Discover the Beauty and Zen Philosophy of Sumi-e Painting

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The Japanese not only gave us sushi and strange three-line poems, but also showed that a picturesque masterpiece can easily do without color.  Sumi-e is an art for connoisseurs of all things black and white, refined, and almost perfect.


Challenges of Translation

This form of traditional Japanese painting is referred to as sumi-e, sumie, and sumi-yo. Which is the correct term? You can ask a Japanese acquaintance, or if you don't have one, consult Google Translate to read the kanji 墨絵.

Japanese speakers call it sumi-e. Representatives of this artistic tradition worldwide refer to it as sumi-e, and suibokuga is another commonly used name. There is no "yo" involved!


 Waterfowls In Lotus Pond by Tawaraya Sōtatsu


The Basics of Sumi-e Painting

A master of sumi-e uses the stroke technique, using only lines and color intensity. Sketches are not practiced in this art form, with the painting done directly on the final draft. Thus, each gesture of the master is of great significance.

The four classic themes in sumi-e are bamboo, orchid, blooming plum, and chrysanthemum. It is believed that mastering these themes allows an artist to solve any creative task, but it is far from easy and takes years of practice.


Not just any paper and brushes

You may have heard that suibokuga masters work with rice paper, but this is an oversimplification. There are many types of paper used in sumi-e, and traditional rice paper contains mostly bamboo fibers.

Ink is made from soot and pine or vegetable oils, while inkstones are made from stones found only in China and Japan.

Sumi-e brushes come in many varieties, but all are made of natural wool. It's impossible to do with just one brush (of course, unless the artist plans to draw only butterflies for the rest of their life, for example).

One more thing, a Sumi-e master must have an original soapstone seal at hand - to "stamp" their copyrights, of course. 

Haboku Sansui by Sesshu Toyo


Baby, it's Zen

Long ago, when the Chinese had not yet copied the iPhones achievements of other nations, and even borrowed from the Chinese themselves, the Japanese adopted the technique of drawing with ink on rice paper and called it "sumi-e". They reinterpreted it through the prism of Zen Buddhism, giving the drawings a powerful philosophical background.

Each work of a Zen artist reveals the beauty of simple things and takes one away from worldly cares. But the most important thing is that such a drawing cannot be understood through reason alone. One must turn off their mind, and this is where Zen koans come in - paradoxical problems whose solutions lie beyond our brains. So, when you try to explain the meaning of the painting "Catching a Catfish with a Gourd," take on the famous koan of Mokurai: "You can hear the sound of two hands clapping. Now show me the sound of one hand."

Didn't work?

It's okay; you're already on the path to enlightenment.