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The Four Treasures of Ink Painting

Known as the 'Four Treasures', these are the main tools and materials used in the practice of Japanese ink paintings and they are — brush, paper, ink stick and ink stone.

Each, carry a long tradition of craftsmanship in its own right, as the quality differ from simple student kit, to highly prized, hand-crafted collectible items.

Paper was made traditionally with kozo fibre (the bark of mulberry bushes), and can vary in thickness, shade and size. The brush, made of natural animal hair, ranges in hardness, size and shape. The ink stick is made out of soot or coal dust, traditionally mixed with essence oils and natural glue to form a solid stick. This black solid ink has a variety shades of black, and gradations of translucency. And finally, the ink-stone which is made usually out of slate, is there as a rough surface upon which the ink is grind.

Japanese brush - 筆 fude

The Japanese brush, known as fude, has been used in Japan for over a thousand years for writing and painting. Originated in China, its usage goes even further back into ancient history. It is one of the oldest painting tools known in human history. The brush is not just a brush. It was considered a magical instrument by the ancient calligraphers and artists of the East and is still revered for its capabilities today. It is a tool that facilitate the very flow of the creative process. It is used as an ‘extension’ of the hand for writing and painting. Like a magic wand, it gives expression with spirited ink mark, to the world as it is being experienced. A transformational object, no less.

As one of the four treasure of ink painting, with a single brush the artist can make a thousand different ink strokes. It is in the mastering of the special qualities of the brush that a rich expression of forms can be achieved.

What is the brush made of?

The brush is made of natural materials. The handle usually made out of a piece of bamboo or wood. While the bristle is formed out of various types of animal hair. These are cut and strung together in a particular format, then glued, and attached to the handle. The bristle hair can range from animals such as horse, goat, sheep, weasel, badger, even chicken and peacock feathers.

What is the difference between western and Japanese brushes?

The preferred shape of a brush is that of a water drop like, a round full body with a sharp, neat tip. This formation allows a variety of rich lines and ink marks to be painted with a single brush, whilst using western brushes one may need different brushes to achieve the same result.

Because of its unique structure, a Japanese brush, in difference from a western brush, can hold three times more ink. A high quality brush is made in such a way that the longer hair is strung on the outside, and the shorter hair is on the inside. Sometime made of different kinds of hair so that the inside ‘hold’ the ink for longer when used.

Horse tail, weasel, deer and badger’s hair, are commonly used for the shorter, central part of the brush. While softer hair, used for the longer, outside part of the brush and can be made of goat, sheep, cat, and softer parts of horse and deer’s hair. These longer hair get wrapped around the central core of the brush. The softer hair tend to absorb more ink and the hair keep together when wet, and tight around the hard core hair of the brush.

Types of brushes

Although artists can use one brush to create all sorts of brush strokes, once practiced with, you may wish to have a selection of brushes of different size and hair type to use for various projects. Here are the main brush features to look out for -

Size - brushes range from exquisite fine brushes, to small, medium, large and mega brushes, the size of a broom. Choose the sizes you are most likely to use.

Firmness - the choice of which brush to use, follow on with its size, is how springy, or elastic the bristle is when used with ink on paper. For example, softer brush will have a fine flow for long orchid leaves, while a more springy brush will facilitate bamboo stem strokes in a powerful way.

Function - selecting the right brushes is determined by the function you would need it for. And so from the range of brushes used for ink painting, choose your brushes according to size, theme of painting and firmness.

There are other specialised brushes, such as those used for calligraphy, be it fine sutra texts or flowing large poetry scrolls. And then there are other specific range of brushes, such as those used for background washes of painting; professional mounting paintings; and layering alum to size paper.

Japanese ink - 墨 sumi

Japanese ink, known as sumi or boku, is an organic, natural material, that has been used in Japan for over a thousand years for writing and painting. Originated in China, its usage goes even further back into ancient history. It is one of the oldest painting material known in human history.

Because of its unique quality, painting with sumi ink can creates beautiful variance shades of black and translucency that range from soft greys to deep black, making ink painting so powerfully spirited and sublime at the same time.

What is sumi made of?

Sumi ink traditionally comes in the form of a solid ink stick in various sizes and qualities. Made of compressed soot or coal dust, mixed with essence oils and natural glue to form the solid stick.

Soot was collected either from burnt wood, like pine, making coal dust. Or soot collected from vegetable oil lamps burning, usually in caves, after which, the soot forming on the rocks surface of the cave would be carefully scratched and collected.

When sumi is made of pine soot, it will produce a more matte, cold, lighter, bluish black, where when it is made of oil soot, it will be more glossy, brighter, deeper reddish black.

