Chinese brush painting is Chinese culture made material

Every material and immaterial expression of a culture embodies and communicates the values of that culture.  We can begin to understand and appreciate Chinese brush painting - an important part of classical Chinese material culture - by examining the ways in which it incorporates the values found within Taoism and Confucianism.   Brush painting fuses these two philosophies, harmonizing and reconciling them.  Brush painting is at once bound by rules and also requires freedom and imagination; it captures the naturalistic world through expressing an idealistic world-view; it is firmly rooted in tradition yet must be original to each artist.

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Taoism contributed to the painters’ world view by emphasizing that there is a spirit, a moving power which is part of all objects and gives them their identity. This animating energy is called “ch’I” or “qi” - the aliveness or life breath that is in everything.   A brush painting must manifest this spirit.   For example, to a Westerner, a rock is inanimate and inert; to the Chinese it is a living thing.  The manual of painting called The Mustard Seed Garden, published around 1700, describes how to paint rocks by saying that one would never paint a rock without ch’I. Without the vivifying spirit of ch’I  the rock would be dead, dry and bare.  Painting rocks with ch’I must be sought beyond the material and the tangible. The form of the rock must be clear in the painter’s heart and mind, and thus its expression lies within the artist. Classical Chinese brush painting relies on the painter’s mind to make manifest in material form the ultimate creative principle in the universe. By doing this, both painter and viewer are connected to this living force.    

Confucianism, on the other hand, was concerned with the here-and-now; it presented the basic principles which guided social order. Only through conformity to these principles, moderation, and inner strength, could social and personal chaos be avoided.  The Confucian ideal was cultivation of the higher self, resulting in the natural elegance of a learned and disciplined scholar who avoided commonness and vulgarity.   The Confucian-trained painter was well-read and well-traveled, able to gain the wisdom of the ancients through extensive learning and diligently following the tried and true rules.   Painters were scholars, part of the state-supported intellectual aristocracy which embodied the best of Chinese civilization. At the same time they were enjoined to be humble, free from craving for personal fame.  They said much with very little, seemingly effortless in exercising their art. They were “ama-teurs”, painting for love of the activity and what it meant, not for commerce.  Within themselves, the scholar artist reconciled contradictory values: they were celebrated for being spontaneous and eccentric, expressing a personal character, but they had to do so without straying outside the traditional bounds of the cultivated gentleman. They were required to find their own style, but only after exploring all the styles which had come before. The scholar-painter represented a harmonizing of freedom and tradition, furthering the stability of the state without letting it become static. Scholars learned about and furthered the Confucian virtues by studying the paintings of those who had come before them and producing their own contemporary versions which would, in turn, be studied by those who came after them.  

These comments were inspired by the basic text of Chinese brush painting available to us today, The Mustard Seed Garden (1700), and by Principles of Chinese Painting by George Rowley (1974).


Fu-Do, the Way of the Brush

The Japanese approach to brush painting is transformative, involving the following of a philosophical and spiritual path.  By following this path, the practitioner commits to self-cultivation, to achieving a higher and better self.  Learning brush painting is more than engaging in a hobby; it is more than simply trying something out, picking it up and dropping it again when inconvenient. Inspired by Shinto and Buddhism, brush painting is one of the traditional Japanese ways in which a person can learn a more inclusive, overarching understanding of the wholeness of all life.  Through following fu-do, the practitioner comes to recognize the union of mind and body, a united sense of self and the outside world, a communion between sentient and non-sentient beings.


Pursuing the art of the brush, the practitioner learns and incorporates in their life various cultural values, for example:

Ethics – how to relate to others and to the world, so as to develop a good character

Philosophy – how to live a worthwhile life

Religion – how to achieve a transcendent experience

Aesthetics – how to experience the natural harmony present in all things, the “chi” which is the essential energy infusing life

To achieve this learning requires a rigorous, dedicated, life-long commitment, called “shugyo”.  The study of and immersion in this and any other traditional Japanese art-form provides the experience of pursuing the most noble of aspirations. It is more than just learning the skills, the movements, the craft aspects.  While practitioners strive to be the best of the best in what they are studying, that goal is less important than the process of following the way.  Following the path of the brush with shugyo presents the individual with the possibility of releasing the “kami” nature, the divine potential which is in each of us.   

