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Japanese Brush Painting: Techniques & History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever tried to create beautiful lines with a single brushstroke? Can you paint in one color? In this lesson, explore the history and techniques of Japanese brush painting.

What is Japanese Brush Painting?

In Japan, there's a beautiful art form that dates back thousands of years. It's called sumi-e or Japanese brush painting. This painting method uses dark liquid ink and a natural hair brush to create beautiful, striking monochromatic images. Monochromatic means that the image only uses a limited range of tones within one hue, like black to grey to light grey.

Typical subjects in sumi-e painting include landscapes, plants (like bamboo), flowers (like chrysanthemums), birds, and portraits. In a traditional sumi-e, the only spot of different color is sometimes a red seal that serves as the artist's signature. So where did this art get its start?

History and Meaning of Japanese Brush Painting

The tradition of of sumi-e or brush painting came to Japan from China where it developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The practice of using a brush to create single, deliberate strokes traces back to spirituality and Zen Buddhism. There's deep symbolism in sumi-e. The white (the background or paper on which the image is painted) resembles the universe, and the black (the ink lines) resembles material forms that exist within it.

As Chinese culture expanded, the art form traveled from China, to Korea, and then from Korea to Japan in the mid-14th century. In Japan, during the Muromachi Period (1338 - 1573), sumi-e was celebrated and artists became famous for their work, including Sesshu Toyo.

Example of Japanese brush painting by Sesshu Toyo, circa 1450
brush painting by Sesshu Toyo

Capturing the Essence

Sumi-e is about line and form. It's beautiful, simple and elegant. The goal isn't a detailed, accurate rendering of a subject. Rather, it's an image that captures the subject's essence or soul. To create a sumi-e image, the artist must be thoughtful and careful. Once the line has been put on the paper, it's permanent and can't be undone. If the artist makes a mistake they must start over.

Tools Used in Japanese Brush Painting

Before we discuss how to do Japanese brush painting, let's cover four important tools. The first is the suzuri or ink stone. The ink stone has a shallow hole on its surface where the ink is created.

The second tool is the sumi or ink stick. It's made of carbon (from burned plant material) that's pressed into a dry, hard stick form. The ink stick is ground against the ink stone to produce a powder. It takes time to grind the ink properly, because the finer the ground material, the better quality the ink. Water is then added to that ground dry material to make the ink.

Tools used in sumi-e, including the ink stone, ink stick and brush
ink stone and ink stick

The third tool is the fude or brush. Sumi-e brushes are usually hand-made and one of three kinds. These include brushes made of brown hairs from animals like weasels, those made of white goat hairs, and those that are a mix of white and brown hairs. Each kind of brush creates different types of strokes. For example, delicate brown hairs have a pointed tip to create fine lines.

The fourth tool is kami or paper. Sumi-e is done on paper made from natural materials like rice, mulberry back, or woven silk fabric.

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