The quality of the ink depends on the type and age of the wood used for coal dust, or the quality of the vegetable oil. Higher quality sumi, has good weight about it, as there is no air formed between the soot and glue. It would have a smooth surface texture, as all the materials are well bonded. And it will carry a quality fragrance to it, especially when grinding it for painting.

Ink-stones - 硯 suzuri

Ink-stones, known in Japanese as suzuri, originated in China as early as the 3rd C. BC. As it is used as a surface for grinding ink on with an ink stick, a good quality ink-stone is as important as an ink stick in producing high quality ink. It is the right consistency of ink particles and water that is required when ink is ground on the stone surface.

If the surface is too flat, the ink stick will not get well ground and the ink will be watery and weak, if the surface is too rough, the ink will be coarse as it will consist of large particles, making it impossible to paint or write with.

And so, it has been an ingenious long term quest to make the perfect surface that will produce thick ground ink. A tool that produces beautiful, fine, fluent ink for painting and calligraphy. This quest has made the production of ink-stone a refined craft throughout the century, both in China and Japan.

How does it work?

An ink-stone will usually have a flat surface upon which the ink is rubbed, known as the ‘hill’ (oka). It will also have a deeper part, which is known as the reservoir, where ink will be collected and form up as it is ground. It is known as the ‘well’ or ‘sea’ (umi).

The making of ink is done by gradual rubbing of the ink stick on the ink-stone, while adding water to it. Please see video ‘how to make ink’ for full demonstration.

Types of ink-stone

Ink-stones are made in various sizes and shapes. Some are circular, others are rectangular. There are ink-stones with lids to match, which keeps the ink clean in between sessions. And some stones have a specially design to size wooden boxes, to protect the stone.

As ink-stones production has been developed throughout thousands of years, the materials used for them varied from clay, bronze, iron, porcelain, to a variety of rock formations.

Today most students and artists ink-stones are made of slate, which offers an excellent textured surface upon which ink is ground. Yet, the connoisseur of ink-stone may be keen on those made of unique rock formation, which produces particular beautiful textured surface.

The duan ink-stone, with its beautiful purple/red or green colour is one highly sought after ink-stone. The mountains in the Duan prefecture in China, are known as volcanic tuff. The rock formation from this place produces fine surface, perfect for ink rubbing. The ink-stones were made of rocks from the lower part of the mountains. These mines, opened since the 7th C. onward, are no longer active. Therefore making these ink-stones highly sought after collector’s items.

A well sough after Japanese ink-stone is the akame ink-stone, known to be produced since the 11th C. in Japan, at the Yamaguchi prefecture. The stone allows for smooth and fine ink with excellent texture. Akama stones, contains large amount of quartz and iron, making it easy to carve on. And so ornamental design and lids are often made for these ink-stones.

Another well known ink-stone is the ogatsu ink-stone, made in Miyagi prefecture in Japan. Its colour is beautiful smoky black, made of hard slate, which is known for its texture and low water absorption. The traditional crafts of making ogatsu ink-stone dated back to the 14th. C. and it is still active today.

Japanese paper - 紙 washi

Japanese paper, known as washi, is a fine yet strong, hand made material made from the bark of mainly mulberry bush. Because of its unique qualities, painting with ink on washi can creates beautiful variance shades of blacks and translucencies, ranging from soft greys to deep black. It is one of the ‘four treasures’ materials, which together with the ink, ink stone and brush, have been making ink painting a powerful spirited and sublime practice at the same time.

Washi was first known to be made in 105 AD by a Chinese official, and introduced to Japan in 610 AD by a Korean Buddhist monk. The process of paper making in Japan has been refined throughout the years, to a most sophisticated high level production, with over 230 types of paper made at the hight of this hand made industry. Today only few hundred families still making paper in this unique tradition.

What is Japanese paper made of?

Washi is made from the barks of various shrubs. In a process of steaming, or long wetting time it is transformed into fibre used to create fine paper.

The most common bark used for paper, is from the bark of mulberry (broussonetia), known as - kozo. This plant has been growing in the wild for centuries in Japan. It takes two to three years for the bark of the kozo to mature enough to be used for paper making. Harvesting occurs in late fall or early winter after the leaves have dropped. Shoots are cut near the base of the plant and are tied into bundles that can weigh over forty-five pounds.

A second type is - mitsumata - known as Oriental Paperbush (edgeworthia chrysantha) typically cultivated on hillsides, interspersed with Japanese cedars and cypress trees. It is harvested in much the same way as kozo, except the tied bundles are often placed in rivers after harvesting to preserve freshness. Mitsumata produces fibres that are soft, absorbent, and insect resistant. It is often used in combination with other fibres. Pure mitsumata produces fine writing paper. The highest quality fibres are used in making paper that Japanese bank notes are printed on.

