Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Technique and Learning – An Introduction to the Basic Strokes

Creating Outlines (描/miao) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Chinese artists and connoisseurs have developed a broad range of terms describing the manifold ways in which a brushline can be executed. A lot of these terms have their origin in figure painting, when appropriate descriptions for the depiction of, for example, a gentlemen’s robe were needed. A few of the most important techniques shall be shown and explained here.

 What is a Nail Head Line (钉头描/ding tou miao) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

The Nail Head Line is a line with a sharp look. It is supposed to resemble the shape of a nail, with a prominent beginning and a pointy end. To draw a Nail Head Line, you need to turn the brush while painting: Hold the brush in an angle and press the tip on the paper, then paint the line while moving the wrist and turning the brush into and upright position. This way, the end of the line should look like a spike. The Nail Head Line is particularly interesting when the beginning of the line is considerably thicker than the end.

 Strokes like Drifting Clouds and Flowing Water(行云流水描/xing yun liu shui miao)

Strokes like “drifting clouds and flowing water” is the poetic title for lines that are very controlled and carefully executed. They are perfect to depict robes or draperies that shall look as if flowing in the wind. To paint then, hold the brush in an upright position and paint with the tip of the brush. Try to paint with long, freely flowing lines which can adjoin, but not overlap. If you use paint with varying pressure, you can receive lines different thickness.

Applying Texture Strokes (皴/cun) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Since ink painting did not know the concept of light and shade and therefore did not use shading for the depiction of volume and texture, it had to be illustrated in a different way – through texture strokes (cun). Cun – literally “wrinkles” – are mostly used in painting.

 The Axe-Cut Strokes (斧劈皴/fupi cun) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

The best known texture stroke is the “axe-cut stroke” (斧劈皴/fupicun) which was developed in the Southern Song Dynasty by Ma Yuan and Xia Gui and later revived in the Ming Dynasty by painters of the Zhe School. It is used to depicting the structure of rocks. The name derives from an association of the brush being slapped on the paper like an axe, leaving a frayed trail. Axe-cut strokes are strokes which are executed with a brush held in a diagonal way. Hold the brush in a very slant angle and press the tip slightly onto the paper, then move it with a quick and small movement, just as if brushing away a grain of dust. If done properly, the brushstroke will have a triangular shape and are best suited for the depiction of ragged mountains.

The Hemp Fiber Strokes (麻皮皴/pima cun) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

“Hemp fiber strokes” are also used for the illustration of rocks, but the impression is a different one. The strokes used for this kind of texture technique are long, thin and even; executed with the tip of the brush and in a smooth movement. They are put next to each other, giving the rocks and mountain a softer look than that of the axe-cut strokes. If you want to depict a mountain with this structure, you should hold the brush upright in the center of the handle and paint with the tip of the brush. Hemp fiber strokes will look best when they overlap (but not cross) and are done in different ink tones.

 Dotting (点/dian) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

“Dotting” is a painting technique which was popular among the Chinese painters of the Southern Song Dynasty, namely Mi Fu, who used it for depicting mountains of tree foliage. With the dotting technique, it is easy to depict a misty or rainy atmosphere. You can use it for creating outlines as well as textures, and your picture will make a soft impression. It is essential to care about the right amount of ink in the brush – if it’s too less, your dots will be too dry, if it’s too much it runs the risk of blotting and smudging. Don’t put too much pressure on the brush, but move it carefully over the paper. The dotting effects will be even more interesting if you combine different ink shades.

What are Washes (淡彩/dan cai) in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

Washes are executed in ink and wash painting with a brush that holds a lot of pale, moist ink, thus resulting in a semi-transparent area, sometimes showing no signs of brushstrokes. Washes can be used for example in a landscape painting to depict fog or rain. It is a helpful technique to create a misty atmosphere of to create depth in the picture. Washes can be executed best with a very thick or broad brush that is heavily loaded with watery ink. It is not necessary to use a lot of pressure during painting – the liquid will help the brush to float over the paper surface. Make sure that you work with smooth, even movements. Since paper absorbs ink very quickly, you run the risk of blotting when stopping even for a small moment.