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What Is Sumi-E?

Sumi-e is an Asian style of painting. The tradition dates back a thousand years, and though it is largely associated with China, it is also practiced in Japan and Korea.

Sumi-e uses the same tools of Asian calligraphy: ink and brushes. It takes a very “zen” approach, which means that it values simplicity and harmony. The painter tries to capture an object, person or scene in as few strokes as possible, removing all distracting or superfluous details to arrive at the “pure essence.”

The artist uses very simple tools, but a master sumi-e artist can—in one simple, graceful and deliberate stroke—capture not just the form but the mood of the subject. To do this, he must be able to know how to hold the brush, how much pressure to apply, how much ink to put. With these variations he can create a variety of effects: soft fades, abrupt stops, large watery dots or precise points.

The sumi-e artist uses the four treasures or tools: ink stone, ink stick, brush, and paper. The ink stick (often made from soot combined with resin, and decorated with bas relief) is rubbed against the tone with a little water. A fresh batch of ink must be made for each painting. The brushes are made of animal hair, and come in various lengths and widths. Traditionally, rice paper is used (though some sumi-e artists will practice their strokes on newspaper). Watercolor paper is not absorbent enough for the ink.

Sumi-e is meditative, and unlike western art, the act of painting itself is valued as much as the product. In fact, preparing the ink “signals” the start of meditation. At the end of the painting, the master will add a red seal.

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