(This blog was inspired by the ideas expressed in The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation by Robert Edgar Carter – 2008)



The 4 Treasures

"Sumi" ink made from burning certain kinds of wood or oil to produce soot. Originally the soot was scraped off the sides of kilns which were used for making ceramics.  Today the soot is collected from glass or ceramic dishes.  Soot is compressed with animal glue to create an ink stick which is then aged. Burning different woods or oils produces different black colors with tinges of brown, blue or pure black. The goal of painting with sumi ink is to create paintings which, although in black and white, appear to be in color.  The ink, mixed with varying amounts of water, produce lines and forms which vary from deepest black to silvery gray.  Knowing how to control the “color” of the ink is crucial for producing a satisfying painting.

Ink stone or "suzuri"

These are usually made of natural stone but can also be made of ceramic. The stone must be porous, with a smooth surface for grinding. Some natural stones, such as "duan" stone, make outstanding and very valuable ink-stones that produce excellent ink when the ink-stick is ground with water on the flat surface of the ink stone. Stones are often valued for the type of rare stone used, and/or the carving which adorns them. Usually a stone used to prepare ink for calligraphy has a deep well, while the well on stones used for painting is much shallower.  Calligraphy uses more ink than painting.  Grinding the ink is a meditative process, taking anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. The process of grinding the ink stick in water against the ink-stone warms up the muscles of the hand and arm so it will be ready for the physical act of painting with the whole body.  Since painting requires absolute attention, the process of grinding also allows the painter to begin to separate from the everyday world, focusing the mind, relaxing and contemplating what is to be painted that day.


Once the ink-stick has been ground with water on the stone to create a dense black viscous liquid, it is applied to the paper with a brush. Both the sumi-ink painting brush and the calligraphy brush consist of a long, usually bamboo, handle and different kinds of animal hair. The hair is arranged in a circle extending from the end of the handle, and comes to a point. With painting brushes, often there are 2 or 3 different kinds of hair attached concentrically and tapered, with the stiffest hair creating the point in the center. Made of all-natural hair from different kinds of animals, this brush is remarkably resilient and expressive, serving as a direct extension of the painter's arm and hand. Some painters use different sized brushes – different in thickness and in length of bristles - to achieve different types of lines. Other painters become comfortable with their favorite brush and use it much of the time, varying the line by varying the amount of water and ink used. Different kinds of brushes with different types and lengths of animal hair are used for different subjects. Flowers want a slightly softer brush, bamboo wants a springier brush, landscape wants a stiffer but highly expressive brush, washes want longer bristles, and so on.  But always, the character of the line on the paper reveals the character of the painter and the quality of their state of mind.

Rice paper, sometimes also called "washi"

This is paper made from the inner parts of the rice plant, hemp, bamboo, or most commonly, the bark of the mulberry tree. It is highly fibrous and usually lightly sized on one side using alum. It is very thin, yet very strong. When sumi-ink is applied, the fibers grab the ink so that each stroke is permanent and cannot be erased or covered over. There are different thicknesses and fibrousness of paper which interact with the ink and the water in different ways to produce varying effects. Fine line painting prefers sized paper; landscape painting with its washes prefers less sized paper made from longer fibers that can hold more water without breaking down.   Because the paper is highly fibrous and reactive, once the ink is laid down in a stroke, it cannot be erased or painted over. The less experienced painter is often highly tentative, worrying about making mistakes. The more experienced and more highly trained painter has confidence, moving the loaded brush along the paper with energy. The partnership between painter and paper mediated by ink-loaded brush makes for a lively and energized painting which doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be deeply expressive and satisfying.

Each of these items, plus many more, are part of the accoutrements of the scholar and have been collected over centuries to make up the scholar’s studio.


What is a sumi-e? What is a brush painting?

