In explaining the philosophy of sumi-e, many sources dealing with the subject quote an old Chinese legend:
An artist named Zhang Seng You was asked to paint a mural in a temple. He painted several dragons, but left out the pupils from their eyes. The Abbot asked him why. Zhang explained that if he painted the pupils, the dragons would come to life. When the Abbot insisted, Zhang proceeded to paint the dragons’ eyes. As soon as he finished the pupils on one of the dragons, it roared to life and flew away in a thunderous flash of lightning.
The same as in the legend’s dragons, sumi-e doesn’t deal with the perfect representation of the outside world, but rather with the capturing of its very soul; therefore, when depicting something, the painter has to see beyond the physical outline of the desired object or being. Instead of colors, he uses gradations of ink to create the idea and light and shade, and various types of brushstrokes and lines to suggest volume and rhythm.
A subtle combination between calligraphy and painting, sumi-e (whose name comes from a special ink called sumi, and known more officially in Japan as suibokuga) entered Japan from China during the Kamakura period, reaching its peak during the Muromachi period. Highly contrasting with the fully colored emakimono painting style, sumi-e is much more austere, using solely black ink. And it’s no wonder, since the first sumi-e painters were actually Buddhists monks; that was also an important reason for which this style was highly favored by the military leaders. Besides the monochromatic aspect, there are some other fundamental similarities between calligraphy and sumi-e. The three calligraphic styles (kai/shin, gyou and sou) are also applied to ink painting. Also, both make use of the same kind of brushes (fude), made of several kinds of animal hair (rabbit, goat, horse etc), and strokes.
The line had to be firm, in order to demonstrate spiritual strength. In its simplest form, ink painting uses charcoal or solid ink, on silk or paper. As described in “Spontaneity in Japanese Art and Culture” (David and Michiko Young, 2006), the technique goes as follows: “An ink stick (composed of lamp soot, glue, and incense) is ground with water on an ink stone to make black ink. In addition to the compartment containing the black ink, there is usually another compartment containing more diluted ink –a shade of gray. One way of painting is to dip the brush first in the diluted ink and then to dip the tip in the darker ink. Loaded in this way with two different concentrations of ink, the artist can create a line with different shades of color. There are numerous techniques and brushes that can be employed to create both wet and dry strokes, thin and thick strokes, and sharp and spattered areas”.
In Japan, sumi-e went through four development stages. Notably during the second stage, sumi-e artists began to specialize on certain themes, of which landscapes, Buddhist hermits and Zen masters prevailed. At the same time, in the major temples in Kyoto, important schools of ink painting emerged; the most remarkable artist of the period was Shuubun, head of the painting academy from Shoukokuji, sponsored by the shogun. During the third development stage, Shuubun’s disciple, Sesshuu Touyou, completed the process of integrating the Chinese models into the Japanese ink painting, and was also remarkable due to the powerful personal style he developed, which later influenced other artists. Another change comparing to the previous stages is that, although still affiliated to temples, the painting schools that appeared during this period didn’t include just monks as artists. New painting schools formed around Nouami, Soga Jasoku and Oguri Soutan (the official painter of the Ashikaga shogun after Shuubun), each developing its own form of ink painting.
During the fourth period, the Kanou School was the most prominent, beneficiating from official sponsorship. By this final stage, ink painting had already become more secular and decorative, as demonstrated by the art of Kanou Motonobu, credited for the way he combined the indigenous yamato-e and the Chinese-influenced kanga styles. Also, that was the era of large-scale sumi-e ink paintings, used for decorating the sliding doors and screens of temples, castles and rich dwellings. During the Edo period, the ink painting developed into a more eccentric style, which influenced later artists.
Spontaneity in Japanese Art and Culture (David and Michiko Young, 2006)
Photos taken at:
Tokyo National Museum by Alexandru M. Gheorghe
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of CosplayGEN Magazine, editor at CollectiKult, and a translation industry professional.