Sumi-e – Sumi

The secret of Sumi

Sumi is not ink. Ink is totalitarian. Sumi is subtle, Sumi is different and causes difference. Sumi is a way of painting with Sumi. In Japan Sumi is used many centuries and the great masters in painting are known by their work. Sumi reveals everything: every stroke, every action with the brush. When it has dried – you can reconstruct how the artist has worked. Henry P. Bowie, writes in his book: On the laws of Japanese Painting about Sumi. He says: “The use of sumi (YOBOKU) is the really distinguishing feature of Japanese painting. Not only is this black color (sumi) used in all water color work, but it is frequently the only color employed; and a painting thus executed, according to the laws of Japanese art, is called sumi e and is regarding as the highest test of the artist’s skill. Colors van cheat the eye (damakasu) but sumi never can; it proclaims the master and exposes the tyro. The terms “ study in black and white,” “India ink drawing” and the like, since all are only makeshift translations and misleading. The Chinese term “BOKUGWA” is the exact equivalent of sumi e and both mean and describe the same production. Ink is the very opposite of sumi both in its composition and effect. Ink is an acid and fluid. Sumi is a solid made from the soot obtained by burning certain plants (for the best results juncus communis, bull rush, or the sessamen orientalis), combined with glue from deer horn. This is molded into a black cake which, drying thoroughly if kept in ashes, improves with age.” (p. 39)

Colors can cheat the eye, especially oil paintings. Only with x-ray and so on you can discover how the artist has worked. Sumi shows directly every stroke of the brush. There is no chance for repair if a stroke failed. In my opinion is working with Sumi not only a big challenge for an artist but also the most difficult act in painting. Bowie writies about the use of Sumi: “In using sumi the cake is moistened and rubbed on a slab called suzuri, producing a semi-fluid. the well-cleaned brush is dipped first into clear water and then into the prepared sumi. When the sumi is taken on the brush it should be used without delay; otherwise it will mingle with the water of the brush and destroy the desired balance between the water and the sumi.” (p. 40-41)

In my work I discovered Sumi again after 25 years. It gives totally new possibilities to express the spirit of a landscape in black, white and grey tones. Painting fog on a mountain became a total new challenge working with Sumi. Painting rain and snow even so. Bowie also writes about this part of the painting: “A canon of Japanese Art which is at the base of one of the peculiar charms of Japanese pictures, not merely in the whole composition but also in minute details that might escape the attention at first glance, requires that there should be in every painting the sentiment of active and passive, light and shade. This is called IN YO and is based upon the principle of contrast for heightening effects. The term IN YO originated in the earliest doctrines of Chinese philosophy and has always existed in the art language of the Orient. It signifies darkness (IN) and light (YO), negative and positive, female and male, passive and active, lower and upper, even and odd. (…) The law of form, in art called KEISHO or KAKKO, is widely applied for determining not only the correct shape of things but also their suitable or proper presentation according to circumstances. (…) It regulates the shape that objects should take according to conditions surrounding them, whether seen near or far off, in mist or in rain or in snow, in motion of in repose.” (p. 49-50)

In the act of painting with Sumi total concentration is needed. Not only in the preparations before the painting itself, but also in choosing paper, brushes and the amount of Sumi. You first have to made some Sumi and when you want to paint big parts of a landscape you need more Sumi. When working in a mood and with the same spirit, it is not nice, when Sumi runs out and you have to stop to make new one. I’m attached to mountains and sees. I like to paint the sky, the clouds, fog, the rain and the snow. And all this weather conditions give the landscape an own mysterious face. Not everything is seen, much is suggested. Our brain fills in the missing parts. It came through Japanese painting that mountains and water became main subjects in my work. Bowie writes: “Landscapes are known in art by the term SAN SUI, which means mountain and water. This Chinese term would indicate that the artists of China considered both mountains and water to be essential to landscape subjects, and the tendency in a Japanese artist to introduce both into his painting is ever noticeable. If he cannot find the water elsewhere he takes it from the heavens in the shape of rain. (…) The landscape contains a lofty mountain, rocks, river, road, trees, bridge, man, animal, et cetera. The first requisite in such a composition is that the picture respond to the law of TEN CHI JIN, or heaven, earth and man. This wonderful law of Buddhism is said to pervade the universe and is of widest application to all the art of man. TEN CHI JIN means that whatever is worthy of contemplation must contain a principal subject, its complimentary adjunct,, and auxiliary details. Thus is the work rounded out to its perfection. This law of TEN CHI JIN applies not only to painting but to poetry (its elder sister), to architecture, to garden plans, as well as to flower arrangement; in fact, it is a universal, fundamental law of correct construction. “(p. 52-53)

It will stay for me a big challenge to give an answer with my paintings to the questions raised by working with Sumi. Working with Sumi shows not only every mistake, (= that is a wrong use of the brush, so that the spirit of the landscape is hidden, doesn’t come to expression), it shows also the state of mind you’re working in and your spiritual attachment to the subject. It is impossible to make a good painting without this concentration and this state of mind of total awareness of your actions. And last but not least you need the necessary skills to work with Sumi. I’m just a beginner, I discovered the charms of working with Sumi and I use it in different situations. I’m painting landscape with Sumi and landscapes where Sumi is just a little part of it. I didn’t stop to work with other colors. I Use Sumi for the background, the mountains in the distant. But more important for me is also the thinking about landscape painting in Japan, the inspiration in Japanese art and painting. Bowie writes about this the following words: “One of the most important principles in the art of Japanese painting – indeed, a fundamental and entirely distinctive characteristic – is that called living movement, SEI DO, or kokoro mochi, it being, so to say, the transfusion into the work of the felt nature of the thing to be painted by the artist. Whatever the subject to be translated – whether river or tree, rock or mountain, bird of flower, fish or animal – the artist at the moment of painting it must feel its very nature, which, by the magic of his art, he transfers into his work to remain forever, affecting all who see it with the same sensations he experienced when executing it. This is not an imaginary principle but a strictly enforced law of Japanese painting. The student is incessantly admonished to observe it.” (p. 77)

I try to do this in my painting in a very personal and subjective way: I’m inspired by old pictures, old touristic photos from an landscape in Germany, Italy, Austria. Or by photos I made on a holiday trip of the landscape in Limburg, Germany or Belgium. Of from the moors in our neighborhood. They are starting point for my painted landscapes. I differ in colors, I use also colors you can’t see in reality in the landscape. Many of the old photos are in black and white and Sumi fits with them in a special way. It deepens the expression, history become present. I call this kind of painting a semiotic way of handling our past. The landscape is a semiotic sign. The photo is a concentration of semiotic meaning. This whole process I call semiose: a way of giving meaning to painting, to history and to the role of the landscape in art. In my opinion heaven and earth become connected in the horizon. So in the process of semiose, a religious dimension is part of it. Painting the landscape becomes so a religious or spiritual act, where the object, or you may call it also the subject, has an own special meaning. The landscape is testifying. The landscape tells us something about the meaning of life. And painting this landscape is revealing some of this meaning.

John Hacking


Henry P. Bowie, On the laws of Japanese Painting. An introduction to the study of the art of Japan. With prefatory remarks by Iwaya Sazanami and Hirai Kinza, Toronto 1952 (Dover publications Inc.) (Republication of this work originally published by P. Elder and Company, San Francisco 1911).


Meer afbeeldingen van mijn werk: Saatchi – Behance