What Is Sumi-e?

Learn the origin and basics of this beautiful Far Eastern painting technique

Sumi-e (sumie) is an ancient technique of monochromatic drawing, based on the use of India ink, originating in Chinese painting and introduced to Japan in the second half of the 14th Century. The name derives from the words sumi, meaning ink and e, painting. Its origin is attributed to the Tang dynasty (618-908) and was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks.

Zen Buddhism is a religion of self-discipline, detachment, contemplation, and respect towards nature. Sumi-e embodies the philosophy of this religion: in its vision, there is no distinction between the animate and inanimate. There are no classifications nor ranks. Therefore Sumi-e artists depict only essential elements and do not focus on details.

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'Pine trees', by Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610)

Technique evolution

Originally Sumi-e paintings were made using only a bar of India ink that was rubbed against a flat stone, and mixed with water. These mixtures created washes of different densities as needed by the artist for their pieces, and were always monochromatic.

Once it reached Japan, this technique took on features from the country’s original pictorial art, such as the use of fine hairbrushes on bamboo handles, used to achieve free-flowing strokes, and the wash (painting technique mixing different inks with different quantities of water or alcohol to obtain denser tones than with watercolors), as well as the traditional support material, rice paper. Nowadays, it is combined with techniques such as watercolor and gouache.

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Flor Kaneshiro

The technique, the painter, and the four noble gentlemen

In China and Japan, painting is an extension of calligraphy and the brushstrokes of the Sumi-e painter have to blend with nature, they have to be soft, and not aim for absolute control. This is how the artist’s character reveals itself.

Learning the main strokes of Sumi-e must begin with the study of four plants and their forms, known as the four noble gentlemen: the orchid, representing spring; bamboo for summer; chrysanthemum for autumn; and the plum blossom to represent winter.

One of the features of Sumi-e is the absence of marked and figurative lines. In this way, the elements of the painting appear simply through brushstrokes, a few stains or very soft lines.

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If you want to learn more about this ancient technique, Flor Kaneshiro’s course ‘Japanese Influenced Watercolor Illustration’ is the best choice to try your first strokes and composition, through coloring and staining, and create your watercolor pieces in Japanese-style brushstrokes.


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