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Sumi-E: Traditional Japanese Ink Paintings

Art Movements, April 13, 2022
sumi e painting

Sumi-e, or Japanese ink painting, exemplifies Japan's culture and beauty. This phrase is derived from the terms Sumi (black ink) and E. (painting). This minimalist art style employs a balance of black ink on purposefully chosen negative space. According to Tao teachings, the balance of light and dark expresses a desired harmony. Artists pursue this not just in their paintings, but also in their everyday lives.


A Brief History of Japanese Ink Painting

This new style of painting flourished in China during the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 CE. Although sumi-e seems simple, it has a depth of symbolic value. As a consequence, the Chinese evolved a holistic view of life, believing that everything is interconnected and contributes to the growth of one world. In Zen Buddhism, Japanese and Chinese Taoist traditions merged to inspire the artist's method of painting with single, deliberate strokes. Historically, the Chinese used white paper and black ink to represent the universe, and black ink to represent the essence of life. Organic ink drawings that are straightforward in their representation may reach an understated beauty and grace.

Between 1185 and 1333 CE, the Kamakura rulers introduced this Chinese-influenced painting style to Japan. Samurai warlords toppled the empire, ushering in a new era of feudalism centered on the usage of farmland. As the kingdom opened its borders to trade with China in the early 13th century, hundreds of Zen monks departed Japan. Chinese art, philosophy, and religion were brought to Japan via trade. Japanese artists were inspired by the direct manner of Chinese painting. Using just one black ink on each page was groundbreaking at the time, and it had a long-lasting effect on Japanese aesthetics.


The Essence and Importance of Japanese Paintings
sumi e painting

In Japan, ink painters were not concerned with making too realistic paintings. Their goal was to create a picture that was both simple and spontaneous, but still felt alive and genuine. The Japanese felt that the only way to effectively describe reality was to remove all extraneous elements and allow the subject's fundamental core to emerge. They were opposed to ornamentation and touch-ups because they believed they detracted from the substance of the work. The country's mountains, woodlands, animals, and people were among the most often addressed themes.

Sumi-e paintings are monochromatic because they only utilize black ink. The distribution of water and ink on white paper produces a spectrum of grays. The simple use of color in Japanese ink paintings displays the Taoist notion of Japanese ink paintings even more. Taoism's emphasis on the harmony of black ink and white paper was mirrored in its artworks.


Painting Ritual and Techniques

Sumi-e painting process is heavily reliant on instruments. The Four Treasures are the necessary tools and resources. To create a Japanese brush painting, the artist must be skilled with these four tools.

The Sumi is crushed into a powder and combined with water using the Suzuri, also known as an ink stone. Sumi is a black ink that is useful for painting. Traditionally, plants were burned and fused together to produce robust sticks. Artists use an ink brush, often known as a "Fude," to paint. These brushes contain natural hairs with a high absorption rate to help keep the ink. An artist needs have a lot of practice holding the brush in different locations and applying varied levels of pressure to generate a broad variety of brush strokes. Kami, also known as calligraphy paper, is a white sheet of paper used for ink drawing.


sumi e painting

The essence of Japanese brush painting may be summed up in the idiom Kachoufugetsu. Translated literally it means flower, bird, wind and moon, but is meant to denote a sense of harmony and appreciation for nature's beauty. This fundamental aesthetic seeks oneness with nature, as inspired by Chinese Taoist philosophy. The intention was not to produce a realistic image or to accurately reflect a historical event. Too rich and embellished artwork was seen as an obvious effort to distort the subject matter. Rather, the purpose was to use an image to represent the spirit of the subject. For the Japanese artist, this was an authentic picture of reality.

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