Painting the Loquat in Sumi-e

The loquat is an evergreen, and can be considered a large shrub or small tree, growing about 12-15 feet tall. The leaves are long and pointy, dark green and thick, with a serrated edges. The sweet-smelling flowers appear in the autumn or early winter, and the fruits are ripe in late winter or early spring. In California, fruits appear April to May. This plant originated in China, was thence exported to Japan over 1000 years ago, and came to the west coast in the 1800s. It is frequently grown for both fruit, and as an ornamental plant.

Loquat fruits, growing in clusters, are oval, rounded or pear-shaped, 2-3 inches long, and can be pale yellow in color to a gold tinged with red. Depending on the type of loquat, the fruit can be rather sour in taste, or very sweet. The seeds of the loquat are lovely, being large and of a shiny brown.

The contrast of the roundish fruit with the wide, pointy leaves makes for an interesting painting subject. Here is my video on painting this lovely plant.

Wisteria Painting in Sumi-e

Down the street from us is a yard filled with wisteria that wanders along the fences.

Painting wisteria is delightful. The sweet smell of wisteria, the graceful fall of the leaves, the thick cascades of lavender flowers, the curl of the tendrils, the twists of the trunk.

Begin with the Flowers

The process of painting wisteria, in ink or in color, is the same. The wisteria is painted in medium tones in general, with dollops of lighter and darker flowers for contrast. I start at the top of the cluster, and use short side-brush strokes that are done quickly. First, press down with the brush, then quickly curve it and pull up. Do this twice, aiming at the center. The outer edge of the flower is thicker than the center. Continue doing this down to the end, decreasing the flowers in size. Place only a few flowers at the bottom – just a touch to suggest the petals. Let the flowers dry so that they are semi-damp.

Painting the Leaves

While the petals are drying, decide where you want to place the leaves. Wisteria leaves are long and slim, and are best painted with a graceful swooping motion. Begin with the narrow tip of the brush barely touching the paper, and then as you continue with the leaf, push down as you keep the brush perpendicular to the paper, and then raise the brush up. It is important to note that the leaves of the wisteria are paired opposite each other, evenly along the stem, and are not staggered. The last leaf is single, continuing off the stem.

Dotting the Flowers and Drawing the Leaf Veins

As the leaves dry, it is time to begin to dot the center of the wisteria flowers.  This should be done in dark ink.  Just little dots will do.  The flowers themselves should be damp-to-dry.  If they are too wet, the black ink will bleed into the flower.   After you have finished the flowers, return to the leaves, gently creating the center vein with ink slightly darker than the leaf itself.

Tendrils & Trunk

The trunk of the wisteria can be ancient, twisting and woody.  This provides a dynamic contrast with the graceful quality of the flowers and leaves.  Paint the trunk with a dry brush using dark ink.  Lay the brush on its side, and use a hard brush for even more dynamic results.  Follow this up with swirls of dark ink to create the tendrils.

Wisteria Painting in Sumi-e – The Video

Above is a colored painting of wisteria I did some time ago.  This video captures much of the process I described above.  I hope you enjoy it!

The Four Treasures: Ink, ii

This really is my home-made video debut.  For my birthday, I got a Kodak Zi8.  I’ve never shot a video in my life.  It’s been in the back of my mind for some time to try to create videos on various subjects, in particular those related to sumi ink painting.  I’ve long admired a number of ink artists, and have learned a lot from watching their videos.  So, I decided to make a video today, just to see what I can do.  Already, I know that what I have done is incredibly amateur, but for a first try, I decided to go ahead and post what I’ve done.  Just making the videos gave such a greater appreciation for the thought which goes into a good one, as well as having good editing software.  The Kodak Zi8 comes with MediaImpression for Kodak, by ArcSoft.  I’ve managed to add a title and an ending to the file, but nothing else.  What you see is really unedited footage!

The Art of Grinding an Ink Stick

Many authors of Japanese and Chinese ink-painting books will tell you that while you grind the ink on the stone, with gentle motions, it is a good time to collect oneself.  I agree.  I like to take my time, listen to calming music, and relax.  Focusing on breathing helps – in, out, in, out – slowing down.  Given the permanency of every ink stroke in sumi, it makes sense to calm down, to control one’s energy, and to take time to become centered.  Breathing helps.  I know that if I start out feeling stressed, my painting is stressed, tight and unhappy.  Grinding ink is a period of transition.

