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What is Sumi-E?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sumi-e is a style of painting that is characteristically Asian, and has been practiced for well over a thousand years. Literally ink painting, it is an art form that strives to distill the essence of an object or scene in the fewest possible strokes. A few carefully placed broad strokes that fade off abruptly, a few thin lines and a dot, and a bird is clearly called into being on the paper.

Sumi-e is sometimes confused with calligraphy, because the tools used are the same. Calligraphy is the graceful, artistic representation of written characters, using ink and brush, while sumi-e is painting a scene or object. In the West, sumi-e is often called Chinese Brush Painting, although it has been a major art form in Japan and Korea as well.

To paint with ink requires the use of the Four Treasures. This refers to the must-haves of sumi-e: an ink stone, an ink stick, a brush, and the appropriate kind of paper. The ink stone is a stone with a shallow depression carved into it; it is used to prepare and hold the ink for the painter. The ink stick is a black stick composed of pine soot, bound into a hardened form with resin. It is typically molded in cylinders or rectangles with a lavishly decorated bas relief, such as dragons, on the surface. The reliefs are often painted in gold or other colors, making the utilitarian stick of ink a work of art in itself.

The sumi-e painter creates the ink immediately before beginning the painting, by sprinkling a few drops of water on the stone and then holding the ink stick upright, making circles with the stick on the stone. The end of the ink stick releases some of the soot into the water, making the ink. A skilled sumi-e painter knows how much ink to prepare for the painting he or she has in mind and makes enough, but not too much. Ink is not stored to be used later. Making the ink is a form of moving meditation for the painters, during which they prepare themselves mentally for the painting process.

Brushes used in sumi-e are usually wolf-hair in bamboo - 'wolf hair' can actually be horsehair, boar bristle or other animal hair. The brush's ability to hold and retain a point is critical to a sumi-e painter, since one brush is used to create the widest and thinnest of lines.

Paper is very important; it must be absorbent without being too absorbent. A paper that draws all the ink of out the brush at once will be impossible to work with, yet it must be able to draw up some of the ink, since some strokes depend on the brush lingering to fatten a line. Most watercolor papers are not suitable, since the paint stays mostly on the surface. Rice paper is the most common paper used in sumi-e painting.

The paint strokes out of which most paintings can be made are called the Four Gentlemen; these are the bamboo, the orchid, the plum tree and the chrysanthemum. Sumi-e instructors will insist that these be mastered before you progress.

A sumi-e painting is often accented with a red seal. The seal can represent the artist, or some message or theme the artist wants to incorporate. While many sumi-e artists add color to their painting, in its purest form, black ink on white paper is thought to be sufficient to convey the qi (variously, 'chi')-- the essence or spirit of the thing.

Sumi-e is a graceful, contemplative form of painting, enjoyable both to view and to create.

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Discussion Comments

By anon355817 — On Nov 19, 2013

@Rosoph: Yes there is a difference between Chinese and Japanese sumi-e. For one, Chinese inkpainting has another name, but besides that, the pictures are often more populated (a drawing of bamboo for example: in Chinese style the paper would be filled; in Japanese style, one branch would be enough).

And the ink is used differently: in Japanese style, more often three shades are used in one stroke to get a 3D effect. --Sara

By roxytalks — On Feb 20, 2011

I find it fascinating that the artist actually makes his or her own ink. To me, that makes the art seem more pure -- the artist didn't just create the image, but also the ink used for it. I love it!

By rosoph — On Feb 19, 2011

This is something I would love to learn how to do. I've never been very good at painting, but I like the look of this kind of art enough to actually put the time into learning how to do it well.

I've noticed that a lot of the pictures I have seen have been Japanese paintings. Is there a difference between Japanese sumi-e and Chinese sumi-e?

By elizabeth2 — On Feb 18, 2011

I love the look of sumi-e ink paintings. It amazes me how such beautiful pictures can be created using only black ink.

Although I have to admit that I do also like it when there is just a splash of one other color used, especially red. The effect is stunning. Some of the pictures I have seen are absolutely breathtaking. I would love to get some to decorate my home with.

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