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.