Sumi-e -- Japanese Ink Painting


Disclosure: I was sent copies of these books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Before Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month ends, I wanted to explore sumi-e, Japanese ink painting. I was sent three books that share the about this beautiful art and provides tutorials to create your own. Now a while ago I shared my adventure with Chinese brush painting. The idea I had when I bought the supplies was for Hazel and I to do it together. Since sumi-e is similar I thought she would enjoy expanding her skills. She did some Chinese brush painting in art class last year. However in reality she never had time or desire to do it with me, so after waiting quite awhile for her to join me, I did it on my own. When researching books to learn Chinese brush painting I discovered sumi-e. This is the Japanese form of brush painting. I am going to share three books that teach sumi-e from three different masters. Each is a bit different. I have not tried any of the techniques as my life has gotten busy. (If you didn't read about my big news, you can here.) Let's begin with the newest book, A Beginner's Guide to Sumi-e: Learn Japanese Ink Painting from a Modern Master by Shozo Koike. This book was released in October 2021!

From the Publisher: 

This practical guide is perfect for those looking to try this ancient art form for the first time!

In this book, Japanese master artist Shozo Koike reveals the simple secrets of Sumi-e, offering step-by-step instructions with clear photographs and online video tutorials showing you how to paint 19 traditional subjects.

Sumi-e is the meditative Japanese form of ink painting taught by Zen Buddhist monks to encourage mindfulness and an awareness of our surroundings. It uses only ink, water, a brush and paper to capture natural objects and landscapes in a vivid, spontaneous fashion.

Koike begins with the basics--what to buy and how to prepare the ink in a traditional inkstone. Next, he shows you how to practice the 11 basic brushstrokes used for all Sumi-e paintings.

The 19 traditional subjects taught in this book include:
  • Flowers like orchids, chrysanthemums, camellias, roses and peonies
  • Plants and fruits including bamboo, eggplants, grapes and chestnuts
  • Animal figures including small birds, butterflies, chicks, crabs and goldfish

Koike also explains the philosophy of Sumi-e, which emerges from the use of negative white space to enhance the painted forms. Readers will enter into a world not just of black and white, but of infinite shades of gray which are capable of evoking all the sensations of color using these techniques.

From Me:

This book shares a bit of the origins of sumi-e as well as information about some of the master sumi-e artists over time. Then the book gets into the tools and supplies. There is quite a bit of information, but it is not as detailed as the information in the other two books. Then the lessons begin starting with the technique of mixing the ink and water to get the right shade. The lessons in this book are broken down very similar to the ones I used in the Chinese brush painting book. They are easy to follow.

I love how the brush tip is shown to make each part of the stroke. The projects are divided into parts like the leaf above in making an orchid. The projects in this book are focused on nature and are small. They can be put together to make a larger picture but are not the landscapes found in other books. 

The second book to share is The Art and Technique of Sumi-e Japanese Ink Painting as Taught by Ukai Uchiyama by Kay Morrissey Thompson. 

From the Publisher:

Japanese Sumi-e brush painting combines the techniques of calligraphy and ink painting to produce compositions of rare beauty.

This art has its roots in the Zen Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation--serving as a means not just for describing wonders of nature, but as a method for training our minds to view the world in its essential grace and simplicity.

This book is the product of many years of study with Ukai Uchiyama--a master Japanese calligrapher and artist. Kay Morrissey Thompson shares the knowledge she gained from this association, presenting a thorough discussion of the artist's work along with a series of practical lessons based on Mr. Uchiyama's instruction.

The informative text is accompanied by over fifty illustrations, many in color, reproducing works by Ukai Uchiyama and enabling aspiring artists to understand how each painting was created.

With a smaller size and new cover, this timeless Tuttle Classic (originally published in 1960), has been reformatted for a new generation of readers.

From Me:

The book begins with an introduction to Ukai Uchiyama. Then it explores what a sumi artist is. All three books tell us that sumi is the name of the ink used. It is made from a compressed cake of soot. This book gives a bit more detail about the making of sumi as well as the grades of sumi. Then it goes into the different strokes where it gives the Japanese name as well an English translation. The photo above is from the page on mokkotsu or the wash stroke. The book does not have set lessons like the other two but show pictures with arrows showing the direction of the stroke and small descriptions of what is done.

I would not consider this book as much as a tutorial but more of an explanation and an example of sumi-e. It is also the only one of the three that does not come with video material. While there is a bit about the technique it is more about the beautiful work.

Our third book is Sumi-e: The Art of Japanese Ink Painting by Shozo Sato. It includes a DVD in the back of the book. However, Tuttle Publishing provides all the material on the disc as downloadable material as well. 

From the Publisher:

In this Japanese ink painting book renowned Japanese master Shozo Sato offers his own personal teaching on the beautiful art of sumi-e painting.

Sumi-e: The Art of Japanese Ink Painting provides step-by-step, photo-by-photo instructions to guide learners in the correct form, motions and techniques of Japanese sumi-e painting.

Featuring gorgeous images and practical advice, it includes guided instructions for 35 different paintings. From waterfalls to bamboo, learners paint their way to understanding sumi-e--a style of painting that is characteristically Asian and has been practiced for well over 1,000 years. Although it's sometimes confused with calligraphy, as the tools used are the same, sumi-e instead tries to capture the essence of an object or scene in the fewest possible strokes.

This all-in-one resource also provides a timeline of brush painting history, a glossary of terms, a guide to sources and an index--making it a tool to use and treasure, for amateurs and professionals alike. This sumi-e introduction is ideal for anyone with a love of Japanese art or the desire to learn to paint in a classic Asian style.

From Me:

This book goes into more details about the history of sumi-e and takes the reader back to Chinese brush painting. There are also more details about brushes, care for the brushes, ink, paper and all the supplies. At the end of the book there are tutorials to mount paintings as well as some creative uses for sumi-e. 

After the information about the tools and supplies there are lessons on how to use the brush and various techniques including application of gold and silver leaf and dust. Then the projects begin. The book includes landscapes as well as some nature tutorials. Some of the tutorials share different techniques to paint the same object like the stargazer lily. This book is very complete and jumps into some more difficult techniques and subjects to work with. I am not sure I would begin with this book to learn how to paint but would definitely include it as a go to book for learning sumi-e.

So that is my exploration into sumi-e. I hope you will check out these books yourself and share your paintings with me!