Sumi-e / Ink and Wash Painting at a Glance – What is Sumi-e / Ink and Wash Painting?

What is Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e?

When reading about Asian ink painting, one will encounter many different terms that describe this special kind of painting method. In Chinese, it is “shuimohua” (水墨画, lit. “water-ink-painting”) in Japanese “suiboku-ga” or more colloquially “sumi-e” 墨絵 (lit. “ink painting”). Despite its Chinese origins, it has become common nowadays to subsume all ink painting under the Japanese terms, although there is a small, but subtle difference between the term “sumi-e“ and „”suiboku-ga”. Both describe painting performed by the use of ink on paper, but whereas “sumi-e” just describes ink painting in general, “suiboku-ga” rather is seen as a part of sumi-e – by mixing ink with more or less water, it lays emphasis on shading, different ink tonalities and the combination of various ink tones. In suiboku-ga, the main aspect is to depict three kinds of ink intensities – dark, medium and light – in one single brushstroke.

What is the Connection between China and Japan in Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e?

Ink painting developed in China in the Han Dynasty with calligraphy as it predecessor. Since calligraphy and ink painting share the same materials and tools, it was only natural that the brush and ink would not be only used for writing, but for painting, too. Around the 4th century, artists started to explore the different possibilities to depict volume and texture through ink lines, from where painting slowly developed into an independent genre and art form. It were Chinese Chan Buddhist monks in particular who appreciated the simple and reduced aesthetics of ink and wash painting and painted mainly in this style. In the 13th century, ink and wash painting found its way to Japan through traveling monks, who did not only introduce Chan Buddhism (known in Japan as “Zen”), but also monochrome painting methods to the island. Ever since then, ink and wash painting has been continuously practiced in both countries.

What are the Basic Tools for Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e?

 The Elementary Tools for Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e

The essential tools for ink painting are the brush –(毛笔 / Mao bi), paper (纸 / Zhi) and ink (墨 / Mo). Together with the ink stone (砚台/Yan tai ), these tools form the “Four Treasures”( 文房四宝 / wen fang si bao) of a painter. As for the brush, a large variety of brushes in all sizes have been developed, according the respective usage. There are thin brushes with soft, fine points that are used for fines lines. Thicker ones with pointed tips are commonly employed for outlines, gradation or heavier lines. Flat brushes with broom-like bristles are generally used for broad washes or tonal effects.

Paper is the second element and due to its brightness, it is often seen as the counterpart of the ink. It’s therefore important for the paper to have a fresh, white tone, and to be thick enough to absorb the ink. The quality of paper is measured according to absorbency, structure and color. There are many different kinds of paper, be it Chinese or Japanese types, but they all have in common that they soak up ink quickly, so that it is necessary to keep the brush moving as soon painting has started, because otherwise, the ink will blot. Furthermore, one a stroke is done, you can’t correct it.

There are two types of ink used in today’s ink painting, either made in stick form to be grinded in an ink slab, or ready-made in already liquid form. Both types are common – some painters prefer to use ready-made ink to start painting quickly, other ones enjoy grinding the ink and get into a meditative mood before starting. If you want to grind the ink, an ink stone (砚台 / Yan tai) is necessary. It is a tool mostly made of stone on which the ink can be grinded and stored.


 Additional Tools for Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e

Except from the above-mentioned tools, there are other tools that help you to start getting engaged in ink painting. A paperweight (镇纸 / zhen zhi) is a helpful gadget to hinder the paper from slipping during painting. A small cloth is necessary to wipe off excessive ink during painting, and one or more small dishes will help you to mix the desired shade of ink. You may also want to keep a spoon by your side, to transport water from a water container into the ink stone or dishes. A brush washer (笔洗 / Bi xi), if possible a receptacle made of ceramic, is essential to keep your brushes clean, and a brush wrapper (a small mat made of bamboo strips) is needed to store your brushed when not in use. To complete your painting afterwards, you can use a seal (图章/tu zhang) and seal ink (印泥 / Yin ni).