Brushwork and Value in Watercolor

Watercolor Brush Strokes a la Sumi-e


Having been doing sumi-e with some regularity for several years, I am finding it helpful in watercolor. Because the brush is the vehicle for watercolor, as it is in sumi-e, it is important to understand how the brush works.

Pencil Outline

Kolinsky sable watercolor brushes can be considerably stiffer than the white-haired sheep brush used in sumi-e, but much more flexible than the wolf and horse brushes, which have darker, more stiff bristles. Basically, a western watercolor brush combines both qualities in one brush, but this does not mean that it is the same at all! A good point is important for a Kolinsky round (I am using DaVinci Maestro Series 10s and Escoda Series 1212) just as it is with sumi-e brushes, as is the ability to carry water and color.

Layer 1

Many of the same techniques used in sumi-e can be applied to watercolor. These include brush strokes, such as increasing and decreasing pressure to change line thickness. Two or more colors may be applied to a brush, as in sumi-e when different ink intensities are applied. In Western watercolor, a brush stroke may be modified, working wet-into-wet, wet-into-dry, dry-into-wet, and glazing or layering colors. This does not work well in sumi-e, unless one is doing fine line Chinese painting.

Layer 2

The major differences between sumi-e and western watercolor are responsiveness of paper. Japanese and Chinese painting papers are generally much more porous than traditional Western watercolor papers. Heavily sized Asian papers are used for fine line painting, where color layers are used, and bleeding of ink, so characteristic in sumi-e, does not occur. Western watercolor papers will vary in the amount of sizing used, and this, in turn, affects the absorbent qualities of the paper. Knowing how a paper responds takes time and practice, whether in Asian painting, or Western.

Layer 3

Value in sumi-e is achieved in how the brush is loaded. Ink can be very pale, and while it is still damp, darker ink may be applied to good effect. A sumi brush can also be loaded with pale ink, then a medium ink, and finally a tip or dark, or even one edge of the brush in dark ink. The stroke of the brush creates all the gradations. In watercolor, value is achieved by layering, as well as working wet-into-wet. Layering, also known as glazing, is the application of wet paint on a previously painted layer which has dried. Glazes are also built up light to dark. Wet-into-wet can be sopping wet, or in varying degrees of dampness.  In some ways, wet-into-wet requires more self-discipline than glazing, which requires patience and forethought.


Each painting technique, sumi-e and watercolor, have similar techniques, as well as some which are exclusive to that medium. The key is to learn from both, and to master each.

All these paintings were based on demonstrations from Linda Stevens Moyer’s book LIght Up Your Watercolors Layer by Layer.


Sumi-e Studies

After the trip to the Descanso Gardens, and the Gardens of the World, I finally got out some ink, paper, and brushes.  The camellias in bloom everywhere in the Descanso Gardens, and the rows of magnolias in the Gardens of the world, pushed it.  Seeing something that I have practiced painting before, in abundance, was an amazing inspiration.  So much beauty!  It is much different to paint something, practice something, and become familiar with it in one form – and then to re-experience it in another form.

I chose to focus on the camellia, or tsubaki.  There is a lovely painting demonstration by Kazu Shimura, as well as other images in sumi-e throughout the web if you google.  Photographs help, too, ones you might take or you might find.

The petals have a light ruffled edge, the center stamens and pistils point outward. Blossoms vary from a few petals – as seen in Shimura’s paintings – to multiple layers.  The leaves vary in shape, but in general are long and round and end in a point.  The edges of the flowers are hard to do gracefully, for me at least.  The leaves are easier.  I spent several hours just practicing the outline of the petals.

Yesterday at a local garden supply store, there were camellia bushes for sale.  I may just buy one for more up close studies as this is the season of bud and flower and leaf.