The third type is - gampi - which is harvested in spring, when the plant is saturated with water and sap. Gampi can neither be steamed like kozo or mitsumata, nor cultivated with much success. Gampi plant grows in the wild and its extremely tough, long fibres, must be harvested from February to May. The naturally damp-resistant and insect-resistant fibres are excellent for making long-lasting paper. The slick, lustrous paper makes a distinct crackling sound when handled.

The scarcity of gampi fibres and the high quality of the product makes it a rare and expensive paper. It is often used as calligraphy paper or in the pounding of gold leaf.

Types of paper

There are two main types of paper used in ink painting. One is raw paper, slightly rough texture and soft. This paper is absorbent and will react with the ink and water. The second type is sized paper, which has a layer of alum solution coat, making it non absorbent and resisting ink and colour. It usually has a smooth and fine surface texture.

Unsized paper was loved by Zen monks and artists as it reacts well to free style painting and calligraphy. It echo the bold, free brush strokes and requires an experienced usage of ink and brush. The raw paper will reflect variety shades of ink fine hues and colours.

Sized paper was used as early as the 10th Century in Japan, by poets and artists, for poetry and story telling scrolls. The paper was used for detailed artwork and fine sutra copying and decoration. The ink ‘sits’ on the surface of the paper, and will not ‘run’ on the paper. It is used today for delicate line work, especially with figures and fine landscape.

There are additional varieties of absorbency grades and textured paper, including semi-sized paper, where depending on the artist’s subject and desired effect, the paper is chosen.

Format, Size, Texture and Sound of paper

Paper can be found in three main formats. As individual sheets of different sizes, where the common largest sheet size is 69 x 137 cm. As rolled paper, which can come in variety of sizes, such as 34 x 69 cm and 46 x 69 cm and can be rolled for few meters. And third, paper which is already mounted on cardboard, ready to paint on, known as shikishi.

Handmade Japanese paper, despite its delicate feel is very strong and supple. It has one smooth side and the other slightly rough. Painting is done on the smooth side, for good absorption effect. The rough side is used for the mounting of finished artwork on a backing paper.

You will also find that paper comes in different thicknesses. This reflects the making process and does not necessarily relate to the actual strength of the paper. You may choose different thickness according to the way you wish to present your artwork. If you want to mount the painting, a thinner paper is preferred. If you wish to frame it in the western style then you may wish to work on a thicker paper, where you may not need to mount it.

Paper has different crackling sounds when handled. Get used to listen to that sounds and begin to recognise different quality of paper according to its sound.

Getting your own set

As an ink practitioner, you will discover in time, your own preferred brushes, size of paper and inks you enjoy working with and create your own set. As a beginner, you may wish to try a beginner’s set. See below recommended sources in the U.K. and the U.S.

If you are drawn to keep working in this medium, you may want to invest in a good quality set to last you a lifetime.

ArtBrush comprehensive Sets - curated by Talia - Made in Japan

U.K. Sources - Recommended for beginners - Affiliate with Jackson’s Art Supply


Paper Pads 24x32cm 20 sheets

Papaer Pads  30x40cm 20 sheets


If you want to grind your own ink -


Traveler Box Set I - Made in Japan. Ink stick, ink stone, one fine brush, water dropper, in a beautiful wooden box. You will still need another large / medium brush to add to your painting set.

Traveller Box Set II - Made in Japan. Ink stick, ink stone, two fine brushes, water dropper, in a wooden box. You will still need another large / medium brush to add to your painting set.


Ceramic Flower - For mixing colours

Brush Mat - A natural bamboo case to keep your brushes


Watercolour Set of 12 Colours

Watercolour Set of 18 Colours

Watercolour Set of 24 Colours

U.S. Sources - Recommended for beginners - Affiliate with Jackson’s Art Supply


Paper Pads  24x32cm 20 sheets

Papaer Pads  30x40cm 20 sheets


If you want to grind your own ink -


Traveler Box Set I - Made in Japan. Ink stick, ink stone, one fine brush, water dropper, in a beautiful wooden box. You will still need another large / medium brush to add to your painting set.

Traveller Box Set II   - Made in Japan. Ink stick, ink stone, two fine brushes, water dropper, in a wooden box. You will still need another large / medium brush to add to your painting set.


Ceramic Flower  - For mixing colours

Brush Mat - A natural bamboo case to keep your brushes


Watercolour Set of 12 Colours

Watercolour Set of 18 Colours

Watercolour Set of 24 Colours

To read further comprehensive essays on the Ink artist tools-set and for a list of quality tool-sets sources - check out ArtBrush Library

Find out your favourite Japanese ink painting courses with ArtBrush Online HERE

** First image is by Katsushika Hokusai -A surimono for the year of the horse 1822

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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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