Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Technique and Learning – The Use of Ink

How to Control the Ink Tone in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

An ink and wash painting does not only consist of outlines and texture strokes. A main aesthetic element in ink and wash painting is the importance of the ink tone and the different shades of ink that can be depicted within one brush stroke. The ink Tone can be controlled through filling the brush, the angle of the brush, as well as pressure and speed used during painting.

Depending on how much water is added when grinding the ink, the texture of the ink can change. Ink with only a bit of water added appears heavy and glossy on the paper, highly diluted ink is translucent and pale. A painter can create a complete palette of ink shades, ranging from the deepest black to the brightest grey. The best way to have a palette of different ink tones nearby is to have some small dishes among your painting tools, in which you can mix the desired shade of ink.

What is the Right Way of Loading the Brush in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

If you want to fill the brush with ink, just dip the already moist brush into the ink slab or into one of the dishes of different ink shades. Another way to fill the brush is to hold the brush in a slant angle when dipping it into the ink. Since the brush already holds liquid, the ink that is absorbed into the brush will become diluted the farer it is away from the tip. Therefore, your brush will hold not only one, but many ink tones, and your brushstroke will possess a ranging variety of shades.

The most interesting gradations of ink tones can be solely achieved through filling the brush. If you dip only the tip into the ink, but paint with an obliquely held brush, you will achieve a brushstroke that holds two shades of ink – a darker one and a lighter one. If you dip the tip of the brush into lighter ink at first and then into darker ink with opposite sides of the brush, you will receive a brushstroke that is light with dark seams.

How to Apply Ink Effects in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

Pressure and speed are the two main aspects that influence the outcome of ink effects. “Flying white” (飞白/feibai) is a technique in which the brush held in a way in which the bristles do not completely touch the surface of the paper. This means low pressure, with the brush being moved quickly over the paper, causing the bristles to open up, so that white spaces appear within the brushline. This effect can be created with both a wet or a rather dry brush – it is speed that matters. The Flying White causes not only the brushstroke to receive some kind of texture – as opposed to being linear -, it also causes an impression of quickness and vitality.

“Splashed ink” (泼墨/po mo) is a technique in which very moist ink is splashed onto the painting surface with the brush. This technique creates irregular shapes and causes a very vital impression. It is mostly done with low speed, but heavy pressure, allowing the ink to disperse on the paper.

Other Techniques in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting: Boneless Painting and White Line Technique

There is a rather odd term in ink and wash painting which is called “boneless painting” (没骨 /mogu). The explanation is simple: The outlines of a picture are seen in Chinese painting as the “bones” of a motif. “Boneless painting” therefore means painting without outlines or previous sketches. It is a very popular technique in ink and wash painting and executed with a broad brush, or rather broad strokes, to achieve enough volume. The best effect is created with moist ink and a broad brush. To make your brushstroke large enough, hold the brush in a slanted angle during the brush filling process.

A completely different way of using ink is the “white lines” technique (白描 /baimiao). The term describes painting only with outlines, without washes, and is somehow the “opposite” of boneless painting. It is a delicate painting technique which makes use of a very thin brushline. The White Lines technique is mostly used for figure painting, with a fine brush, at medium speed and medium pressure.