Something about Sumo: figure painting

There oughta’ be a term, I say. Flemish painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ love for painting voluptuous, full-figured women gave us ‘Rubenesque’, but there seems to be no equivalent for big-bodied male subjects of paintings. I can see a need.

In CBP, figure painting is a category unto itself. And a part of that seems to be depictions of partially clad, over-sized male musculature. To be clear, I’m not referring to Japanese erotic art, although that seems to have a sizable audience on its own. My artistic eye is drawn to the Oriental paintings of Japanese sumo wrestlers such as these two which are prompted by a simple Google search:

JapaneseSumos  kesho mawashi

Trial of strength

Contrary to common misconceptions about sumo wrestlers, there are powerful, athletic bodies masked under the weighty appearances. With the aim of toppling an opponent by sheer strength, wrestlers rely on weight as an advantage. Unlike boxing and western forms of wrestling, there are no weight classes in sumo.

Sumo got its start well over 2000 years ago, when hand-to-hand combat among Asian warring groups was still the norm. From war fronts to imperial palaces, individual contests evolved into entertainment. Today it ranks among other ‘martial arts’ (aikido, karate, tae kwando, judo, etc.) as a mix of tradition, courtesy, ritual, sport, and entertainment. Some maintain sumo is Japan’s national sport, although I can find no official confirmation.

Oddly enough, a young man from my current hometown (Victoria BC) was also attracted to sumo wrestling some years ago, and started learning what he could from Youtube videos and other Internet research. Today, that dedicated and hard-working young man (Brodi Henderson) is part of a sumo ‘stable’ in Japan and he holds his own in competitions. And yes, his long blond hair does set him apart from his cohorts.

Sumo in art

I do feel a kinship for Brodi; much of what I’ve learned about sumo has also come from the Internet. Here’s one of the sites I consulted, which describes many of the rituals and customs associated with sumo.

Several of my fellow brush painters have traveled to Japan and China on art tours; one was able to attend a sumo match and provided first hand information. Judy described elaborate costumes on judges and referees, endless minutes of posturing and ritualistic greetings, breathing, staring or glaring and so on, before a sudden burst of interaction, and then….one guy was down on the mat and the match had ended. She said if you weren’t paying close attention, you could miss the true highlight, the two sumos engaged.

But for me, the attraction is in the male counterparts to Rubens’ women. They were portrayed as ‘pleasingly plump’ with sensuous curves and many rounded shapes. To a brush painter, multiple contours and rounded shapes that interlock or converge, counterpoint or contrast, provide considerable intrigue.  Then there’s the challenge of deciding just where to drop a dot or little curve to portray a beefy arm, leg or other body part.  (Truth be told, as a grandmother with a couple of toddlers who live nearby I have a life studio in my own living room whenever I want–the chubby limbs, dimpled elbows and creases behind the knees are very sumo-like.)

My major inspiration initially was The Hokusai Sketchbook, Selections from the Manga by James A. Michener. It has several pages with sketches of sumo wrestlers. (See below)  No doubt Hokusai filled many more scrolls in similar fashion, as he found the human form endlessly fascinating.   Again, it’s the placement of dots and little curvy lines that contribute most to nuance and individuality in his work.   In addition, I  have several drawing books that address  hands and feet, and of course the Mustard Seed Garden Manual has pages on the human figure.


A page from Hokusai’s sketches offers endless inspirations.

Sumo sport details

Not knowing what the sport entailed in terms of dress (not much of course, but nevertheless I wanted to be authentic!) or context, I thought some research was in order.

Starting with the contestants, they are indeed robust and well-muscled individuals, called rikishi. And other than our own Brodi Henderson, they are oriental-looking men with dark hair often coifed in topknots of the old Edo style, wearing traditional Japanese dress in public, and living very regimented lives in ‘stables’ or ‘barns’ with other like-minded athletes.

In competition they do wear only a loincloth (mawashi) which consists of a long piece of cloth folded and wrapped strategically.

Hokusai’s sketches depict the donning of such a cloth, and also show some participants wearing the more elaborate costumes featuring a long panel hanging apron-like from their waists. He also shows some of them with stiffened silk fronds (sagari) hanging from their waists; these items seem to play a role similar to ‘flags’ in flag football played across North America.  On that last site linked to mawashi  is this helpful image:


The old-time dangling silk fronds–sagari–are worn by a modern wrestler.

And yes, I also checked to see if there was any shred of truth to the oft-mentioned detail that sumos practice from an early age to ‘withdraw’ their testicles in some mysterious way up into a body cavity, for obvious reasons.

The answer is no. They do of course carefully pack the equipment with that great length of loin cloth, with the help of at least two attendants, AND there are rules forbidding nasty groin hits in an ethical match-up. Perhaps centuries ago such ethics did not apply when sumo was performed in the Imperial Palace. I can’t help but wonder if the modern sumo hasn’t discovered the jockstrap.

Many wrestlers weigh as much as 150 kilograms (330 pounds). In order to become this big, the average sumo wrestler eats up to 20,000 calories per day – about 10 times what an average adult needs! Hence the reason for communal living where diet can be monitored, along with other activities.

