no interruptions. I could possibly do more.

This week has been terrible in respect of disruptions with each day requiring me to spend most of the day on the road for various reasons. That’s life. In consequence I was unable to plan or execute anything worthwhile.

In the evenings, to keep myself as motivated as possible, I forced myself into painting a landscape, which failed, and a bird painting on my last sheet of A3 paper.

The bird, a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher from my days in India, was a subject I had been considering for a while. But that too failed while painting the head. The eyes and beak are fine but the rest caused me to put down my brush and consider options.

One is to wash out the areas and re-try but its not a thing I like to do. The second option is to scrap the painting altogether and cut the white areas to use for smaller paintings.

The third option, that I think may work best, is to finish the painting with either gouache or acrylic paint. That is the same option that I am considering for the landscape painting.

Aside from those paintings I did a couple of Sumi-e exercises in my journal. I have two chinese/japanese painting sets with, between them, lots of ink in the form of ink sticks and eight brushes. Luckily the two sets are sufficiently different to give me 8 brushes without duplication.

Bamboo. Sumi-e style

As I am out of paper stock, and running short of quality watercolour paint, I may focus on acrylic painting next month ie from Monday onwards.

Abstract. Sumi-e style

I may devote more time to sumi-e painting as it is relaxing – I need to de-stress. I am normally good at dealing with stress but things are a bit difficult at the moment.

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Flora and Fauna

A Longhorn Beetle (species unknown)

After taking a short break from painting birds I resumed my focus on my feathered friends, painting 5 during the past 7 days though I also painted a Longhorn Beetle and a couple of flowers.

The Longhorn was painted from a photo I took of the odd creature that was on my porch. It looks like an Ivory-marked Borer but the markings are different and located in different places on its body. Hopefully I will be able to identify it later..

Rosy Starling

This Rosy Starling was one of a group of winter migrants that arrived in India while I was there. The exact location was at the Qutb Shahi Tombs in Hyderabad.

Common Foxglove

The foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is a common wild flower in UK. This one was photographed by me in the Sussex countryside when I lived there years ago.

Venus Slipper Orchid

I finished this one yesterday. It is a Slipper Orchid (Pahphiopedilum insigne) that I bought and photographed in Curitiba, again years ago, when I lived there. The flowers originate from the NE of India and Myanmar.

The floral paintings were done on A4 size paper while the beetle and the starling were on A3.

I haven’t decided what to paint next week but may do another mix of subjects.

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Experiment in ink

This week has not been as productive as I would have liked – not even one painting per day completed! In fact I did three on Wednesday and one yesterday.

The three that I did midweek were, as the title above implies, an experiment in drawing ink.

I used a set of Winsor and Newton drawing inks. The pack contains eight small (14 ml) glass bottles of ink that I used undiluted and applied with watercolour brushes.

The subjects were Nagajubans which are traditional Japanese robes worn as undergarments beneath a kimono, so as to avoid the complicated process of cleaning the kimono. From what I can see these robes are generally colourless to avoid clashing with the beautiful kimono patterns. I have to admit my ignorance of such things as, although I lived for about 15 years in Asia, my only visits to Japan were in Tokyo airport (so does not count as a country visit!).

Nagajuban: Blue with gold chrysanthemum, Yellow with cherry blossom and Green with yellow magnolias. Each painted on A3 watercolour paper.

My objectives were firstly to try out the inks that I had only used before to see their colours on paper, and to create a set of paintings that was interesting and unusual.

Learning points:

The colours can be mixed, though I used each separately.

The colours are not fast. Layering caused them to bleed, so care is needed to keep colours separate. I used the bleeding to my advantage in the yellow nagajuban by first painting the yellow, then terracotta in multiple layers for the branches, red, deep red and plum for the cherry blossom, and finally another layer of yellow that softened the blossom.

The colours dried quickly. That is no surprise to me as I live in a hot climate and have challenges when painting in watercolour. I had to apply a second layer to hide the brush marks, though this proved advantageous in creating an impression of texture in the material.

The pack contains black paper indian ink (waterproof) and seven water-based colours: ultramarine, purple, brilliant green, peat brown, sunshine yellow, vermillion and deep red.

I signed the pieces with both my regular painting signature and a gago-in (the hanko or signature stamp known in china as a chop, from the Hindi word chapa) – I have a couple of Japanese / Chinese painting sets which included chops ready to carve my “signature”

An interesting experiment. I may do more ink experiments in future.

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Away from the birds

Tanagers and Euphonias in a frame

This week I decided to take a break from bird paintings though I did finish an A3 painting of tanagers to finish off my supply of paper. I bought more on the same day but had an urge to paint A4 sized subjects instead of the larger format.

