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Monochrome Ink - Beyond the Rainbow

5 values for ink painting - an artist contemplative take

What happens when we paint using only black ink? What happens when we put asides the rich palette of many colours and focus our attention with the one medium and colour?

Japanese ink painting landscape with broken brush by master of ink Sesshū Tōyō
Haboku Landscape / Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506)

Its not that we don't love colour, we do. Colours are the bountiful beauty of this earth, governed by the rainbow. So there is the wonder, what is beyond the rainbow? What is the 'pot of gold' over the rainbow and how do we experience it?

Well, looking out from here, it seems like there is a vast universe out there, with limitless creative possibilities. If we dare eliminating colour, even just for a short while, by taking up the ink stick as our medium of expression, it may just act as a unique connective tool. Bringing together endless painting potentialities, images both from out there in the universe, as well as inside us, as our consciousness, our heart-mind, naturally is a part of the great creation.

And somehow, just like that, by being humble and subtracting the non-essentials, we may discover new rhythm and form and shape of our own being.

The Essence of Earth

Japanese ink, known as sumi, is made of ancient pine trees coal, or ashes and soot collected from oil lamps. It comes off the earth and goes through a metamorphosis of substance. This process makes it a rich matter with beautiful variety of deep black colours, ranging from black-red hues to dark black-blue ones.

This black is not really a colour as such. It is made of the essence of the Earth. The elements of earth and fire, of water, air and of wood, coming together in an alchemical way to create a magical material, a conduit, an agent with unique characters that allow us, the artists, to use it in such a way, so as to give meaning and expression to our living experience. And the viewer, can be immersed and enjoy themesleves dwelling in this very same experience.

Six Persimmons   Mu Ch'i  sumi ink painting
Six Persimmons / Mu Ch'i (13th)

Minimialism and Abundance

Using black ink allows the artist to find their focus on the essential. Discovering what works in a composition and how to give meanings with visuals that are not disturbed by much noise and fluff. It looks like minimalistic art, and it is, as it holds in it the very plentiful of the core artistic notion, by getting rid of the non-essential.

It is a journey of sorting out, eliminating, and reducing what is not of the very essence of the visual story. It is an art of subtraction, holding the abundance of resolved raw beauty.


When working with monochrome ink we are not distracted by colour. Our attention is tuned to the energy flow of the painting, be it an experimental, abstract image, or a planned composition of a determined theme.

The very action of using ink and water on paper, facilitates a natural movement, which may well bring forth a radiant richness of shades and mixing combinations.

Japanese ink painting of a vine by Itō Jackuchū
Vine / Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800)

This process picks up our own movement. And being within movement is finding a flow. We may choose a rhythm according to a theme, or, how we are feeling at a particular time. Maintaining this flow offers strength, well being and quality brush strokes.

Dream world

Do you dream in colour? Do you remember the past or have visions of the future in colour? And when you imagine something, a place, a person, an experience, how does that appear in your heart-mind?

Memories, dreams, visions, our world of imagination, these, do not seem to have colour in them. Perhaps they arrive from a multi-dimensional place deep in ourselves, beyond time and space as we know it. Beyond colour as we see it.

It is not by chance that ink painting is probably the most ancient painting practice within the story of humanity. Somehow, the value it holds is still current, providing a most connective self empowerment practice, then and now. When you are practicing ink painting you are connecting to an ancient Way. A way of the masters of painting and their streams of wisdom and heart felt perception. Sharing their unique views of the complexity of nature and its divine aspects and patterns. Thus it is ancient, yet raw and of the moment. Beyond time and place.

When we paint with black ink we are invited to connect with a dream world that is beyond colour, that may be ancient, yet potent. In this our consciousness is eternal, part of the dream world of creation.

Beyond the rainbow

Black is not a colour, yet it is all colours. It allows us to observe, connect and give presence to shapes, forms and moods of us, as creator. Black ink painting does not rely on shades of beautiful reds or greens or blues, it goes beyond the framework of earth, the rainbow colours range, into a deep realm within creation. In this realm, time and space may have different expressions, or may not even exist, as it is limitless. Whether you make an abstract ink marks and lines, or depict a flower or landscape, your own expression of it may be timeless, as it will have colour, in a strange way, by its absence.

mountain hut under the winter moon in ink by master  artist Nagaswa Rosetsu  (1754-1799)
Mountain hut under the winter moon / Nagaswa Rosetsu (1754-1799)

What if the rainbow was binding us to this place and time. What if its palette of colours is limiting our vision and creative expression.

And what if beyond the rainbow there is a vast range of colours we have never seen. Clusters of hues and light our eyes have never experienced.

Be it the harsh light we live in, overly usage of computer's visuals, or just our habits and conditional views, we don't know enough about the light and glow which is out there. Those night time deep dark shades, which can be seen on a starry night, so rich, so diverse, we can only glimpse at when in nature. Or when witnessing the breathtaking iridescent Northern Lights coming in and out of Earth. Even though we may not experience these often, they have never gone, they are awaiting us.

Take a break from painting in colour, and take up the ink and brush. Just for a moment, raise the veil and see what happens when you train afresh your heart-mind vision away from the rainbow and be washed by starlight, transcending time and space in the very realm of your heart.

'Stand firm in the sea of ink, seek life in the movement of the brush-tip; create a new surface and texture on the foot-long material, and give forth light from the unformed darkness. Then, even if the brush and ink and the drawings are all wrong, the 'me', the 'self', remains there.

For one controls the ink and is not controlled by it, handles the brush and is not handled by it. One gives form to the embryo, the embryo does not assume its own form. From one, it divides into ten of thousands, and from the ten thousand shapes of things, one attends to the One, transforming the One into the primeval cloudy forms - this is the height of artistic ability.'

Quotes on painting / Shih T'ao (1642-1707)


Learn More

> Live workshop - learn to paint Japanese ink painting with Talia at Mallorca studio - September 2024

> For an in-depth Foundation Course on Japanese ink painting check it out here

> 'Tendril' - Ink Artwork Series by Talia check online gallery HERE


Images credit copyrights

1. Haboku Landscape / Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506) / ink on paper / 11.5 × 75.8 cm / Myōshin-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

2. Six Persimmons / Mu Ch'i (13th) / ink on paper / 36.2 × 38.1 cm / Daitoku-ji Kyoto, Japan

3. Vine / Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800) / Price Collection L.A. U.S.A

4. Mountain hut under the winter moon / Nagaswa Rosetsu (1754-1799) / Ink on silk / Kōsetsu Museum, Japan

Images from public domain sources. All efforts were made to respect copyrights owner where possible.



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About the Author

Japanese Ink Painting Instructor & Artist, Talia Lehavi - Standing with a brush in front of Notes on Pine collection in Mallorca Studio

Talia LeHavi is a professional artist and a certified teacher of Japanese ink painting. Exhibiting both in the UK and internationally, she is known for her cross-disciplinary paintings, prints and ceramic tiles.

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