Dragon Stone

We are still moving things around since my brother moved out last year.  Needless to say, we are slow!  In that process of making room for him, a lot of stuff was shifted, stored, and forgotten.  Now that the studio is being revamped, I am refinding things, namely, two ink stones, one Chinese, one Japanese. Today I will write a bit about the dragon stone.  Clicking on the image below will take you to a larger image which will allow you to see the in greater detail.

Dragon Stone - Dragon on Upper Left, Clouds and Tail on Upper Right - Smaller Dragon Along Left Edge

The above stone is Chinese and measures about 8.5 x 6 inches (22 x 15 cm). What kind of stone it is – most likely a slate – I cannot tell you for sure, but I will say the design is more Chinese, from what I know, than Japanese. The stone has a rather bell-like sound to it when tapped. Breathing on the stone shows little retention of surface moisture, as do some other stones, but a thin layer of water holds to the surface, then vanishes. I have not ground any ink on the stone as of this writing. Also, I have no idea where or when I purchased this stone! I expect I bought the stone because I like the carvings of the dragon in the clouds more than anything else – I’m a water dragon myself.

Repairing Chips on Lower Right Side of Dragon Stone

Unfortunately, when I unpacked the stone, a number of chips were in the box. I managed to salvage a few, and, not knowing what type of glue to use, decided to just try white glue. As the stone is porous, and white glue works well on porcelain, I decided to give it a shot. Admittedly, it doesn’t look great, especially in large pictures, but the mending is not too noticeable in the large picture of the stone itself.  The stone seems rather soft, which may account for the issue of low moisture retention on its surface, so it may be rather porous as well.  However, until I use it to make ink, I really cannot assess its grinding qualities.

Top of Stone - Dragon

I love the energy of the carving!  You can just imagine wild, stormy weather, and a fearsome dragon flying through the clouds.

Dragon Tail - Upper Right

The carving on this stone is quite fine, with thin lines being well expressed in the undulating lines of the dragon’s body as he flies through the clouds. Scales are small and subtle; the whorling clouds undulate gracefully over the carved surfaces.

Left Side Carving - Smaller Dragon and Clouds

There are also small, light inclusions in the stone, which probably to the knowledgeable will give a lot more information about the type of stone this is, and its origins.

This stone is enjoyable for its carving and size. I’ll ink it up in the next few days and tell you what I think. And, hey, maybe I’ll even do some painting (at last!).

UFOs are Landing!

Yarn Balls Rolling!

What was supposed to be a two-week interim stay by my brother turned into five months.  We moved the guest bed in my husband’s office into my studio so that Josh, who telecommutes, would not be kicking my brother out at 5:30 a.m.  All the stuff in my studio, where the bed landed, migrated to the former bed space in my husband’s office.

Last night I dove into the knitting projects which had begun piling up there.  Some people live out a suitcase quite tidily – I admit, I do not – and using borrowed space is sort of the same.  The result was a treasure trove of lost needles (more than few, and lots more than several), projects, yarn.   In the mix I found two sweaters which need finishing up, like weaving in ends, that I had neatly folded into a bag and promptly lost.  Also, a beret or two or three or four in various stages of design and failure.  The list grows.

Paint Brushes Ready to Escape!

The remaining items include the tansu which stores my suzuri and varied painting supplies, rolls of paper, and a box full of ink-painting supplies (mostly sumi and hake brushes) which I have been hoping to sell here on Ink, Yarn & Beer, to see if anyone might be interested in a few specialty items. My light table is also in there and who knows what else!

Photoscaping is Happening!

And while I am at it, a wonderful, easy-to-use, free program to edit digital images just released an upgrade.  Photoscape is a fantastic product.  I use it for quick editing of jpg files (it does not support raw files, as far as I know), especially those with color issues, such as being too red.  For those red ones, I decolor the image to -3 or -4, depending.

Now it has frames!  I used one of the gradated ones for these.  Check it out – there is a bit of learning curve, but I have found it quite easy.


It takes time to re-organize after such a disruption. Available space is different than it used to be as the bed is staying in the studio.  The best part – hooray – is I can paint with far easier access to supplies.