Western Path to Learning Sumi-e Painting (part 1)

The art of painting and writing started in China and was then later adopted by Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Together they influenced the development of writing within all areas. The key trait which lead to this transparent form of influence were calligraphic characters themselves as they were also paintings/pictures/ideograms. So from childhood, one would learn to write characters that originally represented images. To write…. actually, to paint (because the tool for writing traditionally is a brush) these characters requires learning the use of the brush, the ink and also the strokes that compose them.
We see often four main subjects in oriental paintings. They are the Cherry tree with blossoms, Orchid, specifically a particular orchid that grows in the East, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum. Besides representing the four seasons, four elements and special gentlemen-like attributes, painting those subjects one would also need to use the strokes used in the calligraphy itself. As you can see there is a very fine line between oriental painting and writing.

In the East, learning to paint was primarily done by repetitive copying of the masters. Having already had a good knowledge of using the ink and the brush. By copying the masters, the student would not only learn the composition and structure but also attempt to understand and the state of the mind and the spirit of the master.

Through this repetitive copying, the student/artist would develop also a special kind of a flow/rhythm of painting and writing. This rhythm reflects in their artistic expression and can be observed in the successful paintings, as every element of the painting work in harmoniously together.

Now as a Westerner, without the background experience of the brush and ink writing, the aesthetics, and cultural background, how do we learn to paint in Sumi-e style and spirit? How can the Western student learn this, without the experiential knowledge of the strokes, the images, the subject matter….and I must emphasise also, without understanding the Eastern philosophical principals.

All the available classes and the books on teaching Sumi-e mainly focus on showing how to paint the patterns of these subjects. Most of the Sumi-e teachers have the Oriental background.Many do have that deep knowledge of the ink, the line and the rhythm inherently, but how can they actually transmit this to those from the totally different cultural background? As for the Western teachers of Sumi-e, many of them use the brush and the ink like watercolours, resulting in black watercolour paintings of oriental motives….
I will be taking from here in my next blog post, where I will be describing the method I use and will be using to teach in my upcoming online classes.
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