Sumi E Black to Black

Written by Paul, October 12, 2020

A Japanese experience

Here I show a traditional layout for Sumi – E (ink painting.)

Traditional origins.

I have always been fascinated by deep dark images like those of Goya’s war etchings and bold Zen calligraphy. I like the deep velvety blacks that characterise Sumi E. Literally translated Sumi E means Inc painting usually black ink. I think the most interesting of the black inks are those that need to be ground in a special inkstone. I prepare the ink which is in stick form, by rubbing it with water on the inkstone using a circular motion. As a result this activity and the time it takes enables me to contemplate my ideas for an image. My method of producing the ink as a tradition goes way back in time to the earliest of Chinese forms of calligraphy. It was Chinese monks who then introduced it to Japan along with Chan Buddhism fence known as Zen. I use calligraphy and Zen meditation to exercise my brushwork.

Paper prospects.

I liken a watercolour paper to the skin of one’s loved one. I feel the necessity to empathise with the surface to receive the brush. Paper is different between the east and west. Here in the west we are more familiar with the heavyweight type made from either wood pulp or cotton rag. The ones I like are the Saunders Waterford cold pressed or hot pressed at 300 g/m². Alternatively I like the highly absorbent Somerset printmaking paper again at 300 GSM. I came across the latter when producing etchings and found it wonderful to use for painting. I find high absorbency makes for more spontaneous and accidental mark. Paper from China and Japan is commonly called rice paper, though it’s not made from rice but from rice stalks. Their paper is highly absorbent but is sometimes sized to reduce this by the addition of alum. I can size according to my requirements with either alum their paper is highly absorbent but is sometimes sized to reduce this by the addition of Alan, starch or gelatin. With sizing I can reduce the absorbency for more detailed work and can in fact size locally on predetermined areas in the work. The best Oriental paper is Xuan made from blue sandal wood, other fibres can be added to various character I am always looking out for different varieties to peak my interest. All little papers like their brushes are endlessly fascinating for me and be the paper has a rough and a smooth side I always paint on the smooth side.

A range of “stream of conscious” images using a large brush working very rapidly.

Water play.

The interrelation between brush paper and ink is complimented by water. A part of my kit consists of a water dropper which I made in the pottery at Coombe farm Studios. This little pot measures out exactly the right amounts of water firstly to aid in the grinding of the ink but also in diluting the ink into the various shades/tones needed for the image. I occasionally apply water to the paper first then painting can bring about all kinds of unexpected to results. I can apply the water in a variety of ways either deliberately in predetermined areas or in a more abandoned throw down style. Water literally gives life to being as it moves and dilutes in its own mysterious ways. I can also use gravity to steer the paint in specific directions to give spontaneous results.

Bokki. The structure of ink.

Bokki can be seen under the microscope as the fine particles of the ink structure. I can see these dissolved grains as an indication of the heart of the painter. This is the “Ki” the spirit; “the overwhelming force of enlightened vision”  Hakuin Ekaku  1685 – 1768.

Sumi E for me brings together all the elements Inc, paper, brush and water to produce a painting of the mind.

I am working with both dry and wet methods to obtain as much textural variety as possible.
Sumi-E allows for many variations in the painting of moods.