page contents

sumi-e japanese painting 墨絵

I am fascinated by sumie Japanese painting (pronounced SUMI-E). I have been painting sumie for over a year now and it never ceases to amaze me how much more there is to learn each time.

For starters, sumie is the Japanese version of Chinese ink painting (which is called shui-mo). It differs slightly in the overall look in that Japanese sumie prefers to remain stoic towards not using coloured pigments in its paintings. On the contrary, Chinese ink paintings frequently use colour to depict blossoms and branches. Both branches of ink painting, however, produce beautiful images of landscapes and animals.

Beginning sumie is a very meditative process however, the work is over in no time at all because it is about conveying the artistic image or message in as few strokes as possible. You need to leave the viewer the opportunity to use their own imagination and insert their own feelings into the work. 

it looks so simple...but...

Sumie is deceptively simple. A few brush strokes and a lot of white space surrounding them. However, if you actually try to create the paintings yourself you will often find that you agonise about where to put the objects or how to execute the painting.

You can't fix a mistake in sumie (you could try to disguise it), and you can't go over and over again in an area you're not happy with. It's a "one shot" process!

Interestingly, the ability to create a decent-looking sumie painting takes a lot of practise in the art of meditation, or "getting in the mood" to create the painting. You may spend more time centring yourself than you spend actually painting.

So, let's talk about what is involved with sumie Japanese painting.

the four gentlemen

There are 4 basic brush strokes known as The Four Gentlemen. The Bamboo stroke, the Wild Orchid stroke, the Chrysanthemum stroke and the Plum Branch stroke.

The one you spend most of your time learning and perfecting is the Bamboo stroke, and this is why it is taught first. The foundational principles of forming the Bamboo stroke are applied to so many other kinds of object such as animal body parts, leaves and twigs.

what materials do i need to create sumie japanese paintings?

There are only three things that are absolutely necessary and they are the brush(es), the paper and the ink.

You do not have to adhere strictly to purchasing only Japanese products because remember, Chinese shui-mo is where Japanese sumie takes its roots.

the brush

A Japanese sumie brush is called a fude ふで (pronounced foo-day) and they come in a variety of sizes, widths and bristle types. I recommend that when starting out you purchase an "all rounder" or a "student kit" so that you can learn the techniques, because individual fude can be very expensive.

I have found some some lovely starter kit brushes from Blue Heron Arts in the US. I bought the "student starter pack" and found the brushes to be really easy to use and to manipulate the ink just how I wanted it.

5 Basic Chinese Painting Brushes for Beginners

the paper

To be honest, I have found that simple newspaper is a really great medium upon which to start practising your brushstrokes.

It is also useful to have an absorbent cloth under the paper for those times when ink is applied heavilty and seeps through to the back of the paper.

Often called "rice paper", Japanese sumie paper is often, ironically, not actually made from rice! There may be a small element of rice in it, but it can be made from cotton, mulberry, bamboo, silk and more!

Just like brushes, an all purpose paper or student practising paper is best to begin with because traditional Japanese sumie paper can be made from many different media and prices can skyrocket if you don't know the difference. 

When you are more confident you can begin to paint onto proper sumie paper. Some sumie papers that yield good results are called, gasenshiwagasen or hosho paper.

You can also Google, "chinese ink painting paper", "xuan paper" or "shuen paper" for similar papers from China. Just remember that you get what you pay for and some cheaper papers can be poor quality, yielding blurry results.

Once you're confident on newsprint, go the extra step and purchase good quality Japanese gasenshi paper.

the ink 墨液・水墨

Japanese sumie ink is difficult to remove from surfaces and from fabric, so wearing protective clothing and having quick access to running water for cleanup is recommended.

Serious beginners will do well to purchase an ink stick and ink grinding stone (called a suzuri stone) because the process of grinding down the ink stick takes time and patience and will indirectly teach you how to centre yourself, gathering your thoughts ready to paint sumie.

However, dabbling beginners who may have little intention of making sumie a regular past time can use a bottle of liquid ink (called bokueki or suiboku) which will also do the job nicely.

Please remember that bokueki is not the same consistency as the ink you get from western calligraphy suppliers so be sure to ask for Japanese sumie ink, not western calligraphy ink.

Ink Stick

Pine Soot Blue  Ink Stick for Chinese Calligraphy Painting

Ink Stone

Chengni Ceramic Inktone with Lotus Deco

optional extras for sumie japanese painting

A Student Value Pack or Starter Kit for Chinese Painting

This kit featured here is excellent value from Blue Heron Arts. It is a student kit containing 5 brushes, 3 different types of paper, ink and Chinese pigments with the felt cloth needed to place underneath your work. This is the one that I bought, and recommend.

I also recommend the following:

  • a paperweight or tape to keep paper from flying away
  • a mixing palette (for light and dark shades of grey)
  • a waterproof board under the paper
  • paper towel for blotting

I taught myself sumie Japanese painting using these two books by Yolanda Mayhall and Naomi Okamoto.  They are well-written, give excellent examples and are  instructional too. Check them out!

I am putting together a video series of how to learn and practise sumie Japanese painting at home.

Stay tuned, and subscribe to the newsletter to find out when it is released!

From Sumie Japanese Painting back to Home

have you tried sumie japanese painting before?

Please Share Photos of Your Art!

I'd love to see a photo of your arts and crafts! Please share them!

[ ? ]

Upload 1-4 Pictures or Graphics (optional)[ ? ]


Click here to upload more images (optional)

Author Information (optional)

To receive credit as the author, enter your information below.

(first or full name)

(e.g., City, State, Country)

Submit Your Contribution

  •  submission guidelines.

(You can preview and edit on the next page)

Free gift!

Subscribe to our Newsletter today to receive my eBook on
Making Tsumami Kanzashi Flowers

other pages you may enjoy...

experience Japanese arts and crafts for yourself
with Japanese art adventures

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.