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The Art of the Japanese Brush

Rshah-Studio / Art of the Japanese Brush  / The Art of the Japanese Brush

The Art of the Japanese Brush

Art has so many different forms across the world.  Major types of mediums familiar to Western cultures, include oil, pastels, watercolor, acrylic and graphite (drawing).  In Japan, one of the most popular and historical mediums is known as ink brush painting. Referred by many as “ink and wash” painting, it is an East Asian art originating in China.  Commonly known as Sumi-E in Japan (in Japanese it is suiboku-ga), it is typically a wash with only black ink.  Black ink is combined with water at varying levels to produce different shades of grey.  Similar ink/brush painting is applied to the art of Calligraphy.  But, for the purposes of this post – I am only going to focus on Sumi-E.The Chinese name for ink/brush painting is shui-mo hua; Korean sumukhwa; Vietnamese tranh thuy mac.



It seems that the birthplace of ink wash painting is China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). An 8th century poet/painter known as Wang Wei is responsible for introducing color to existing ink wash paintings.  The art was further developed into a more during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  After this, the art form emigrated to Korea and then arrived in Japan via Korean Zen Buddhist Missionaries during the mid-14th century.


To do basic Sumi-E painting requires 5 tools.  There is the Fude (Brush), the Suzuri (Ink Grinding Stone), the Sumi (Ink Stick) and the Kami (Paper): otherwise, known as the Four Treasures.  Then there are the water bowls for rinsing and mixing to create the many shades of black and grey.  Sumi-E is historically charcoal/ black ink brush painting.  The use of color was introduced to the art; which combined with the many types of brush strokes create works of art very unique in style.  The Art is in the brush and the stroke.  Understanding how much water and ink a brush can hold and WHERE in the brush the water and ink are being held can be the difference between a bold or delicate line.  (It can also be the difference between disaster and success…) Of course, there are many types of brushes, paper, boards and panels that one uses when painting; but we all start with these basic tools in class.


There is a spirituality to Sumi-E painting and all ink wash paintings.  In class, we are taught to meditate and “calm” as we grind the sumi stick (ink stick) on the stone to make the black ink.  This can take up to 10 minutes while the fragrance of the camphor in the ink stick starts to waft through the air.  Yes, I’m serious. It actually smells calming and is quite an aesthetic experience!  By the time the ink is made into a creamy black texture, the artist is “at peace in his/her zone” and ready to pick up the brush. The object of painting is to capture the spirit or essence of your subject matter – whether it be a flower, an animal, a bird, or a dancer.  When painting a landscape, the artist remembers the feeling of the nature surrounding him/her and what it felt and sounded like to be surrounded by beauty.  This “feeling” is then translated into every single stroke of the brush.  Talented sumi-e artists are successful when the image they have painted communicates the essence of the subject; versus just the likeness.  The goal is for a sense of balance, rhythm and harmony.  This is achieved through patience, focus and a LOT of practice! Unlike oil, acrylics and pastels, brush painting is a “one-stroke” art – meaning; you can’t cover your mistakes!


The Artwork

Every year my wonderful Sumi-E senseis host a “Kakizome” Party (an opportunity for all their students to display the Sumi-E artwork they produced in class).  I referred to them in my last blog as a source of inspiration; Shoko and Suiko Ohta and I re-visit them again because the result of their wonderful teaching talent was so evident at this party.  They are a mother/daughter team and are 3rd and 4th generation Sumi-E painters.  They literally teach hundreds of very lucky students.


Attending the party, viewing the magnificent pieces of Art and simply being in the presence of so much beauty was so uplifting, I would be remiss if I did not share it on my blog.  I will let the photos speak for themselves – but you will see that it is evident how lucky we all are to be taught by such talented and wonderful women.  Once more, I am inspired by the use of gold and silver; along with the sheer size and details of the compositions on display.  The patience and tiring dedication many of these artists applied to their work is illustrated in every piece of artwork.

The Gold Peacock against the Blue Background and the Colorful Peacock against the gold background are actually painted on the same front and back of the same panel. It took the artist (who is also an eye doctor) 6 months, painting 2 days per week to finish both sides of this panel. The use of gold allows for the painting to glow.  Imagine these panels in a room at sunrise or sunset, or by the fire of candlelight – the reflection of the warm light can only be soothing as you sip a glass of wine!


Imagine using these boxes on your kitchen counter to hold tea, or on your desk to hold paper clips or business cards.

Of course, the photos don’t do justice to any of these artworks. The glow and light reflecting from these paintings in person is truly an inspirational experience; one I hope to learn and capture in my own work.  I leave you with my contribution to the Kakizome Party “The Blue Dragonfly” – which I am happy to say has been scooped up already!


Until my next blog!

(With) PEACE. (In) ART. (To the) SOUL.



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