Cultural Sources of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting: Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy

 

What is the Relationship Between Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e and Calligraphy?

There is a popular aphorism among art critics and painters which says “writing and painting have the same origin” (书画同源/shu hua tong yuan). It is true that the relationship between ink painting and calligraphy is at first glance a very simple one. Both arts share the same tools and materials – brush, ink and paper. But it would be too simple to reduce the connection of ink painting and calligraphy solely on its materials. It is not only the purely technical aspect which connects calligraphy and painting, but also aesthetic ones: composition, execution of line, relationship between filled and empty spaces – both arts share similar theoretic principles.

What’s interesting is that painting was at the very beginning nothing but a trade, done by craftsmen, and surely not considered a form of high art. It was not until people of high social positions – scholars, officials, poets – engaged in this sort of activity in the Tang and Song Dynasties. They were educated people who also engaged in calligraphy and were familiar with its aesthetic principles. It is understandable that they transferred their sense of beauty concerning the calligraphic line into painting, thus helping this genre to develop into a cultivated form of art. It is therefore right to say that painting and calligraphy share the same origins, but painting developed from a mere trade to an art, whereas calligraphy was seen as one from the very beginning.

Between Painting Words and Reading Pictures

Ink painting derives from calligraphy. It was in the 4th century CE that artists started to use brush and ink for different motifs than Chinese characters. But although ink painting went through a long and colorful history, the connection to calligraphy was never lost. Painting techniques differ slightly from calligraphy methods – the brush is held in different angles, and a painter is encouraged to work with shading, blotting and washes. However, the most important element in an ink painting is always the line. The linear composition of a picture – that is, the combination of differently executed lines in order to compose a painting – is one element that has been taken over from calligraphy. Traditional Chinese painting doesn’t know the concept of light and shade. Volume, texture and depth are solely created by the use of lines. It is therefore possible to say that a picture possesses a “calligraphic” character, and that it is possible to “read” a picture. The paintings of Liang Kai are a good example for the calligraphic influence in paintings: the way he moves the brush and the sort of lines he used for depicting a figure’s robe reminds of the lines used for Chinese characters, as if they were disassembled and then put back together.

If a picture can be read, the logical question would be if a text can be painted. It is, indeed, possible. That Chinese characters have the potential to be “treated” like pictures is best shown through the works of Kan Tai-Keung. In his works, he depicts mountains, streams and trees by transforming characters into landscapes, thus combining calligraphy and painting into one piece of art.