Adaptations of West & East

These past few weeks I have gone through some of my past paintings.   One of the things I have been trying to figure out are ways in which it may be possible to create a certain spontaneous, zen, sumi-quality in a painting done using western materials.

The absorbent paper, and other papers of Japan, China, and Korea are not readily available in the United States.  Mounting the very thin, Asian papers is a challenge. Traditional methods of wheat paste are difficult, and until the method is perfected, the artist can lose a lot of work if not careful. In Japan and China, there are shops to do the mounting for you – not so here. Other methods for mounting include using a framer, but the framer may not be able to get rid of the wrinkles for you. Dry mounting, using silicone release paper, such as used in photography mounting, may work, but even that can be risky – the wrinkles may still be there, or the adhesive may catch another part of the painting if you are not careful.

Western watercolor paper comes in rough, cold press, and hot press. Yupo is a Japanese synthetic paper, but sumi ink and gansai rinse away under running water. Thus, it seems, that the ideal is to somehow re-create the absorbent quality as best as possible using western papers.

The quality of xuan and tissue-thin sulfite papers is one of both absorbency and ability to portray each brush stroke. These are the ideal papers for sumi ink and sumi-e.  Dry brush is easy enough on western paper. But that absorbency? How to achieve that?

Keeping the paper damp, so the color or ink is drawn into the paper fibers is critical.  I don’t want the paper so wet that everything bleeds, but damp enough so the character of the ink or paint is caught.  This is so hard to describe!


This painting of bamboo is done on Fabriano 100% Cotton Cold Press paper. First, it was masked off with drafting tape onto a board, and then a layer of water was lightly brushed over the surface, and then a pale wash of lemon yellow added.

As in traditional sumi-e, the idea was to paint without outline, and to create a focused, yet spontaneous, painting. The shape of the bamboo stalks was considered, and painted without the drawing of outlines. The brush was pushed onto the paper, or paused in areas. I touched the paper to assess its dryness or dampness, and waited for more drying to occur, or added water as needed. To get the color gradations, I loaded my brush with pale-medium-dark paint, but at times I helped it along by adding color on the edges of the stems, or lifting as necessary. The result seems to have been successful.

With Arches 140# Hot Press paper, the technique is similar, but the smaller the sheet (as in the small size for ACEOs), it becomes apparent that the paper can warp more easily the wetter it becomes. Weighting down the finished product seems to help, and so does ironing!

These next pictures were done on ACEO-sized Arches. For the maple leaves, the background was given a very light wash of yellow, and then, as you can see, a wet-into-wet technique done with the branch on the far right. It has a very soft effect. The lighter leaves were painted first and allowed to become nearly dry before the darker leaves were added. Brush movement of pushing down, or turning and lifting, were done to create the shapes of the leaves as well as for the tiny maple seeds. Overall, fairly successful.

maple tree

The plum tree below is also done on an ACEO-sized sheet of Arches 140# Hot Press. Here, the effort to utilize the damp paper succeeded to a degree. I did load my brush with successive levels of ink, light to dark, but I did not succeed in its showing up. Perhaps the paper needed to be a bit dryer than it was, as the ink shades all blurred to create one shade. Still, the final result was not too bad.

plum tree in fog

I think that with more practice I might be able to achieve the effects I want, but it will take analysis and experience. In the meantime, I am trying – still! – to master the mounting of xuan with silicone release paper.  But, to tell the truth, I rather doubt I have the patience for it.


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