Making the Video

Well, making the video was a pain!  At first the camera was too low, and the field of vision too narrow.  I had to build up the height of the camera, and retrain its focus.  Looking at the video, certainly lighting needs to be improved, and the camera should be coming over my left shoulder, and lighting needs to be less yellow (maybe use the no-light setting!?!).  Shadows need to disappear.

Purpose of the Video

  1. Show the ink stone, with water
  2. Demonstrate the ink stick
  3. Demonstrate the upright position of the ink stick, and the motion on the top of the stone, as well as pulling the water up from the well of the stone, to continue the grinding process
  4. Show the creation of dark ink, show the creation of medium ink, and the creation of light ink
  5. Show through the time of the video that grinding ink for sumi does take time – it’s not something poured out of a bottle.

The Video

Let me know what you think!  Try it in HD and full screen, too.

The Four Treasures: Brush, ii

Quite some time ago, I wrote about brushes used in Asia.  As I am beginning Saturday morning Japanese language classes, I am in conflict with time and distance in being able to attend my Chinese painting class.  I’ll just have to figure that out later.  However, the fact that I am learning hiragana, my preferred practice method is the traditional brush since I enjoy it so much.  It is also said that the strokes used in Asian calligraphy are those used in Asian painting.  Given that, I thought it would be worthwhile to review elements of holding the brush.

Holding the Brush Is Not the Same as Holding a Pen

When I was in school, penmanship was an important part of the daily curriculum.  I practiced my penmanship from first grade through the eighth.  My third grade teacher shamed me by saying “Any one who draws as well as you do should have good penmanship.”  Ooops!  In eighth grade I won a penmanship award.  Over the years, I’ve collected a few manuals on the Palmer Method of penmanship, which is the basis of much of what I was taught in school.  Today, penmanship has been replaced by other methods of handwriting – you might find this article amusing if you remember your penmanship classes.

Enough digressions.  The fact is that Western culture teaches the student to hold the pen at a slant.  These scans from an old Palmer Method manual show what I mean. Additionally, the writing surface is also at a slight angle, tilting gently toward the writer’s lap. Paper is also angled, so that an uphill slope is created for writing left to right.

Illustrations from various books, published in the US, Japan, China and elsewhere demonstrate how to hold the brush. Rather than the slanted wrist resting on the table, the brush is held perpendicular to the writing surface, which is not at all slanted. The forearm is held rather straight, yet relaxed. The brush may be held close to the bristles, or anywhere along the handle, all the way to the top. The paper is also straight, with the idea being writing is vertical, and there is no need for the paper to be slanted.

Ms. Kuroda Holding a Brush

Ms. Kuroda Holding a Brush

Holding the Brush

Hand Position

To the right, you can see how to hold the brush. This illustration is from a Japanese book on sumi-e painting, and unfortunately the only thing I know about the author is that her name is Kuroda san.

According to H.E. Davey, author of Brush Mediation: A Japanese Way to MInd & Body Harmony,

Grip the Brush Gently and Focus Your Ki through the Brush Tip

Physically speaking, shodo [Japanese calligraphy] begins with the student’s grip on the brush. Unless a suitable technique of gripping is mastered, no advancement is possible . . . First, your elbow should not stick up or out to an excessive degree. This would only create an unsettling of the arm’s weight a s well as produce tension in the muscle of the arm and shoulder. This tension can cause your flow of ki to clog in the shoulders and not be effectively transmitted through the brush into the painting. This point is important, and various Japanese calligraphy authorities have made note of its significance.

At the same time, do not let your elbow sag or droop . . . when your elbow sags heavily toward the ground, it also tends to rub against the body and produces a cramped feeling that is expressed in your in your artwork. You should feel that your elbow is floating in a settled position a few inches from your body. (pgs. 76-77)

Sitting with the Brush

In my opinion, one of the very best books on sumi-e is Sumi-e Self Taught, by Kohei Aida. No longer in print, you might be able to find it through an online used book service; if you are interested, it was published in 1968, by Japan Publications, Inc., of Tokyo, Japan. The text is in English, which is very helpful. The best part of the book is that he shows the artist how to load the brush, how angle and roll it on the ink-water dish’s edge, and many subtleties not illustrated in most English-language sumi books.

Aida san shows how to sit in a western manner (upright at a table) while holding the brush.  H.E. Davey’s book, Brush Meditation, also has several photos on posture and sitting.

