Sumi-e, or Oriental Brush painting, is an artistic interpretation of various aspects of nature and life, done with ink-like “sumi” and watercolor on rice or cotton paper, and sometimes on silk. Sumi is a solid made from the soot obtained by burning certain plants, such as mulberry or bull rush, combined with glue from deer horn. This is molded into a black cake. The sumi is then rubbed on a slate with water to make the ‘ink.’ The “e” in sumi-e means painting in Japanese.
The brush is "loaded" with different shades of sumi, depending upon how much water was added during the grinding. A brush loaded with either sumi or water color gives a shaded or multi-color effect, administered in one stroke or the brush.
In China, the art of writing preceded painting, and the first brushes made were writing brushes. The more writing developed into an art, the more attention was given to the materials composing the writing brush. Such brushes were originally made with rabbit hair, wrapped with the hair of deer and sheep. The handles were made from mulberry stems or bamboo. In Japan, hair of deer, badger, rabbit, sheep, squirrel, and wild horse all enter into the manufacture of the artist's brush, which are made long or short, soft or strong, stiff or pliable. The sizes and shapes of brushes differ according to the subject matter the artist is painging.
A distinguishing feature in Oriental painting is the strength of the brush stroke. The moment the brush is applied, the sentiment of strength must be invoked and felt by the artist and imparted through his arm and hand to the brush. Even the smallest twigs appear filled with the power of growth--all the result of "fude no chikara," or brush strength.
An oil painting can be rubbed out and done over time and again until the artist is satisfied. A
sumi-e painting must be executed once without hesitation, as no corrections are permissible. The painting is not done on an easel, but on a flat surface, with the rice paper on a soft material, such as felt. The finished painting must then be wet-mounted on stiffer paper before framing.
In Japan, the highest compliment to an artist is to say he paints with his soul, his brush following the dictates of his spirit. Japanese painters frequently repeat the precept: "Waga kokoro waga te wo yaku; waga te waga kokoro ni ozuru." "Our spirit must make our hand its servitor; Our hand must respond to each behest of our spirit.