What is Sumi-é?

We recently visited Betzi Robinson’s class to learn about the art of sumi-é (soo-me-eh), or brush painting. Betzi showed us how to paint a great horned owl (above) and sparrows (at the bottom of this post) and told us all about the art form.

Students from absolute beginners to accomplished artists take sumi-é classes, which include weekly classes and two-day workshops with instructors Charlene Fuhrman-Schulz, Aiko Erickson, and Betzi.

“You don’t have to have done any kind of art to start learning this,” Betzi told us, saying students take it for the fun and for the meditative process. In fact, the “calming and centering” art form was first brought to Japan from China by Zen Buddhist monks. Ceramics artists sometimes take the course to learn the techniques for decorating their ceramic work, Betzi said.

Sumi-é, from the Japanese for “ink painting,” is a form of brush writing based in the calligraphy of Japan, Korea, and China. “They say you write a painting,” Betzi explained. The centuries-old art is very different from painting in the Western tradition, as you can see in the videos. The rice paper is absorbent and isn’t brushed with water first as with watercolors. The black ink, in the form of a pressed ink stick mixed into water, is a blend of pine soot and binders — color comes secondary to that. (Modern brush paintings tend to use more color, Betzi said.)

Students start by learning to paint the Four Gentlemen — bamboo, orchid, plum blossom, and chrysanthemum — which represent the four seasons and teach beginners a vocabulary of brush strokes that enables them to paint almost anything. As students move on to other subjects, they also learn the symbolism, history, and culture behind them.

Supplies for first-timers are minimal, but specialized to sumi-é: one or more brushes, ink (in an ink stick or pre-made in a bottle), special paper, a wool or felt blanket to go under the paper, and water.

Betzi got her start in sumi-é when she moved to the States decades ago, leaving behind the knives and acids she used in printmaking — she couldn’t keep them around her two-year-old. Since her family had spent so much time around sumi-é in Asia, she decided to study it in a night class. “I grew up with this art,” she said. Today, she has been practicing sumi-é for 35 or 36 years and teaching in Europe and the U.S. for about 20. Betzi was also President of the Sumi-é Society of America for six years and editor of its magazine for five years, and is one of three artists to have won the society’s best in show award twice.

Sumi-é classes at The Art League include two-day workshops and longer-term weekly classes, called “Sumi-e: Oriental Brush Painting” — Charlene Fuhrman-Schulz will be teaching this course on Monday afternoons and Tuesday evenings during the Winter term, starting the week of January 7. Workshops include a two-day Jumpstart in Sumi-é coming up January 5 and 6.

Click here to see all the sumi-é classes in the catalog (be sure to click on the “workshops” tab to see the workshops).

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