The elegant and esoteric form of calligraphic writing employed by ancient Chinese artists slowly evolved into a form of expression known as Shui-mo Hua, or the practice of using shading of light and dark pigments to produce detailed artistic works.
From the roots of the earliest forms of writing came the ancient art known as Chinese brush painting. During the Tang Dynasty, circa 620 A.D., ancient Chinese calligraphers used a bamboo brush tipped with wolf hair to produce their written characters. Black inks were produced using charcoal made from smoldering pine boughs.
The charcoal was crushed to a fine powder, mixed with fragrant resins to bind it together and packed into a tight mold to produce hardened tablets of solidified pigment. Often calligraphic characters and pictorial representations are found together and grace the pages of a book, a simple masterpiece in a frame or a wall mural.
Before the artist can begin to work on a project, the pigment must be prepared properly. Those who paint with the wash technique do not save their pigments or mix extra beyond what they plan to use. Thus, each project requires fresh materials prepared just before beginning to paint. A wet brush is held perfectly upright in the artist’s hand while using slow, circular motions to draw the pigment into the natural hair tip from the block of resin. The technique demands perfect form and concentration, creating a sort of working meditation that has the effect of calming and centering the artist as he or she prepares to work on a new project. In this way, a sense of focuses concentration is achieved that makes this form of expression a kind of meditative practice.
While sumi-e is traditionally represented by black ink on white paper, there is also a subset of Literati painting that utilizes soft colors, first perfected by the artist Wang Wei in the mid-eighth century A.D. Works can sometimes include a bright red seal that further exemplifies a concept the artist wishes to express, with the red color highlighting this idea and catching the attention of the audience. The artist might also use this device as a way to sign his or her work.
From China, this form of representation soon spread to the nearby countries of Japan and Korea. Sumi-e is the Japanese term for this form of expression, while in Korea it is known as “sumukhwa.”
The Four Treasures
The materials an artist uses to paint with are known as the Four Treasures. The pigments, whether black or a while range of colors, the stone used to mix the pigments, the wolf hair-tipped paintbrush and the proper type of paper all comprise these elements. The paper is especially important, as it cannot be too thick and absorbent, lest the pigment sink in and fail to create the appropriate lines the artist seeks to achieve, nor can it be too thin, causing the pigment to spread in too wide a line. Traditionally, a book with pages of rice paper has served to provide practitioners with the perfect medium for achieving the effect they desire.
Known euphemistically as the “Four Gentlemen,” the correct strokes used by the artist for achieving traditional lines encompass most of the technique used to produce a Literati work. Each stroke is named for an elegant and beautiful plant in nature; there are the chrysanthemum, bamboo, orchid and plum tree strokes. Each stroke is required to be mastered before a student can progress to the next level.
A tenet of ancient Chinese belief is the concept of “chi.” Thought of as a kind of life force of all living things, the concept of chi has been central to both Chinese medicine and also martial arts. Chi is a powerful force that empowers a practitioner of martial arts to accomplish great feats of strength or is the force that Chinese doctors have sought to balance in order to ensure good health.
In the artistic use of sumi-e, the artist seeks not to represent the outward form of a thing, but rather, to portray its very essence, exemplified by capturing its chi energy in a physical representation. In the interplay of black ink and white paper, the forces of yin and yang are also dramatically represented. Thus, some of the most integral concepts of Chinese philosophy are represented using these simple tools, natural ingredients and traditional strokes.
The ancient art of sumi-e, or ink wash painting, has been practiced by experts for more than a thousand years. This artistic technique utilizes pine pitch ink, rice paper, a natural hair brush and exacting techniques to produce works of expression that seek to capture the essence, or “chi,” of what the artist wishes to portray.