Capturing the Spirit of Life through Sumi-e Paintings

One of the most wonderful things about Japanese art is its ability to convey life and motion, all the while maintaining a sense of simplicity that goes in line with the community’s belief in keeping a minimalist lifestyle to avoid getting attached to earthly desires. Among all the different kinds of Japanese paintings that exist, sumi-e is considered by the majority to be the prime example of capturing the spirit of nature through the use of fluid brush strokes.

Overview of Sumi-e (Japanese Black Ink Brush Painting)

Hasegawa Tōhaku [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese term sumi-e translates to mean “painting in black ink” in English. This form of art is also known as traditional East Asian brush painting and is believed to have been developed in China during the Liu Song Dynasty (5th century) when it was described to either be an act of painting a poem or writing a painting.

Chinese paintings that were categorized under this type of art often exhibited at least one of the following elements:

  • Fluid and artistic calligraphy strokes

  • Poetry with subtle puns or double meaning

  • Fluid painting strokes that focus more on capturing the spirit of life than its photographic resemblance.

Artists from other countries such as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan came across the technique in the following centuries that trade became an integral part of Asian politics. The art was referred to as sumukhwa in Korea, tranh thuy mac in Vietnam, and sumi-e or suibokuga in Japan.

The Philosophy Behind Japanese Sumi-E Paintings

As previously mentioned, the goal of sumi-e paintings is not to replicate the appearances of things but simply capture the characteristics that make up their essence.

For example, when it comes to creating a sumi-e painting of a horse, the artist should make it a point to concentrate on understanding the animal’s temperament and personality rather than its bone structure and other physical characteristics.

Similarly, in the case that an artist wants to paint a particular flower, sumi-e does not require that each of its petals be painted as realistic as possible. instead, the final painting must be able to convey the fragrance and liveliness of the flower to the viewer.

Sumi-e basically serves as an expressionistic form of art that concentrates on shedding light on things unseen. As such, landscape sumi-e paintings often make use of loose adaptations of reality and lean more towards the imaginary world. Common elements used in these kinds of sumi-e paintings include mountains and bodies of water.

Essential Tools for Japanese Sumi-e Painting – Brushes, Ink, Charcoal, Etc.

By Esby (talk) 12:05, 15 April 2010 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The tools used for Japanese sumi-e painting and traditional East Asian painting, in general, are referred to as The Four Treasures and consist of the following:

Ink Stick and Ink Stone

Similar to Japanese calligraphy, sumi-e also makes use of an ink stick and ink stone to prepare the black ink that will be used for the painting.

Ink sticks typically consist of binchotan (charcoal), pine soot, or oil and are formed using animal glue. These ink sticks often feature ornate details such as flowers or landscapes. The more expensive ones even come with golden accents.

To obtain the black ink, an artist needs to wet the ink stone with a few drops of water and grind the ink stick on its surface in a circular motion. This is done until the desired concentration of smooth, black ink is produced.

Of course, there are also prepared liquid inks known as bokuju available in the market that serve as more convenient and cheaper alternatives. These inks come in different levels of concentration, solubility, and viscosity which make some a bit more suitable for calligraphy than painting purposes.

Brushes (Fude)

There are over twenty different kinds of brushes (fude) that can be used for sumi-e painting. All of these make use of natural materials and are often hand-made. The most common material used to make the brush handle is bamboo while the hairs can come from the fur of various animals. Regardless of hair type, the brush features a fine, tapered point that is essential to creating beautiful sumi-e paintings.

The existing sumi-e paint brushes can be categorized to fall under the three main types based on the animal hair used:

  • Brown Hair

Brown hair brushes make use of badger, leopard, wolf, weasel, and other wild animal hair that offer stiff bristles ideal for creating sharp strokes. This kind of brush is recommended when painting bamboo, leaves, and other landscape elements that need to feature a point.

  • White Hair

White hair brushes are typically made from goat hair. The hairs of these brushes are pliable and soft, ideal for writing calligraphy or painting birds, landscape, and flowers.

  • Mixed Hair

Mixed hair brushes, as implied, makes use of both brown and white animal hair. This type of painting brush is recommended for beginners and offers a comfortable level of hair stiffness, perfect for creating fine lines and painting animals and landscapes.

Paper or Silk

Washi, or Japanese paper, is often used when creating sumi-e paintings. The Chinese counterpart of this ink wash painting paper is known as xuan paper. Both kinds have highly absorbent and unsized properties. Compared to the standard watercolor paper, washi and xuan paper are not as smooth to brush ink on.

In other forms of Japanese ink wash painting, some artists also make use of woven silk as their canvas. In fact, it is believed that silk was the initial medium ink wash paintings were done on before paper was invented in China.

Sumi-e Painting Techniques, Brush Strokes, and Color

Given the literal English translation of sumi-e to mean “painting in black ink”, the common techniques artists use to create varying depths in their work include shading, ink density, and tonality. These can be achieved by obtaining different ink consistencies through the ink stick and ink stone and by diluting the ink load on the brush or painting with water.

The pressure used for each brush stroke also plays an important role in the liveliness and spirit conveyed by the painting. By changing the pressure throughout the length of a single brushstroke, artists can achieve a unique sense of fluidity to capture the essence of their subject.

Through these techniques and many other sumi-e painting methods, the black ink obtained from the ink stick and ink stone can vary from a silvery gray color to a deep shade of black.

