Learning Japanese Ink Painting
The study of Asian ink painting is a practice of being with the heart’s rhythm. Exercising discipline and steadiness of hand and mind to develop a creative process over a substantial period of time. This is an active meditation process in encouraging new ways of observation and self-listening as part of healing and inspiration. Being an ancient practice form in China and Japan, its validity is true today as in its glorious past, especially useful for those who wish to encourage a creative mode of life in themselves. The appeal of Japanese ink painting, known as suiboku-ga or 'pictures of ink and water', is in the flow of the brush. The seemingly 'effortless' minimalist stroke that suggests a bamboo in the wind, or a flying sparrow, is magical. It is an art form of economy, using one brush and one colour to reflect upon nature's harmonies. Results can be achieved on first practice, yet to achieve flawless mastery of the brush, ongoing training is necessary. The study emphasizes solid brush strokes, and so the practice of calligraphy, known as shodo, offers a good platform with learning a variety of strokes. The play between ink and water on fine paper stimulates the visual impact between the subject matter and the space around it, to give the feeling of depth, light and richness of composition and colour, even though generally 'only' black ink is used. Japanese ink painting was traditionally divided into two main schools of practice. The first is 'line-work,' depicting a subject with line drawing of the outside form. The second style developed is 'ink marks', depicting a subject as ink marks with no outside line. Upon this basic practice, a combination and variety of techniques has developed, including the use of Japanese watercolour, made from natural pigments.
Tools and materials
The four main tools and materials used in this practice are brush, paper, ink stick and ink stone. Known as 'the four treasures', these carry a long tradition of craftsmanship in their own right and their quality varies from a simple student's kit to a highly-prized, collectible, hand-made sets. Paper is made of various percentages of kozo fiber (made from the bark of mulberry bush). It can vary in thickness, shade and size. The brush, made of natural animal hair, varies in hardness, size and shape. The ink stick, known as sumi, is made out of soot or coal dust, traditionally mixed with essential oils and natural glue to form a solid stick. This black solid ink has a range of shades of black and a variety of translucency. The ink-stone, known as suzuri, is traditionally made out of slate, which has a rough surface upon which to grind the ink.
Beginners are best to start with learning four traditional themes, known as 'The four princes of ink' - Bamboo, plum-blossom, wild orchid and chrysanthemum, are the four fundamental subjects that hold within them the basic brush-strokes necessary to accomplish success. This study goes well alongside an introduction to calligraphy characters (kanji). More advanced study, for those with some knowledge of the field, includes themes such as songbirds & flowers, sea-life, animals, landscape & figures. At this level, students should look for an in-depth study of composition and use of space. A helpful way is to observe and study the great masters of the brush from the history of Japanese art. At this level, it is well advised to accompany the study with calligraphy practice of kana script as well as more complex kanji.
Students should look for a teacher who can offer a live demonstration, as well as working notes, one-to-one time and practical experience. Understanding the evolution of ink painting in China and Japan will offer an overlay of depth and perception as to the schools and styles of painting that evolved within the art history of these countries. Regardless of whether the student is a complete beginner or a professional artist, the study of ink painting can produce an immediate effect and satisfaction, and yet it is a step in a never-ending journey of refinement. Personal pace and rhythm of progress are best to be encouraged.
About the author
Talia Lehavi is a contemporary artist and a certified teacher of Japanese ink painting and calligraphy. She holds an MA in Japanese art history and has been teaching for many years at her London studio as well as museums and various art organizations around the world. Her teaching includes lectures, demonstration, practical workshops and artist mentoring.