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Peace and creativity at the tip of the brush: The Art of Sumi-E

Dancing fish in the water, gracious branch of sakura blossom or Japanese temple: Sumi-E paintings bring to life the elements surrounding us. As a form of wash painting born in Asia over 1,000 years ago and introduced to Japan during the 14th century, Sumi-E combines the Four Treasures necessary to create a painting: an ink stone, an ink stick, a brush and the right kind of paper. The philosophy behind this delicate art is to stay as close as possible to the essence of the subject, with the fewest brush stokes, capturing the subject’s movement and shape by placing broad and thin strokes to create visual harmony.

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Takao Sensei guides my hand to draw a bamboo stick.
One important piece of advice: never pass twice on the same stroke!

In New York, the chances of coming across authentic Sumi-E are scarce, unless you find a traditional artist, or even better: a “sensei” (teacher). Seiko Takao sensei is not a novice to the art of holding a brush. As an 8th dan “shodo” (calligraphy) teacher for over 20 years, she honed her skills with Japanese and Chinese masters and she is now dedicated to sharing Japanese culture through the study of music (as a pianist) and painting. Her studio is located a few blocks away from Lincoln Center where she welcomes students of all levels and nationalities.

As I enter the study room, I notice an impressive collection of paintings on the wall. I am instantly absorbed by the warm atmosphere of the place, where students and teacher exchange candid comments on their most recent creations.

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The painter can control the intensity of the colors by dipping his brush
in the water before hitting the paper.

I quickly find myself in front of a white piece of paper, brush in hand, dipping in the black ink and praying to all Sumi-E saints to help me with my first stroke! When the tip of the brush touches the paper, I can already see the ink making its way through the fibers. The movement has to be quick and light like a feather’s touch. The central concept of “Notan” (balance of white and dark) makes all the challenge in Japanese ink painting. Any lingering of the brush will cause irreversible darkness and heaviness on the painting. Because there is no quest for perfection in the art of Sumi-E, every painting primarily needs to satisfy the eye of the artist. “We are all painting with a happy feeling of freedom in the class. There is no right or wrong” insists Takao sensei, probably to comfort me after a disastrous first try…

Patiently, she demonstrates again how to reproduce an orchid, following the guidelines on one of the hundred illustrations of her collection. Her brush glides on paper with such grace that it almost looks easy, which brings me enough confidence to make another attempt. This time, the painting suits my eye and I even go beyond the basic steps to elaborate my creation with colors. Sumi-E paintings come in all formats: from postcards to posters, which make them so easy to share with friends and family especially for the Holiday season.

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Almost satisfied by my painting, I already know
who will get an “original” gift for the Holidays!

The class usually ends by sharing a cup of green tea, and if you are very lucky, Takao sensei may even offer some delicious homemade delicacies.

Breaking with the hectic New York rhythm, Sumi-E classes seem timeless and untied by the modern pressure for perfection. The serene atmosphere clears your mind of all clutters and leaves you with the peaceful feeling of accomplishment to start a new week.

———– Reported by Ruth Berdah-Canet

Seiko Shodo

With over 30 years of teaching experience, Seiko Takao sensei of Seiko Shodo, provides Japanese calligraphy lessons every Tue., Thu., Sat., and Sun.  Sumi-E, also known as “bokuga”, lesson is held on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. Seiko Takao sensei is now offering piano lessons for all levels by appointment.

315 W. 61st St.,#7S (at West End Ave.)

New York, NY 10023

TEL: 212-247-2589

seikou5102009@gmail.com