JUMPSTART is a collection of Joan Lok’s tips and know-how on sumi-e materials and techniques.  Joan Lok has been creating exquisite sumi-e artwork for over 30 years and is a popular workshop teacher.  She writes a technical column in SUMI-E, the quarterly magazine of the Sumi-e Society of America.

Click here to go back to JUMPSTART

WOLF HAIR BRUSHES ARE NOT MADE WITH WOLF HAIR?  

© 2012 Joan Lok, www.joanlok.com, all rights reserved worldwide

Let me start my article on brushes with a true story of two legendary artists of the 20th century: Chang Dai-Chien (1899-1983) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973.)  In July 1956, Chang was in Paris attending his exhibition. The grand masters of the art of the East and the art of the West met in Picasso’s home in Cannes.  Picasso showed Chang over 20 pieces of his paintings done in the style of the Chinese master Qi Baishi (1864-1957) and asked Chang for his honest critique. Chang took a quick look and told Picasso bluntly that he had used the wrong tool.  Chang later sent Picasso some Chinese paint brushes.

The moral of the story is this: Even Picasso needed the right brushes.

Having the right brush is important to paint a good sumi-e artwork. The brushes for sumi-e painting and calligraphy are unique in structure and materials from the tools for the Western arts.  Moreover, the way brushes are classified is not yet standardized. I hope to be able to offer some guidance for fellow artists new to the art.

Flat vs. Round

Paint brushes are usually divided into two categories: Flat or Round.  In sumi-e, the most common flat brush that we use is the Hake, which is ideal for applying background washes, and to some extent, painting an even bamboo stem. Most Hake have a single piece of wooden handle with hair threaded along a hollow gap across its flat end.  Another popular flat brush is called “Pipe.” It is made of a group of six to ten or more round brushes threaded together to form a continuous flat application of washes.  I personally find Hake easier to control for painting and washes.  Pipe is great for washes and mounting but I do not use it for painting.

Round brushes are used for all kinds of brush stroke.  Some artists do not use any flat brush. When they need to paint a wider subject, such as a bamboo stem, they “flatten” the hair of a round brush with the edge of a plate or with their fingers.  A true sumi-e master can manipulate the hair of the brush to his/her desire.

Structure

Brushes for the western art are made with natural or synthetic fibers.  High quality bristle will taper naturally to a fine point but synthetics do not. In watercolor, round brushes made with hair from a Siberia Kolinsky sable in considered the most desirable because the hair taper naturally into a fine point.  In order to create a fine point for a cheaper round brushes, the outer layer of bristle is often cut and shaped, hindering the brush’s ability to deliver a continuous stroke in color and movement.  Thus, most watercolor rounds are not ideal for sumi-e art.  Most of the sumi-e brushes are made with all natural hair. The hair of a good quality round brushes taper naturally to a fine point without cutting and shaping.  In the 50’s and 60’s when art supplies imported from Asia were hard to find in America, many sumi-e enthusiasts used watercolor rounds resulting in much frustration.

Hard vs. Soft

There are essentially three kinds of brushes: Soft, Hard, and Combination.  Soft hair brushes are absorbent with the ability to carry a lot of moisture for each stroke. Often, sumi-e artists like to have multiple colors or light and dark ink in the same brush stroke.  A soft hair brush can deliver this with ease.  The most common hair used for soft hair brushes is from goat (sheep,) and rabbit.  They are usually white or off-white.

Hard hair brushes deliver strokes with bounce and resilience.  The most commonly labeled ones are “wolf” hair and horse hair. A special note on the wolf hair brush because it is not made from wolf hair. The Chinese translation of a weasel is literally “yellow-mouse-wolf.”  Brushes made with weasel hair are called “wolf hair brushes.”  Even some suppliers has mistaken that the hair of the brushes are from wolves.  Wolf hair may be too furry for making writing/painting tools.  “Wolf” hair brushes are usually brown.  Using the criterion of color to identify the type of hair used in the manufacturer of a brush is no longer reliable because some manufacturers bleach or dye the hair used in brushes.  One of my favorite hard hair brushes is “Leaf Vein.” It can deliver multiple beautiful leaf veins with strength without reloading.  It is a versatile brush for fine details such as flower pollens and insect legs.

For watercolorists, brushes made with pony hair are considered too coarse for watercolor.  However, brushes made with horse hair, especially those with hair from wild mountain horses, are highly prized in the art of sumi-e. The stiffness of the bristle and its lack of absorbency help the brush deliver “flying white,” the white gaps in a stroke caused by the lack of ink/color and quick brush movement. Many sumi-e artists enjoy the visible energy (chi) expressed in flying white.  I use horse hair brushes to render things with tough texture, such as branches and rocks.  The strength of the subject shines through the brushwork.

To have the best of both worlds, a combination brush has both soft and hard hair.  The brush has an outer layer of soft hair for absorbency, and a core of hard hair for resilience. The most common combination brushes are labeled “Long Flow,” “Ideal,” and “White Cloud.”  They range greatly depending on the manufacturers. Long Flow and Ideal are more expensive versions, and White Cloud is mostly offered at affordable prices.

Brush Sizes

In Western art, most brushes come in 13 sizes, ranging from 0 to 12. The higher the number, the larger the diameter of the round brushes.  Occasionally, some brushes have extended sizes, such as 00 for extra fine. In sumi-e, the size classification is not standardized.  Many brushes are still produced in villages and small towns, independent of other manufactures in other regions. Thus, the sizes of the brushes are usually in relative terms in a series.  Most painting brushes come in three to five sizes: Small, Medium and Large; and occasionally “Small One, and “Small Two” which are extended smaller sides.

For some series, you will see the word “Long” in its label.  This refers to the length of the hair. Some artists prefer brushes with longer hair to deliver a more spirited stroke.  Beginner artists may find longer hair harder to control.

Calligraphy Brushes

What kind of brush a calligrapher uses is a personal choice.  Some calligraphers prefer goat hair brushes for its absorbency and smoothness in delivery graceful strokes. Some prefer “wolf” hair brush because of its added strength.  While most calligraphy will find mountain horse hair brushes too coarse for calligraphy, Lingnam Master Chao Shao Ang (1905-1998) used a mountain horse hair brush to inscribe all his paintings.

While even Picasso cannot create without the right sumi-e brush, just the brush itself would not create great artwork.  A good artist still needs to practice his/her craft all the time in order to create the next masterpiece. When I paint, I feel that my brush is not a tool but an extension of my hand.  Get to know the different qualities of your brushes, experience them on painting different subjects, and discover their strengths and weaknesses. Use the knowledge to help you capture what you want to paint. 

Good Luck and Happy Painting.  Joan Lok

© 2012 Joan Lok, www.joanlok.com, all rights reserved worldwide