I am making no attempt to practice traditional Japanese or Chinese painting techniques. A Zen Buddhist monk brought Sumi to Japan in 1333. Zen Buddhists Priests used Sumi in their teaching and religion. Early Sumi painters were trained in Zen Monasteries. Very prescribed forms and symbolism developed and a very specific way of grinding the ink, holding the brushes, and working with the brushes was used to paint these certain images such as orchids, bamboo, plum blossoms, and chrysanthemum. The artists strove for improvement in their own lives, believing it showed in their paintings. Much patience was required to capture the life spirit, balance the forces, and practice both vitality and restraint.
Though I did not consciously study traditional sumi art or techniques, the very nature of what I was doing became like those works, though for me they were just my experience. First I chose Japanese paper Sumi-e, Kozo roll of 18 X 30 inch paper, a pad of 48 sheets of Hosho. I ordered the finest Sumi ink made from all natural ingredients promising a range of cool tones from deep black to soft gray and promising not to dry shiny. I ordered a Nyosui Sumi brush. I have long been a practitioner of ink washes alone and in combination with charcoal and pen and ink and Chinese white. This was to be my first experience with Sumi.
I made these works during the month of July while a resident at the Montana Artists Refuge in Basin, Montana. I am grateful for the creative research grant that I received from Central Michigan University to do this artwork in the mountains. I began with the small tablet. I had my supplies in my backpack and I simply walked out somewhere in the mountains until I saw what I thought was it and then I sat down and made my sumi painting. It took all my concentration and I couldn’t control it and the experience was love at first act. From the beginning I did two a day. My day was not complete without it and the time I did it made me feel whole. I put them up on my wall and they began to become a group. Then one day it rained and I thought I want to try my verticals. I worked on them first on a long table but then I pinned them on the wall and slipped a pad under where I would work and taped it to the wall to keep ink from coloring the wall. Using this approach, I could get enough distance to see what I was doing. I had to stand on a chair or stoop down to work.
I had discovered a beautiful place up what the locals called Cataract Creek. The creek looked like giants had thrown giant boulders at random and the water had to run under and around and over them. Above that were vertical cliffs and above that trees going all directions cutting into the sky. It seemed infinity both horizontally and vertically. I began on the vertical roll trying to put in that space. I drew with the point of the brush striving for simplicity. I put varying amounts of water into the ink and painted in different values. The different values of grey are made by the amount of water in the ink. Traditional Sumis were seldom symmetrical. My compositions too were composed intuitively trying to make a whole yet balance the forms. I wanted the expressive power of the crashing water. The sound of the water was very important and I was relieved each time I was back there and I could hear it. I used atmospheric perspective by decreasing the clarity to give a sense of depth in the distance. I liked how more water changed the paper and the soft forms also seemed mystical. The vertical hangings have foreground, middle and background. Something was opening up for me with the contemplation and concentration and aloneness. I found the newsprint paper I had laid on the tables to protect them while I painted had become very beautiful from the ink that accidentally leaked on to it and I began to write poems. When I stopped making Sumis, there were no more poems. These papers are what remains of that precious time.
In the end I have continued my love of sumi ink and found the difficulty and concentration on nature and filtering that experience onto the Japanese papers produces unique works of art and personal growth.