The Ancient Art of Sumi-E

I was thrilled when my new Chinese Brush Art kit arrived yesterday. It is so beautiful! In fact, it’s so very beautiful that I’m afraid to touch it.

The box is so ornate!
Sumi-e Kit
Look at these lovely art-making tools!

Now, if only I knew what everything in this box is and how to use them all! I was hoping the kit would include some sort of instructional material, even if nothing more than a list of what’s what. I can identify the black inkstick and the stone for grinding, and I’m guessing that those are two separate mixing bowls. As for the objects in the lower left and upper right, I’m not completely sure yet.

Note: The object in the upper right is a brush holder, and in the lower left is a seal.

Chinese Brush Painting BookTo help me learn how to use these precious new tools, I found a used copy of Chinese Brush Painting by Caroline and Susan Self. 

My copy won’t arrive until later this week or next, but the book is also available in Kindle format, so I was able to download a sample and begin reading.

The book is written with children in mind, and I like that. It means the instructions will be clear and simple. That’s exactly what I need.

One of the main reasons I’m so drawn to Chinese brush art is because of the need for focus and awareness. We speak so often of happy accidents in art, and we’re all delighted when those happen, I think, but I want to believe that even those strokes of luck as they might be called can actually be part of a greater and more intentional approach to making art.

Chinese brush art requires concentration. It’s a thoughtful process, and in many ways it’s akin to that meditative sort of art I’ve been discovering. In Chinese Brush Painting, the authors compare the brush painting to a martial art:

  • First, you think about what step you’re at in your painting;
  • Then, you focus your thoughts on how you are about to move;
  • You carefully take a breath and hold it;
  • You make the move;
  • Toward the end of the stroke, you let out your breath.

Isn’t that a beautiful, peaceful idea? I find it so.

I’m intrigued by all I’m learning about sumi-e, which is actually a Japanese word, not Chinese. It means black ink painting and according to the Sumi-E Society, it refers to all forms of traditional east Asian brush painting.

Brush painting speaks simply from the power of its basic inspiration. Themes from nature are the subject matter, but brush painters do not try to imitate, copy or master nature. Rather, they appreciate every aspect of it and enjoy each natural process. They seek harmony with the universe through communion with all things. Artistic beauty most often lies in that which is natural and has personality. If one looks at these paintings at leisure with thought and open heart, their inner significance will slowly become apparent.

From – Sumi-E Society – Painting Themes

In learning the traditional art, students are first taught of “The Four Gentlemen”. These relate to the various seasons of the year, and they incorporate all of the basic brush strokes used in painting:


Bamboo represents summer. It is a symbol of flexibility, the ability to bend without breaking.

Chrysanthemum symbolizes autumn. It speaks of strength and perseverance.

The Plum Blossom represents winter. It is the first flower to break through after the winter cold and thereby symbolizes endurance as well as the joy of renewal and the promise of life.

Orchid celebrates the springtime and the beauty of the earth.

So far I’ve only learned the basic strokes for bamboo, and just getting those strokes right will require a bit of practice — and maybe a little meditation, too. Since summer is now transitioning into fall, I’ll soon begin working on chrysanthemums — once I master the technique for holding the brush properly.

I’ve also ordered “rice paper”, so I can see and feel the difference. I was surprised to learn that “Rice Paper” is actually a generic term for many different forms of Asian paper. It may actually be made from cotton, hemp, mulberry, or other plants. The paper I ordered is made from “plant-sourced pulp”. Maybe I’ll know more once it arrives and I try using it.

I’m sure I will be sharing much more about Chinese brush painting — as soon as I get up the nerve enough to take those beautiful brushes out and start playing with them.




    1. It’s so intimidating LOL. I’ll probably keep practicing with my homemade ink and pointy little brush for a while. Once my book gets here and I feel a little more comfortable holding the brush, I’ll try using the ink stick and stone. Oh, my rice paper should be here today. That will be fun!

      Liked by 1 person

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