What’s in a line: sumi-e informs Chinese brush painting

Back in grade school I recall discovering the concept of infinity. We were challenged to consider how long one could make a line. Then in high school a teacher set us up with the trick of forming a paper loop (with a twist of course, which I now know is called a Mobius strip) and cutting, cutting, cutting…seemingly forever and never getting to ‘the end’.

I’ve been pondering the nature of lines these days.

Chinese brush painting is all about the ‘lines’ you make on paper. Even more so is Japanese ink painting, or sumi-e. The two kinds of painting do have similarities, but there are also subtle distinctions. Most sources I’ve looked at over the years contend the Chinese devised brush painting (with animal hair brushes, soot-based ink and fiber-based paper generically called rice paper) back in the Han dynasty (roughly 200 years before and after the birth of Christ). The practice emerged from calligraphy and was primarily the domain of the educated class or ‘literati’. That word has also been attached to the style of painting.

Similar forms of art using ink and rice paper developed later in Japan and Korea; many online sources will collectively refer to them all as ‘sumi-e’ or ink-wash painting.

This site seems to explain the subtleties best (meaning I agree with the insights offered and/or have been exposed to the same philosophical interpretations!)

In general, Chinese brush painting (CBP) involves shades of ink and use of line, whereas sumi-e (the Japanese form) is concerned more with the simplicity of line. Re-organizing my growing art library recently, I found I had 18 books dedicated to sumi-e. The most recent acquisition was a third little book by artist Takahiko Mikami.


He was born in Tokyo in 1916 and started his art career at age nine. Sometime before 1957 he came to the United States, for in that year he founded the Japanese Art Centre in San Francisco. He went on to teach sumi-e on television and authored several books. Here is a quick composition of two horses I could not resist trying when I saw his various studies of horses. I almost feel like a cave woman when I watch these beauties emerge from the paper.


About the same time that I allowed my new Mikami book to distract me from my full tiger projects, Delightful Lotus showed me a recent email from a painting friend from the United States. He sent her this delightful bird composition painted in the sumi-e manner.


Artist Peter Blyth has been studying sumi-e for a number of years and met up with Delightful Lotus while both were snow-birding in the Arizona dessert. Two months ago I saw this execution of red bamboo Peter had shared with Lotus.


Lucky Peter lives in Minneapolis where he’s found numerous opportunities to develop his sumi-e painting skills. He started painting about a dozen years ago with classes at a recreation centre, moving on to study with a classical tutor named Reiko. Under her tutelage he earned his Japanese name ‘Makota’. For the last few years he’s been working with Marion Brown in nearby Orono, MN. He notes that her classes all start with the practice of one of the four gentlemen. Not a bad idea, I’d say. Peter’s brushwork in this forward leaf of this orchid simply dances in the wind!


Bravo Makota!

I think I’ll have to get back to practicing my lines. And I intend to ask Santa for any other Takahiko Mikami books he can find.













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