“Sumi” is the Japanese word for a particular kind of black ink. The ink is actually made by collecting soot from burning certain types of wood or oil, mixing the soot with natural glue, and compressing it into a stick. The stick is ground in water against a hard stone surface, creating a rich black ink.  “E” is the Japanese word for “painting”.  A sumi-e is thus a painting made with soot-based, ground black ink. In Chinese this type of painting is called “guohua”  - national or native painting - as opposed to Western style painting.  Today, the word “sumi-e” or “sumi-ink brush painting” refers to paintings using soot-based ink, applied onto fibrous paper using a flexible pointed animal-hair brush.  

Sumi-ink brush painting is more than ink-brush-paper. It is painting which uses techniques developed over many centuries in China, Japan, Korea, parts of Vietnam, and parts of Malaysia. These techniques take many years and much inner discipline to master. They involve using ink tones ranging from deep black to barely visible silvery gray. The tones are produced by mixing the intense black ink with different amounts of water, producing strokes from wet to dry and thin to thick, plus producing washes.  The techniques also include mastering a number of specific types of strokes, some with quite imaginative names like “hemp stroke” or “axe cut stroke”.  The ability to manage the long-haired pointed brush is key.  The brush is flexible and expressive and capable of producing lines and forms which no Western-style brush can approximate, but it has a mind of its own and taming it takes a lifetime. Then there are the compositional elements which are to be mastered. Usually Western ideas of depth or vanishing-point perspective are not adhered to; shading to produce depth is also not particularly used.  Instead, Asian notions of nature and humans and their relationship infuse the composition.

Because brush-painting derives from Chinese calligraphy, the quality of the stroke is of the greatest importance. The quality of the painter’s character is visible in the quality of the stroke.   The idea is to capture and portray the essence of the thing being painted, not in a realistic way but in a way which is alive and genuine.  Capturing “chi” or “ki” is very important: a painting must be alive, filled with and expressing the energy of the real world. Thus, becoming a sumi-ink brush painter involves being immersed in philosophy, religion, history of art and culture, as well as almost endless technical challenges. It requires a depth of patience and personal commitment to learning the disciplined way of the brush, resulting in a refinement of spirit, and harmony with nature.   When this process is realized, the result is a sumi-ink brush painting.

The Nature of Brush Painting

Sumi-ink brush painting captures the essence of its subject. For example, it is a good thing to paint a grasshopper that looks like a grasshopper; however, realism is unnecessary if you want a painting that conveys grasshopper-ness. To convey the essence of object and experience, the painter must capture the significant physical and experiential qualities. The grasshopper has strong back legs that are long and muscled; these enable it to jump long distances. The grasshopper has searchingly inquisitive feelers that reach out and up, quivering for information about the world. If the painting has these two pieces of information, it has captured grasshopper-ness. It "works"!

Brush painting doesn't seek to imitate or master nature. A brush painting is the vehicle by which the painter and the viewer seek harmony with nature. To achieve a satisfying aesthetic and emotional result, the brush painter commits to reconciling freedom, structure and skill. Freedom without structure and technique is meaningless and chaotic; structure and skill without freedom is constricting and lifeless. The proper balance of all three is the key to a successful painting.

Sumi ink brush painting requires mastery of technique and rules of composition. If a painter doesn't know all the many complex and subtle ways to use the ink, brush, water and paper, they cannot effectively paint. These techniques take a lifetime to master. There are no short-cuts. On the other hand, technique is nothing without "chi”: spirit and energy. The expression of a truthful spirit takes no time to master. It is immediately possible and available to anyone, given the right circumstances. A successful painter is one who combines both technique and spirit. Successful sumi painting communicates the heart of a place or object. It consists of a confidently expressive line, the range of possibilities inherent in the brush, paper, ink and water, and follows the rules of Asian-art composition.

When viewing a sumi ink painting, if it does not elicit a smile of pleasure, a nod of recognition, a sigh of contentment, walk away because you are wasting your time. All art is truth. Sumi-e is especially this way because it is so simple and yet contains within its contours the whole world of experience. Above all, avoid the decorative, the facile, the static image. Life is too short to punish yourself by looking at work that is less than it could be.

Sumi ink painting might look simple; that is its deceptive magic. Spend time with a fine sumi-e. Allow it to draw you in and you will find yourself amply rewarded.