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Sumi-e the Art of Relaxation and Concentration

Sumi-e is like golf; it requires great posture, patience and a relaxed disposition. I inhabit none of these virtues, so I was apprehensive walking into the Resobox Japanese Cultural Center just outside of Queensboro Plaza. My instructor Kohfu Sensei didn’t know it, but she had a challenge on her hands.

Japanese ink painting, or sumi-e, originated in China and was brought to Japan in the tenth century. The art form has since evolved to embody the simplicity and minimalism central to the Japanese aesthetic. Artists are compelled to depict a scene or object with economy leaving ample room for interpretation from both the creator and consumer.

“Sumi-e is not like watercolor or other types of painting” Kohfu-sensei explained. If sumi-e is golf the brushstroke is a swing. “You only get one chance to make it perfect. You cannot go back to repair it.”

As a first-time sumi-e artist, the permanence of the single stroke method was somewhat paralyzing, but sensei had a solution.

“Let’s begin with a warm up,” she said.

On scrap paper she led me through a simple series of straight lines, squiggles and zig-zags. She taught me to hold the brush with a soft grip and to think of it as an extension of my entire arm rather than a tool at my fingertips. The exercise proved to be a great confidence builder, until we got to the bamboo leaf.

Bamboo is the most elemental subject in sumi-e. Painting it is the first step to mastery, but you must begin by learning to paint the leaves. “Press down and lift,” sensei said. A delicate leaf appeared under her single brushstroke.

“Press down and lift.” I repeated. A slug appeared. The second attempt looked like and inverted tadpole. Three sheets of scrap paper later the closest I could get to a bamboo leaf was shriveled edamame, but sensei gently pushed me forward to an element that proved to be much easier.

Drag-pause-drag in a single halted stroke a bamboo stalk dominated my rice paper canvas. Sensei did note, however, that bamboo usually grows straight. Mine curved slightly at the end, but I decided to interpret it as bamboo in the wind.

A few strokes later, I had a fully formed crop of bamboo on my rice paper. Compared to sensei’s version mine lacked dimension and texture, but she assured me that those subtleties are gained over time.

Again, sumi-e is like golf. It takes years of practice to do well, but can still be fun your first time around.

—– Reported by Devon Brown

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Resobox Japanese Culture Center
41-26 27th St., Long Island City, NY 11101
TEL: 718-784-3680 / www.resobox.com

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Sumi-e brushes are different sizes, but all the same shape. To make varying textures and thicknesses, we practiced using different parts of the brush. For curls and swirls the tip is best.

Because bamboo grows from the bottom up, the sumi-e artist must paint from the bottom up. The true nature of subjects is always taken into consideration.

It is difficult to achieve depth and detail as a beginner, but Kohfusensei’s cartoons (below) prove that a practiced hand can produce almost anything.