Ink and wash painting
File:Pine Trees.jpg
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese 水墨画
Japanese name
Kanji 1. 水墨画
2. 墨絵
Hiragana 1. すいぼくが
2. すみえ
Korean name
Hangul 수묵화
Hanja 水墨畵
Vietnamese name
Quốc ngữ Tranh thuỷ mặc 幀水墨

Ink and wash painting is an East Asian type of brush painting also known as wash painting or by its Japanese name sumi-e (墨絵). Ink and wash painting is also known by its Chinese name shui-mo hua (水墨畫, Japanese suibokuga (水墨画?), Korean sumukhwa (수묵화), Vietnamese tranh thuỷ mặc 幀水墨 '). Only black ink — the same as used in East Asian calligraphy — is used, in various concentrations.

In Western art works on paper in similar techniques are generally classified with drawings.


Wash painting developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Wang Wei is generally credited as the painter who applied color to existing ink and wash paintings.[1] The art was further developed into a more polished style during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It was introduced to Korea shortly after China's discovery of the ink. Then, the Korean missionaries in Japan, in helping the Japanese establish a civilized settlement introduced it to Japan in the mid-14th century.[citation needed]


In an old Chinese legend, an artist named Zhang Seng You 張僧繇 was asked to paint a mural in a temple. He painted four dragons but left out the pupils from their eyes. The Abbot asked him why. Zhang explained that if he painted the pupils, the dragons would come alive. When the Abbot insisted, Zhang proceeded to paint two of the dragons’ eyes. As soon as he finished painting the pupils on two of the dragons, they roared to life and flew away in a thunderous flash of lightning. The two dragons that had no pupils stayed on the wall.[2].

This story embodies the philosophy of Oriental sumi-e. The goal is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its soul. To paint a horse, the sumi-e artist must understand its temperament better than its muscles and bones. To paint a flower, there is no need to perfectly match its petals and colors, but it is essential to convey its liveliness and fragrance. Oriental sumi-e may be regarded as an earliest form of expressionistic art that captures the unseen[1].

Indeed, Oriental sumi-e has long inspired modern artists in the West. In his classic book Composition, American artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) wrote this about sumi-e: "The painter ...put upon the paper the fewest possible lines and tones; just enough to cause form, texture and effect to be felt. Every brush-touch must be full-charged with meaning, and useless detail eliminated. Put together all the good points in such a method, and you have the qualities of the highest art"[3]. Dow’s fascination with sumi-e not only shaped his own approach to art but also helped free many American modernists of the era, including his student Georgia O’Keeffe, from what he called a 'story-telling' approach. Dow strived for harmonic compositions through three elements: line, notan, and color. He advocated practicing with Oriental brushes and ink to develop aesthetic acuity with line and notan.

Notably, the term notan (often translated simplistically as dark-and-light) was derived from two characters originally used in Chinese and Japanese sumi-e: no 濃 (dense) and tan 淡 (dilute). Together, no-tan refers to the varying ink density produced by grinding an ink stick in water. Sumi-e artists spend years practicing basic brush strokes to refine their brush movement and ink flow. In the hand of a master, a single stroke can produce astonishing variations in tonality, from deep black to silvery gray. Thus, in its original context, notan means more than just dark-light arrangement, it is the basis for the beautiful nuance in tonality unique to Oriental sumi-e and brush-and-ink calligraphy[2].


In wash paintings, as in calligraphy, artists usually grind their own inkstick (Japanese: sumi) over an inkstone to obtain ink, but prepared inks are also available. Most inksticks are made of either pine or oil soot combined with animal glue (Japanese: nikawa). An artist puts a few drops of water on an inkstone and grinds the inkstick in a circular motion until a smooth, black ink of the desired concentration is made. Prepared inks are usually of much lower quality. Sumi themselves are sometimes ornately decorated with landscapes or flowers in bas-relief and some are highlighted with gold.

Wash painting brushes are similar to the brushes used for calligraphy and are traditionally made from bamboo with goat, cattle, horse, sheep, rabbit, marten, badger, deer, boar or wolf hair. The brush hairs are tapered to a fine point, a feature vital to the style of wash paintings.

Different brushes have different qualities. A small wolf-hair brush that is tapered to a fine point can deliver an even thin line of ink (much like a pen). A large wool brush (one variation called the big cloud) can hold a large volume of water and ink. When the big cloud brush rains down upon the paper, it delivers a graded swath of ink encompassing myriad shades of gray to black.

Once a stroke is painted, it cannot be changed or erased. This makes ink and wash painting a technically demanding art-form requiring great skill, concentration, and years of training.

Noted artists




In popular culture

An episode of Nickelodeon's Wonder Pets, titled "[Save the Crane] [3]," has the characters fly into a Sumi-e painting to rescue a baby crane.

The video game Ōkami, developed by Capcom for the PS2 and Wii systems, is done almost entirely in this art style.

See also

External links


  1. Wang, Yushu Wang. Wu zhou chuan bo chu ban she. Translated by 王玉书. [2005] (2005). Selected poems and pictures of the Tang dynasty 五洲传播出版社 ISBN 7-5085-0798-3
  2. Reproduced with permission from an original article by Tim Wong & Akiko Hirano, written for the American debut of Chinese sumi-e artist Wang Nong. Copyright © Touching Stone Gallery, Santa Fe.
  3. Dow, Arthur Wesley (1899). Composition. 

si:සුමි-එ චිත්‍ර කලාව fi:Sumi-e uk:Тушеві картини vi:Tranh thủy mặc zh-classical:水墨畫 zh:水墨画