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.

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

Ink-only painting enjoys a much-respected position in the art of sumi-e.  Great sumi-e artwork has superior “colors” and texture, even though it contains only the color black. Sumi-e Master Tesshin Sasaki of Japan is a devoted believer of the beauty of sumi-e ink. Ms. Sasaki, at the Sumi-e Society of America annual juried exhibition, offered an award devoted to paintings created with black ink only.

We read about the five colors of ink in many art books, but very few of them explain in detail how to prepare them.  Moreover, many artists think the five colors of ink refer only to its values: the lightness and darkness of the ink.  Instead, five colors of ink are attained not only by the value of the ink but also by different texture in ink application.

Darkest black to the palest gray

As we all know, we can attain different shades of gray by adding more water to sumi-e ink.  In general, we start with sumi-e ink from a bottle or we prepare it by grinding an ink stick against the ink stone with a small amount of water.  This is the darkest black. We can create different shades of gray by having more or less amount of water on the brush, but many beginners find this hard to control.  In addition, they also have a hard time trying to get the same tone of black again.

Let me share a simple way to create a variety of black ink. You need a brush, a teaspoon, a few little dishes or a palette with wells, sumi-e ink and water.  I prefer porcelain dish and palette but plastic or paper ones are fine.  White with no pattern ones are nicer so you can see the shade of gray better.

Line the dishes in a row.  Start with black sumi-e ink in the first dish. Use a brush to pick up a “brush load” of ink and place it in the second dish.  Add two teaspoons of water to the second dish and mix.  This will be your 2nd black “color.” Now wash and clean your brush.  With the clean brush, pick up a “brush load” of 2nd black and place it in the third dish.  Add two teaspoons of water to the third dish and mix. This will be your 3rd black. Repeat the process and get the 4th and 5th black.

 Using my method, you can consistently get the same intensity in a variety of black “colors.”  If you plan to create a large painting, prepare a larger amount of black “colors” in your dishes before you start.  You can adjust the degree of darkest in your five “colors” by adding more or less amount of water in each step.  You can load your brush with “colors” from different dishes to have a variety of black in the same brush stroke.

Five texture of black ink

The beauty of sumi-e ink goes far beyond its degree of darkest.  You can apply sumi-e ink differently to create a variety of textures.  They are “Dry, Wet, Dark, Light, Charred.”  “Dark” and “Light” refer to the amount of water in the ink creating its degree of lightness and darkness which is already explained earlier.  “Dark” is usually used for strong and powerful subjects, such as old stems of a plant, or wings of an eagle.  “Light” is usually used for items that are lighter in texture.  I typically use light ink to paint the petals of grass orchid and the wings of dragonflies.

“Dry” and “Wet” refer to the amount of moisture in the brush during the stroke application.  For “Dry” application, after I have loaded the brush with the desired “color,” I brush it against a clean paper towel so much of the “color” is absorbed by the towel. The small amount of moisture available in the brush will create “Dry” strokes.  The speed of the stroke application (how fast your brush runs across the rice paper) also affects the texture of the stroke.  “Dry” strokes create a rough and stern texture. I use it for rocks in my landscape and bird craws.  “Wet” strokes are attained by having lots of moisture in the brush.  Slower brush movement on the rice paper also allows more moisture to be absorbed by the rice paper creating the texture.  “Wet” strokes are effective in painting fur of little animals and the chest of small birds.

“Charred” is the hardest to explain.  The Chinese character “charred” also means “focus.”

Used in sumi-e, it means a very concentrated black.  To obtain this “color,” I start with ground ink.  Then I let the water in the ink evaporate a bit to attain a stronger concentration.  Since some water in the ink has evaporated, the consistency of the “Charred” ink is similar to honey.  Regular sumi-e ink is more like cream.  “Charred” ink is very strong.  I use it sparingly as it easily takes center stage in the painting.  I use it for the eyes of birds and animals.  The Buku Undo Company of Japan offers a concentrated sumi-e ink which is thicker than regular sumi-e ink.  I am not aware of a concentrated sumi-e ink manufacturer in China.

Please note that “Charred’ ink is not the same as ink left overnight.  Ink left overnight is called “Spoiled” ink and should not be used.  The carbon particles and the binding agent may be separated overnight.  Adding water to dried ink will just produce a dirty wash with pieces of black particles in it.  Because of the higher amount of binding agent in bottled ink, when left overnight, bottled ink forms a film that can be peeled off the dish and cannot be rehydrated. 

Try my simple directions of creating five colors of ink and try them out with different texture applications.  You may be the winner of the next Tesshin Sasaki Award in the Sumi-e Society of America’s annual juried exhibition.

Editor’s Note – Joan Lok is the winner of the Tesshin Sasaki Award in 2007 and 2012.

More fun notes on the alternative title of this article – I wrote this article titled “Beyond the Five Colors of Ink” for the Sumi-e Society of America’s quarterly magazine.  I also conduct workshops on painting with black ink only.  In a recent workshops discussing how to prepare the five colors of ink, my students proclaimed that I taught them how to prepare “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  They suggested to rename this article with “Shades of Grey”, so here it is.  Now you know. - Joan Lok.

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