This site has details of the pre-contest posturing friend Judy described. (Scroll down on that page to see several illustrations in simple line art.)  There are standing rituals and pledging rituals, all of which are performed in unison as a match begins.  I can now see that Hokusai had fun in depicting such rituals; some of his sketches have contestants engaged in some leg-grappling that looks like upright “Indian leg wrestling” as well as squaring off rump to rump, obvious parodies of what does transpire.  Some of his fun sketches:

sumosHokusai sumosHokusai2

The ring is traditionally laid out to certain specifics—cloth markers define a perimeter in a circular form (representing infinity). There are a set number of referees and one judge who determines a winner. These fellows also cut fine figures in traditional dress, all very colorful and no doubt rich in symbolism.

The sumos engage in a numerous ritualistic ‘moves’ before attempting a take-down, and those take-downs all have names and set holds or methods. Pages showing those moves are most enlightening for an artist wanting to accurately pose her figures.


images of sumo holds, legal and illegal, can be found online, but sorting out body parts is challenging.

Overall, rules of the sport are quite simple—you force an opponent outside the ring or to touch the ground with a body part other than the soles of the feet, OR you foolishly lose the ONLY item of clothing you’re wearing, and you LOSE the match. (Do note that until recently Japanese attitudes toward public nudity were not as we know them in North America; a dropped mawashi would mean it wasn’t wrapped and tied properly but instead loosely wrapped to prevent an opponent from gaining a firm grip and hence better chance at toppling you. A lost mawashi likely meant some illegal actions had transpired. The resulting nudity would not be a concern.)

Painting strategy reviewed:

Previously in posts on figure painting I have described the basic approach, which is as follows:

  1. Use a soft detail brush with light ink to quickly outline a figure.
  2. Go over with dark ink on a dry brush, stroking all lines on the same side of the outlines. Use “thick and thin’ lines to convey dimensions. Let dry.
  3. Mix a little indigo with colors and fill in clothing areas with medium/light washes using quick strokes. Don’t work to color areas completely as some white splashes enhance the ‘spontaneous’ look.
  4. For skin tone use burnt sienna and yellow; be careful NOT to paint flesh too yellow.
  5. Lightly suggest the ground/floor at the base of your figure.

My sumo studies:

From my sumo research I recognized an abundance of compositional possibilities—figures lounging/sleeping or ‘working out’ in the stables, figures facing off in the rituals of standing/greeting poses, any of the MANY take-down holds, or any figure in the different costumes. I could attempt to emulate Hokusai’s humorous scenarios.

Overall, I wanted to work on showing the splendid curvy shapes of muscles straining to topple an opponent.  I had a large, horizontally-oriented frame to fill and challenged myself to creating a series of vignettes of sumos that would look somewhat like a storyboard.

For the first vignette I considered sketching a sumo in the style of old Edo; subsequently he looked too out of place with the others, so I revisited a sketch previously done showing a sumo being assisted into his mawashi.  I had discarded the image, thinking one fellow was too long in the torso.  I pinched out some of the length and reconsidered it.


Maybe okay on his own, but he doesn’t fit with the others.


Man on the left looks too long in the torso.



Will go with this vignette; must sort out the lines depicting arms of the fellow behind. As is, his closer arm is too long OR his hold on the cloth should more clearly be above the other guy’s elbow.

For the second vignette, I planned two sumos engaged in greeting or pledging rituals with the referee nearby.  The referee seems to carry two objects (a fan in his right hand with a cord that leads to something in his left hand) but I wasn’t sure if the second object was a bell or not, and giving him a raised hand enhanced the sense of interaction among the three men.  Initially I had the ref planned for the third vignette, but there he was standing near two grappling wrestlers and having all three upright was not as interesting as having him standing beside two squatting sumos.


For the third scenario my first choice was two wrestlers grappling. Now that was a challenge!  Hokusai showed several such engagements, and the sheets I found online documented dozens of legal ‘holds’ as well as some illegal ones.  My choices were endless, but once I started sorting out various body parts, things got confusing.  I considered several of Hokusai’s parodies:


The wrestlers are apart, and the ref’s clothing, although authentic, looks too weird.


These two fellows were more engaged but I had trouble with proportions, so scrapped them.


I liked a frontal view of a sumo stamping his feet at the start of a match; I suspect it is intended to intimidate an opponent.

In the final vignette I planned to show a victorious sumo and initially worked up this sketch:


When I laid out my four scenarios and considered how to unite them, I saw that the haughty fellow being dressed in the beginning would stay on the left through scenarios two and three, and that he would be the logical loser in scenario four.  At that point I had an epiphany of sorts; giving the victor a striking blond mane of hair (and depicting him as such in the scenes one, two and three of course) would pay tribute to local boy-wonder Brodi Henderson! He’s a winner in my heart for sure.


For balance among my scenarios the fourth one needed ‘something more’, so I brought back the ref. He may have to remain hovering without full detailing of his legs and feet. If finished to proper proportion his feet would be under the wrestler. I plead ‘artistic license’.

I now have four scenes to guide me in completing a sumo storyboard, but want to take some time to practice hand and feet before tackling the full panel.

Last thoughts:

Sumo-esque’ would seem to be the logical counterpart to ‘rubenesque’. But somehow it doesn’t have quite the same cachet.  I hunted for synonyms to the colloquial ‘hunk’, but none of those had quite the right ring either (strapping, beefy, brawny, hefty, portly, muscular, bruising, stocky, stout, burly, strong, sturdy, thickset, well-built).  The link provided earlier to the Wikipedia listing for rikishi  has some Japanese terms for different levels of achievement among sumos, but one would need to hear the words in Japanese before opting for any variations on those.  Perhaps a word will come to me if I work on what really matters at the moment, getting those curvy shapes just right and planting dots where they belong.








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