Japanese Ink Painting: A Monochrome World of Art and Philosophy

Calligraphy and ink painting are intrinsic parts of traditional Japanese culture, with histories spanning thousands of years tracing back to ancient China. For this edition of our “Culture of Japan” series, we joined a Japanese ink painting class with Wabunka, a tour company who promotes traditional Japanese culture, in a quiet neighborhood near Tokyo’s trendy Omotesando. If you’re keen to try the time-honored art of Japanese ink painting for yourself, read this article for the basics before diving in!

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The Difference Between Japanese and Chinese Ink Paintings

The history of Chinese ink painting stretches back more than 3,000 years. It was introduced to Japan from China in 1185 during the Kamakura Period, and has been evolving ever since. Chinese ink painting is characterized by sharp outlines, while Japanese ink painting, called “sumie,” emphasizes color gradients and blurred strokes. Researchers have speculated that this came about due to Chinese artists using hard water (high in minerals) for their works, while Japanese artists work with soft water (low in minerals), resulting in the gradation that some have called the “life” of Japanese ink paintings.

In Japan, the artist's way of thinking and concept of beauty dictates the finished piece, which should be simple, to the point, and not too realistic. A lot can be learned about an artist by studying their work, including their personality and views on life. Every picture is a gateway to a small universe.

The Basics of Japanese Ink Painting

The Brushes

In Japan, the central bristles of calligraphy brushes are made from hard animal hair. These are surrounded by soft fibers such as wool, making it possible to paint both thick, thin, and sharp lines. In contrast, brushes for ink painting contain almost no hard hair, and are divided into several types with individual uses. You’ll generally need a variety of brushes to create an authentic Japanese ink painting.

The Ink

Calligraphy and ink paintings use the same kind of ink, which comes in two basic types: burnt pine (shouenboku) and soot (yuenboku). As the name suggests, the former is made from pine trees and has a matte appearance, while the latter is made by burning vegetable or animal oil to produce soot, yielding a black and shiny ink. The Rimpa Sumie Heritage Club, a group of ink painting experts that we visited for this article, uses a special high-grade burnt pine ink produced by Kishu Shoen in Wakayama Prefecture, who are one of the few remaining ink makers in Japan.

Creating Different Shades

Shading is a core element of Japanese ink painting. It can be achieved by rubbing an inkstick into an inkstone well with a small amount of water to make black ink, and then adding two or three drops of this ink into a mixing dish with a little water to produce shades of gray.

When making ink, all movements should be slow, giving you time to relish the relaxing fragrances. I practiced calligraphy as a child, but I’d always try to speed through the ink-making process, or opt for ready-made ink to save time. But upon picking it up again as an adult, I now see it as an opportunity to quiet the mind and enjoy a few moments of peace amidst my busy life.

We Joined a Japanese Ink Painting Class in Tokyo!

For a hands-on experience with Japanese ink painting, we visited the Rimpa Sumie Heritage Club in Omotesando, Tokyo. The teacher, Tomoko Sase, is an expert in the artform, and she grew up surrounded by calligraphy and other traditional Japanese art, and taught herself ink painting before coming under the tutelage of the 6th-generation master of the Edo Rimpa style. Tomoko also had a stint teaching in America, which inspired her to try passing on traditional Japanese art in a casual manner that all can enjoy. She founded the Rimpa Sumie Heritage Club after returning to Japan with this goal in mind, and it is now in its 9th year.

Our Japanese ink painting class started with a lecture from Tomoko on the artform’s history and tools, including the brushes, inksticks, paper, and inkstones. The brushes we used were made from a mixture of black and white bristles, with the white being the highly-absorbent wool, and the black taken from other animal hair. These mixed-hair brushes are able to paint both thin and thick lines, and it’s easier to adjust the moisture content to draw beautiful color gradients. With these in hand, you can complete an entire ink painting with just one brush, making it a good choice for beginners.

First, we dipped our brushes in clean water, and used a rag to wipe off the excess moisture. The “right” amount of water depends on your preference and the subject of the painting, so it may take a bit before you find a level that suits. Next, to add tone gradations to our work, we placed our brushes in the gray ink mix, and then in the black.

