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The Process of Sumi

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 The Process and Preparation of Sumi

Early Autumn by Quan Xuan, 13th Century

Sumi = Ink
Sumi-e = Ink Painting

Ink and wash painting is an East Asian type of brush painting also known as wash painting or by its Japanese name sumi-e (墨絵). Ink and wash painting is also known by its Chinese name shui-mo hua (水墨畫, Japanese suibokuga (水墨画 ),  Korean sumukhwa). Only black ink , the same as used in East Asian calligraphy  is used, in various concentrations.


Wash painting developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Wang Wei is generally credited as the painter who applied color to existing ink and wash paintings. The art was further developed into a more polished style during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It was introduced to Korea shortly after China's discovery of the ink. Then, the Korean missionaries in Japan, in helping the Japanese establish a civilized settlement introduced it to Japan in the mid-14th century.


In ink paintings, as in calligraphy, artists usually grind their own inkstick (Japanese: sumi) over an inkstone to obtain ink, but prepared inks are also available. Most inksticks are made of either pine or oil soot combined with animal glue (Japanese: nikawa). An artist puts a few drops of water on an inkstone and grinds the inkstick in a circular motion until a smooth, black ink of the desired concentration is made. Prepared inks are usually of much lower quality. Sumi themselves are sometimes ornately decorated with landscapes or flowers in bas-relief and some are highlighted with gold.

From the Artist:

As a Sumi-e painter, for me, the grinding and preparation of the ink is a wonderful meditation before I begin my painting. I prepare my work in the traditional way. However, my Sumi-e style is 'Contemporary Sumi-e' reaching beyond the limits of traditional ink painting. 

Traditionally, ink was made by grinding an ink stick on a moist ink stone. This method is still favored by many brush painters today. Shanghai Premium Ink Stick produces a smooth, shiny brown-black permanent ink for calligraphy and painting. Below is an example of a Shanghai Premium Ink Stick. Black ink sticks range from the inexpensive to the very rare and quite expensive.

Shanghai Premium Sumi Stick

Ink sticks can come in colors as well.  The set shown at the right comes with 15 rich colors. The color sticks are ground on a Sumi ink stone with a little water added. Each cake of color has a raised Chinese dragon; painted in gold. The set is beautiful just to look at! It comes in a special box that has a glass lid so you can see the colors inside. Part of the lure in the Sumi-e experience for me is being able to use such lovely materials as I paint.

Bamboo Brushes

The seals or chops pictured on the right are called 'Little Treasures'. Using the seal as an integral part of the composition in ink painting is uniquely Asian. To authenticate and to show approval of his/her work, the artist uses a personal seal in red along with his signature. In addition to the personal signature and seal, most traditional Chinese brush artists use seals to enhance their compositions. Antiquity, artistry, and the quality of the material from which a seal is carved determine it's value.

A Few of Casey Shannon's Artist Seal Stamps

Above are some of the artist seals or chops that I use in my sumi-e. They translate (from left to right):
Square = Casey
Small Round = Spring
Large Round = Be Well
Large Oval = Elegant Style
Smaller Oval = Journey into Art


Sumi Grinding Stone

Above is an example of a Sumi grinding stone. This ink stone is an ornate one and very beautiful. This ink slab was carved in a 'cucurbit' shape. This shape stands for good fortune and every success.

Color Sumi Sticks

The bamboo brush set pictured on the left includes three brushes that are made with 100% pure soft goat hair. The belly of each brush holds a great deal of ink and comes to a fine point when wet. Perfect for Sumi painting. The handles and ferrules are made from bamboo and wood. The entire set comes in a delicately patterned fabric covered box. 

Artist Seals or Chops

My Personal Seal/Chop Collection


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