Artists may also choose to add color to their basic black ink painting to create a greater sense of energy and dynamism. As with black ink, colored inks are made from natural sources such as plants, powdered jade, azurite, white pearls, and other minerals.

Furthermore, another integral part of sumi-e paintings is the name of the artist, which often comes in the form of a red seal. Depending on the artist’s preferences, other seals may also be added to the final painting to represent his beliefs or town of origin.

Common Japanese Sumi-e Art Painting Themes

The beauty of sumi-e paintings lies in their power to present the different aspects of life through unique adaptations that do not necessarily aim to imitate common appearances. The natural process of things is given focus and serves as the inspiration for many artists to create sumi-e paintings that offer viewers a harmonious look into the universe.

Budding sumi-e painters are encouraged to start their training by copying old paintings done by esteemed artists, stroke by stroke. It usually takes more than a year of practice before an artist can create his own unique style and composition.

Some of the most common themes taught to aspiring artists include the following:

The Four Gentlemen

The Four Gentlemen is a term used to refer to the four main subjects that beginners start off with to learn the basic strokes essential to sumi-e painting. The things that make up The Four Gentlemen consist of the following subjects, which each represents one of the four seasons:

  • Bamboo (Represents the Summer Season) – symbolizes flexibility and endurance

  • Chrysanthemum (Represents the Fall Season) – symbolizes perseverance and strength

  • Plum (Represents the Winter Season) – symbolizes the promise of life and the joy of renewal

  • Orchid (Represents the Spring Season) – symbolizes the promise of all beautiful things

Flowers and Birds

When it comes to painting flowers and birds, an artist can choose to make use of the following styles:

  • Free style – which allows the artist to do his painting stroke by stroke and make use of shading techniques. Black or colored ink may be used.

  • Formal Style – which allows the artist to carefully outline his painting before filling it in with black or colored ink.

Asian Landscape

Asian landscape sumi-e paintings typically feature mountains and bodies of water (rivers, waterfalls, etc.). Depending on the artist’s style and purpose, these paintings may present traditional or imaginary scenes.

American Landscape

Compared to Asian landscape sumi-e paintings, the styles and elements used for American landscape sumi-e paintings are practically limitless. American sumi-e painters often find inspiration from any and every place they find stunning. Furthermore, the colors used for these themes range from subtle to incredibly vivid shades.


Animals are among the most popular subjects used in Japanese sumi-e paintings. From colorful koi, to majestic horses, to imaginary dragons, artists are free to play with different shades of black or colored ink.


Iconic Japanese figures have always played an important role in Japanese paintings and many other forms of art. In sumi-e paintings, these people are often created using descriptive strokes and black ink with a few subtle hints of color.

The Basics for Creating Japanese Sumi-e Paintings

Other than providing artists and non-artists with a new, cultural art form to learn, creating sumi-e paintings also offers a therapeutic experience that revolves around spiritual attunement. By following the basic steps below, almost any individual can start his journey towards being a sumi-e painter:

Get hold of the basic tools

As previously mentioned, the tools for creating sumi-e paintings consist of the four essentials: ink stick, ink stone, brush, and paper or silk. Foreigners planning to visit Japan can easily find these traditional painting tools at any crafts store.

For those who have no immediate plans to go to the Land of the Rising Sun, finding alternatives in their own countries is relatively easy. There are also several online stores such as BLICK that carries a wide array of Japanese painting tools that can be shipped internationally.

The specific materials one should look for before diving into the world of sumi-e include:

  • Thick canvas paper or rice paper

  • Standard bamboo brushes that come in different thicknesses and make use of natural hairs

  • Felt fabric (to help prevent the canvas paper or rice paper from sticking to the surface beneath)

  • Prepared Chinese liquid black ink (the ones used for calligraphy)

  • Colored, water-based paint

  • Saucers for blending colors

  • Two separate containers for water; one for clean water, the other for cleaning the brushes

Find inspiration

After acquiring all the needed materials, one should look for things that inspire him the most. As previously discussed, sumi-e is a form of expression and artists should have a great understanding of their subjects to effortlessly create stunning works of art, filled with liveliness and spirit.

Set aside some time to relax and focus on creating a sumi-e painting

A person should approach sumi-e painting with the right mindset of capturing the spirit of his subject. Creating a sumi-e painting is supposed to be a relaxing activity so a person should simply let his creativity flow and not let the pressure of making a mistake stop him from enjoying the experience.

Set up an adequate workspace

Creating sumi-e paintings requires a proper workspace with good lighting and lots of room for the artist’s tools. Choosing a space that is quiet also helps in setting the right mindset for the activity.

Start with a light outline or sketch

Drawing a light sketch or outline of one’s desired painting is not a problem and is highly encouraged for beginners. A pencil should be used for this process as the sketch can easily be covered by the black ink or colored paint.

Work on the details

The beauty of sumi-e paintings is that they can be as simple or as complex as possible. For those who want to create detailed works of art, it is recommended that each element be added one step at a time until the desired outcome is achieved.

Create a unique signature stamp or signature

The artist’s signature is an integral part of each painting he does. Sumi-e painters often make use of a red seal or stamp to finish off their artwork.

Watching sumi-e painting videos online

It is also recommended that budding artists watch sumi-e painting videos online to discover new techniques to learn or try. One of the most popular sumi-e painters that serve as a great role model is Kazu Shimura, an artist based in Tokyo, Japan that has several flower sumi-e paintings tutorials available on YouTube.