Monthly Archives: June 2021

Back to the birds

Hippeastrum striatum

A new stock of paper arrived last weekend so I celebrated with some bird paintings and a floral painting of an “amaryllis”. My sumi-e practice is on the back-burner, for a while at least.

The bird paintings in watercolour on A3 paper were of two Hermits, which are a type of hummingbird, and a Green Bee-eater.

Saw-billed Hermit

The first was a Saw-billed Hermit (Ramphodon naevius) that I saw (no pun intended!) in the Atlantic Rainforest (Mata Atlantica) near Curitiba when I lived there 15 years ago. The area in which I saw and photographed the bird is the Graciosa road that runs down the mountainside from the plateau, about 850 m above sea level, down to the sea. I used to visit the area about once a month to capture photos of the many species of birds, insects and monkeys. The Mata Atlantica runs along the eastern coast of Brazil from the southern states to the northeast corner of the country though where I live the the rainforest barely exists and the wildlife is harder to see.

Planalto Hermit

The second was a Planalto Hermit (Phaethornis petrei) that I saw while visiting the state of Goias. I was on the way to a solo exhibition of my Inca Lands photos at the Legiao de Boa Vontage in Brasilia. We stopped off, overnight, at a “pousada” (an eco hotel of sorts) at a nature reserve.

The two birds are similar in appearance with most of the visible differences being in the breast feathers.

Green Bee-eater

The Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is a common bird in India that I saw regularly while living there. A few of them perched close to a pond in the Botanical Gardens in Kondapur, a suburb where I lived in HYderabad, where they would rest between flights to catch insects over the water.

The floral painting is of a Hippeastrum striatum that I found on the same trip to Goias in which I saw the Planalto Hermit. There were several of these flowers growing in a “scorched earth” environment where a recent fire had eliminated the herbaceous layer of the countryside. Interestingly I found other species of Hippeastrum growing in similar conditions in the south of Brazil.

Hippeastrum are endemic to South America (H. striatus being from central Brazil) while the similar Amaryllis is a South African flower.

Hippeastrum striatum

This painting took a couple of days to complete, the red petals needed to be built up in several layers using multiple colours (cadmium red, rose lake, burnt siena, alizarin crimson, violet, sepia and Payne’s gray).

I find that when I do more floral paintings, like this one, I become more patient and allow myself more time to focus on the details. No rush to finish. I would like to try something more challenging but all too often I am obliged to do other tasks that interrupt me. Maybe next week? Who knows.

Thanks for following. Feel free to comment or ask questions.

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Sumi-e – my efforts

Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) from a photo by Wang Wusheng

Over the last two weeks I have written about sumi-e Japanese painting, giving first an introduction and then a description of the techniques I had learnt. This week I want to share the paintings (not the best) I have completed, with a few comments about each.

Before that though, I had planned on practicing two types of painting:

  • The Four Gentlemen (bamboo, orchid, plum blossom * and chrysanthemum)
  • Landscape

* Although there are many references to “plum blossom” I believe these relate to traditional Chinese brush painting whereas in Japan the subject matter is cherry blossom or sakura. Happy to be corrected on this point.

My expectation was that the bamboo would be easy but there are a number of subtleties that have to be considered. Firstly the basic shape of the leaf which, as a long oval shape, is not difficult in theory. One could get away with simple brush shapes but a sumi-e expert or Chinese brush painter would shake their heads, I am sure, if traditional styles were not employed.

There is, as I discovered, a whole book dedicated to painting bamboo leaves which illustrates how the leaves are joined to the trunk of the plant and how they appear juxtaposed with other leaves. There is some bamboo growing not far from my house so I shall take some reference photos when I get an opportunity.

The term Four Gentlemen was given to these four plant over 1000 years ago in the Sung dynasty as their attributes are believed to symbolise uprightness, purity, humility, and perseverance against harsh conditions, among other virtues valued in the Chinese traditions. In addition they are linked to each of the four seasons (plum blossom for winter, orchid for spring, bamboo for summer, and chrysanthemum for autumn). It’s a fascinating subject, but I digress!

The following were done very quickly with a view to seeing what happened when brush hit paper. It is said that ink preparation can or should take 15 minutes and perhaps I prepared my ink too hastily. I live in a hot, dry climate so whatever I produce is likely to dry quickly. Prior to doing the following exercises I ought to have produced more ink, a stronger darker mix and a grey that was lighter.

Next time: I shall prepare black and grey ink in appropriate quantities and strength before each painting!

The Landscape

Wanting a typical Chinese scene where clouds envelop mountains I found a collection of photos by the late Wang Wusheng. If I get the chance (when I am back in UK) I hope to buy a copy of his book “Celestial Realm“. I chose the Yellow Mountain scene (above) and was fairly pleased with the result. It was done quickly in my journal – paper quality not great – but not a bad result. It will be nice to try with decent paper.


Acceptable but the leaves need more practice.


Needs more practice with twisting the brush to achieve better leaves. The flower stem needs better flow instead of being drawn.

Plum Blossom (or sakura / cherry blossom)

Acceptable, though could have done a better job using kataguma or motoguma techniques. And sold!


Looks more like a rose! Need more practice. The paper was at an angle, better to lay flat.

I need to practice a lot more. With experience comes the ability to add subtleties in the way brush-strokes are applied. One needs to undo bad habits (insofar as they are not applicable to sumi-e) and learn new ones.

On a final note. I tried using Rowney Kandahar black Indian ink but found it to be a dark mid-grey that did not change even with attempts to layer. I shall stick to the ink sticks.

I have a new stock of watercolour paper that will keep me focused on bird and, perhaps, flower painting for the foreseeable future but I shall experiment with sumi-e from time to time.

Feel free to comment or ask questions.

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!)


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.


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:


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.

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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 (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 (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 – 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.


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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