If your brush is too wet or hasn’t got enough ink, the lines will end up a very light gray, as seen in images 1 and 3 above. If you put too much ink on the brush, the lines will be super dark, like in image 2. Image 4 is what you should be aiming forーdon’t hesitate to experiment with practice lines to get the ratio right!

Ink Painting Subject 1: Bamboo

The first subject of our ink painting class was bamboo, which teaches students the eight Japanese ink painting techniques. These include the “straight stroke,” which uses the tip of the brush, or “side stroke” to make a wide color gradient with the side of the brush. Painting bamboo is a common way to practice technique, and once you master it, other subjects won’t be as difficult.

First, paint one section of the bamboo starting from the lower left corner moving towards the upper right corner using the side stroke. Stop and let the ink blot the paper to mark the end of the first section of bamboo. Paint the second section, and then the final section with a flick of the brush to make the bamboo appear taller. If you get the angle right, it should appear like you’re looking up towards a tall piece of bamboo.

As I continued onto the leaves, I suddenly realized that while I’d seen bamboo countless times before, I’d never actually paid attention to how its branches or leaves grew. I felt flustered and lost, but it also made me see that, along with being an artform, Japanese ink painting is just as much a time to reflect upon and organize your thoughts, offering valuable insight into how you view the world.

As Japanese ink paintings are limited to black, gray, and white paper, it's vital to think carefully about how to use each tone to create depth. Preliminary sketches are not a thing in ink painting, and it’s impossible to predict how the ink will bleed, so there are countless possibilities for the end result, and even a master is incapable of replicating a painting.

My first attempt at Japanese ink painting was a total disaster, with too much water on the brush, not enough black ink, and so much force that I ended up tearing the paper! But everything starts with a first step, and failure is just another name for experience. Instead of trying to be perfect, I focused on enjoying the process, and I felt content in knowing that my skills would get better gradually with practice.

Ink Painting Subject 2: Enso Circles

Our second subject was “enso,” which are circles painted in a single stroke. With a connected head and tail, enso are used in Zen calligraphy to represent the beginning/end, eternity, the cycle of life, and the notion of everything existing within and outside their boundaries. Despite their simplicity, enso have multiple layers of meaning.

As Tomoko explained, there are no rules for painting enso circles, and they can be placed wherever you like. However, to fully appreciate the exercise, you must compose yourself, clear the mind, and paint clockwise while maintaining a consistent stroke that lasts about one minute. While a minute to paint a circle may sound like a long time, I concentrated and thought about the truths of the world, and found it to be a relaxing and enlightening experience.

Enso can be painted in whatever way you see fitーlike starting from the top or bottom, with black or clear lines, blurred or hard, and more. The finished circle always varies from person to person, and it’s fun to compare the different interpretations. Enso are a pleasant way to clear the mind, and we all agreed that it’s worth joining the workshop or buying your own ink painting set just to paint them alone!

After the class, we chatted with Tomoko over tea and snacks and learnt more about her fascinating life. Tomoko has been practicing Japanese art ever since she was little, and her elegant and refined demeanor is a pleasure to behold. She has a lot of life experience, including living abroad in America, and a wealth of philosophies that she’s happy to share. Thanks to Tomoko’s teachings, we finished the day not only enjoying a new form of art, but expanding our minds.

If you’re interested in Japanese ink painting and want to practice it at home, the Rimpa Sumie Heritage Club sells everything you need to get started, including brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones. Be sure to pop in while traveling Tokyo to experience this wonderful culture for yourself!

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About Wabunka

We booked the experience introduced above through the Wabunka website. On this site, you can find a variety of Japanese cultural experiences such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, sushi, Japanese confections, and “kintsugi” (repairing broken dishes with gold), and more that are available for international tourists and offered in English. If you are looking for an exceptional and authentic Japanese cultural experience, check out the options at Wabunka!

Website (English): https://otonami.jp/wabunka?ref=mtonjmpr


*The experience introduced in this article was provided for free by Wabunka, but all opinions expressed in the article are the writer's own.

Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Ying Lu
From Taiwan, but now living in Tokyo. Deep into various subcultures, including all things 2D and live gigs. Often frequents Ikebukuro.
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