Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Technique and Learning – The Main Aesthetic Concepts

Introduction to the Aesthetic Concepts of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

If one gets engaged with the aesthetics of ink and wash painting (Chinese wash painting), one will soon encounter a lot of contrasting principles, which look confusing at first, but those principles are quite easy to follow as soon as they are understood.

Ink and wash painting was strongly influenced by Chan and Zen Buddhism and was done by Chinese and Japanese monks as a mental and meditative practice. A lot of these Buddhist ideas were transferred into painting – for example the reduction to the necessary, abandonment of needless details and the directness of the brushstroke associated with the immediacy of enlightenment. Today, Ink and wash painting is not practiced only by monks anymore, but the aesthetics remain the same.

The Aesthetic Concept of Beauty in Simplicity in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

One characteristic of ink and wash painting is the focus on essentials. This does not only mean the abandonment of colors, but also the ambition to depict a motif in a simple, yet elegant way. In ink and wash painting, a painter strives to depict his motif with the fewest possible strokes and ink nuances. Every useless detail is dismissed, in order to catch the essence of the subject.

The Aesthetic Concept of Harmony of Bright and Dark in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Ink and wash painting feeds itself out two extremes – dark and light, black and white. Colors, except the crimson red of the painter’s seal, do not appear in an ink and wash painting. The pure focus is laid on with nothing but black ink, but, as an old saying goes, on can depict all five colors with only black ink. By that, one refers to the different tonalities a skilled painter can achieve with water and ink. The Japanese call it nôtan (浓淡), which is written with the characters for “dark” and “pale” and refers to the different ink shades that an ink and wash painting master can produce in only one brush stroke.

The Aesthetic Concept of Balance through Assymetry in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

When looking at ink and wash paintings from China or Japan, you will realize that their composition is often asymmetric. This, too, is one key element of ink and wash painting aesthetics. It often happens, for example in flower painting, that a composition is apparently unbalanced. One leaf of an orchid might be much longer than the others, or a bamboo stick is not placed in the center of the picture, but shifted a bit to the side. Furthermore, ink and wash paintings frequently appear like being only a detail of a much larger picture. Take for example the picture of a bamboo .The painter has not illustrated the whole plant, but only a fragment; a piece of the stem and various leaves.

The Importance of Filled and Empty Spaces in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

One key element of aesthetic in composition is that it is not too crowded. It is rather desirable to paint a picture with just a small number of strokes, rather than cram a lot of elements in the picture. This goes hand in hand with the above mentioned aesthetic principle of simplicity.

One might think that a “good” painting is definable through a painter’s skill with the brush and ability to paint beautiful lines. However, the empty space on the paper – the spots left untouched by the brush and ink – is just as important as the brushstrokes themselves. If both painted and unpainted spaces are in balance with each other and harmonically combined, another aesthetic principle is fulfilled.

Perfection through Imperfection in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Ink and wash painting is an art which is technically challenging. Once the brush is placed on the paper, the stroke has to be executed. This immediacy and quickness also means that a painter can easily mistakes which are not correctable. It is, however, one of the aesthetic characteristics of ink and wash painting that a painting may contain small imperfections, such as a frayed ending of a brushstroke or a line that is too thin. Such imperfections show not only the painter’s individual style, and add a personal note to the picture.