Going back to my blurb on knitting, posture, and pain, I suggest that you concentrate on sitting upright and focus on bringing your shoulder blades back toward the spine.  Don’t arch your back, but focus on a gentle backward movement of the shoulder blades, and a focus on a plumb-line approach to your spine.  If you are sloppy like me, this will be unfamiliar, and uncomfortable because you may not do this naturally, and your muscles will not be happy.  However, with time, it gets easier – I’m actually remembering to do it, and occasionally find I’m still upright later on . . .

In this position, you can move your arm as well as your wrist.  Tighter movements will be done with the hand closer to the bristles, while holding the hand at the top of the brush gives a wonderful looseness in the stroke.  In calligraphy, I expect these same results will apply.  If you look at my post about painting the dragon you will also see that the brush can be held at different angles – sideways, for example.  Aida san’s book demonstrates the same.

Aida san Demonstrates Brush Movement

Aida san Demonstrates Brush Movement

Movement of the Brush

This illustration to the left, from Aida san’s book, shows how the brush may be tilted to achieve a brush stroke while painting.  The hand and wrist may also be tilted to create curves, pressure may be applied at the end of the stroke, and gliding motions similar to an airplane landing and taking off can make thin-to-thick line, and vice versa. Ending a stroke with increasing pressure will also create a certain effect.

The Charles E. Tuttle Company has published wonderful art books about Japan.  One book which has been in print since 1960 is Japanese Painting as Taught by Ukai Uchiyama, Kay Morrissey Thompson.  The reason I mention this is because the next picture is for the artist sitting on the floor, in the traditional manner, to paint.  At the same time you can see that the brush is being held very near the top of the handle.  Looking at Uchiyama san’s work, you will notice a very loose, wild style which is, nonetheless, very controlled and lively.  Mastery of the brush allows for this, and perhaps sitting on the floor adds to the process.

Ukai Uchiyama Painting

Ukai Uchiyama Painting

Uchiyama Holding Brush

Uchiyama Holding Brush

This detail of the photograph shows you how Uchiyama san holds his brush – just the same as Aida san, simply closer to the top of the handle. Practicing this yourself will help you understand the quality of stroke and control obtained by holding the brush at different levels along the handle. Certainly the closer your hand is to the bristles, the more minute control you have. Shoulder and arm movement are more restricted when in this position. Freedom and spontanenaeity increase with distance. However, without a knowledge of how to use the brush, this can be a study in frustration! So, focus yourself, breathe slowly and deeply. Imagine your energy flowing out of the brush tip – your ki – and with practice, your brush may dance with your soul.

Artist in Action

Once more, I believe videos can clearly demonstrate something which is difficult to explain with words. This video will show you how to hold a Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, or whatever!) brush for calligraphy.

The following video is of the young Japanese artist / calligrapher, Koji Kakinuma.  In particular, watch how he changes from thin to thick lines, as well as how he tilts the brush at different angles; you will observe this by observing the brush tip.  When the brush is perpendicular to the paper, the tip must be considered to be the center of the line.  Tilting the brush, increasing and decreasing pressure – sometimes all combined – vary the appearance of the stroke. Notice, too, that the bristles in the brush are longer in length than a painting brush.  Soft, hard, and mixed-hair brushes may be used, each having its own qualities.

Finally, here is a video about the difference between calligraphy brushes and painting brushes.

Shozo Sato: Renaissance Man

Every now and again, someone in the public will catch your eye because of your interests.  Shozo Sato is one of those individuals who has come into my life over the years.  I have never met him, but as an individual, his range of accomplishments in traditional Japanese arts never ceases to intrigue me.

In 1965 he wrote a book about Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, and since then this book has been reprinted in various formats.  He is an accomplished calligrapher, and has written a book about sumi-e.  Cha no yu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony, is another of his accomplishments.  Most recently, he has brought the Kabuki theater to the U.S., and produced MacBeth, Medea in the Kabuki tradition; you may see more about this here at http://www.ket.org, and a review here.  He has also produced Othello at the University of Illinois.  I would love to see Shakespeare in Kabuki!

Shozo Sato is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois and currently teaches at Northwestern University, and at the Japan House, which is located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and part of the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

In my opinion, Mr. Sato is a living treasure and an artist who enriches all of us through his creativity and dynamic sharing of his knowledge.