The tanager painting has 18 species of tanagers /euphonias arranged in 6 rows with each painting set in an 8cm x 5 cm square with a salmon pink background.

Detail from the Tanager painting

I decided that the month of May would be dedicated to nature ie painting flowers and a few insects.

Having visited the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests of Brazil on many occasions I have captured plenty of photographs of flowers, insects and spiders of varying sizes and colours. When painting I prefer to to focus on the more exotic species and although not all of them are colourful they are certainly quite interesting.

The first painting I completed was a flower, trailing abutilon, also known as Chinese Lantern. It grows naturally in the southern part of Brazil though I admit to have taken photographs from a specimen in a neighbour’s garden when I lived down there.

Abutilon megapotamicum

I have a few other tropical flowers in the queue to be painted.

The first of the insects I painted this week was a Rainbow Katydid. I found a few of these while in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Rainbow Katydid (Vestria sp)

The next insect was a beetle though I managed to lose the photo and its metadata while painting it and thus have no idea what it is nor where I saw it! Maybe I have a backup copy.

Yesterday I painted two versions of an owlfly (Ulodes macleayanus) which seems to be a dragon fly crossed with a fly! The insect is quite common in the northeast of Brazil, certainly where I lived in Touros where I had seen them on several occasions.

The first version is a more accurate representation of the insect while the second, that I prefer, is more stylised while retaining the identity of the creature.

In the next few weeks I shall work on other flowers and insects. I also have two side projects to complete by mid June. Deadline fast approaching so I need to focus!

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Venetian landscape

Veneto farmhouse on A3 paper

This week was severely disrupted by things happening, or not happening when expected, so I only managed to paint a landscape (two versions) and do a portrait drawing in pencil.

The landscape is a view of a farmhouse near the town of Porto Santa Margherita, Veneto, where my mother lived for many years. Whenever I visited I would often drive out into the countryside to take photographs of the farms, waterways and villages.

Earlier version on A4 paper

I had experimented with the view of the farmhouse on A4 paper but wasn’t happy with the either the composition or the lines. There are elements in both versions that I like so I may have another try when time permits. The hills in the background, foothills that lead up to the Dolomites much further to the north, were not included and I would like to put emphasis on the flatness of the land. There is a river beyond the tree-line but otherwise trees in the landscape are less noticeable.

There are actually three trees in front of the farmhouse, as painted in the A3 version, but I had separated them in the earlier version.

I hope I can clear all administrative tasks over the weekend and allow time to catch up on my painting projects next week.

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Shoot Stock

The Shoot Stock site header

The Shoot Stock site has now been successfully transferred to its new domain host and includes its own blog pages.

The previous site also had a blog page but I used it for publishing short stories whereas this new one is designed to advertise new images posted to the site, or information relevant to my photography or painting. The blog (News) also, at least for a short time, has some info about the differences in navigation between the old (Square Space hosted) site and the new (HostGator) hosted site.

Why “Shoot Stock” as a name? About 20 years ago, when I was setting up my studio in Curitiba (south Brazil) I wanted a site that reflected what I did, ie shooting images, hence I established Shoot Images (website) and Shoot Images Limited (company). I already had a website for my fine art photography (Alan Skyrme Gallery, managed by Amazing Internet) but was frustrated that I had spend a boat-load of money to have a site that worked the way I wanted. I felt that the site I had was quite quite expensive (slightly more expensive than the Square Space that I had until recently*) so I created my own sites in parallel. These included Shoot Candids, Shoot From and quite a few more, each specialising in specific aspects of my photography.

(* I note that the entry price for an Amazing Internet site is now just £50 though I was was paying £250 pa until I cancelled a few years ago. Nothing bad to say about AI but it was no longer viable for me).

Shoot Stock was one of those, for my stock photography. Interestingly I came across a photographer who’s had a website called Stock Shoot – her surname was Stock. Sadly she died (very young) and I note that her old site name is up for sale.

So that, in a nutshell, is Shoot Stock. Please feel free to explore the site.

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Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus)

This week I painted 3 birds and a landscape (the latter was a commissioned piece for a client) and have, again, exhausted my supply of paper. I was able to but some more yesterday which will keep me going for a few days, a few more days if I cut the sheets to A4 size. If I do this then I will probably either do a few landscapes or experiment with bird painting styles.

The Caracara is a large falcon that can be found throughout South America though seem to be extending into North America (California and Texas). I have seen these in various parts of Brazil and Argentina and see them almost daily overhead, where I live, often flying close to vultures (Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures).

On the admin side I have been kept busy by the set up of my website. The domain transfer has taken a bit longer to complete that I expected. I am sure it was a much faster process in the past but patience is needed in these days of the pandemic. Hopefully the new Shoot Stock site will be visible after this weekend.


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