Leaving MAC to come to Japan had left a hole in me, so I began searching for an art school as soon as I arrived here, mid-2015. It was surprisingly difficult to find one in Nagoya (a city known for industry more than arts), however I found a tiny Sumi-e class (Japanese ink painting) at an English school my partner attends. By tiny I mean, most sessions it is just myself and my teacher, Tatsuo-sensei. And my limited Japanese “art” vocab makes each lesson pretty interesting (my Japanese is OK; I can now order food and know what I will be getting, though they don’t teach you specialist vocabulary in the first two semesters of basic Japanese…).
Each class we fumble through explanations of the intricacies of Sumi-e in Japanese (me with a blank face and my sensei nervously laughing), though I don’t really mind it, because he is teaching me technique through body language. I watch the fluid way he controls his brush (it really does appear to be an extension of his body) and try and emulate each stroke… again and again and again. And I have learnt that when Sumi-e was introduced to Japan from China in the thirteenth century, it began to connect strongly with Zen Buddhism. The practice of me watching my sensei’s brushstrokes – being completely in the moment, every brush stroke is a moment in time and any mistake cannot be undone, it just is – I believe is touching on these ideas. Monks used to learn Sumi-e by copying their Masters’ works, and this is how I am learning now.
Sumi-e in Japan developed a new course after it was introduced. Masters said that the will is at the tip of your brush; your mind and brush become one. It is believed that many Sumi-e masters were painting the landscapes of their mind. By this I mean that the essence of Sumi-e painting is to not just paint a tree – it is to paint more than a tree. It is to capture the essence of the tree and a spiritual force within the painting. I love how you can “feel” Tensho Shubun’s painting below. A lot of people have made parallels between Sumi-e and Impressionism in this way.
I also love the parallel drawn between a Sumi-e artist and a Samurai: “Throughout its long and venerable history, Sumi-e has been held in high esteem and became a powerful way to inculcate the values of Bushido, the Samurai Code of Conduct. For the swordsman, composure on the brink of battle had its artistic parallel in the calm and tranquillity essential before the fearless release of a brush stroke. Embodying the honourable ancient warrior codes, Sumi-e was a metaphor for the ephemeral world of the courageous Samurai swordsman. Today, becoming a Master Sumi-e artist requires the same investment of effort and time in rigorous training and discipline.” http://www.drue.net/sumi-e-history.htm
In my class, Tatsuo-sensei introduced me to the first and third of the Four Gentlemen – bamboo (summer) and Plum Blossom (winter). The other two Gentlemen are Chrysanthemum (autumn) and Orchid (spring). These four exercises contain the different brushstrokes a student needs to learn before they can paint the “landscape in their mind”. The bamboo was my very first Sumi-e painting and within the first few trials I could see how focused you had to be (with an empty mind – still trying to do that) and how once the brush touches the paper, there was no going back. It is not like oil painting where you can easily fix mistakes.
Below are the plum blossoms I am working on at the moment. The way the Japanese celebrate nature and the four seasons is really something to behold; last week I went to an ume matsuri (plum blossom festival) in Tokyo. We hired a straw mat for 100 yen and ate fried noodles beneath the plum blossom trees with all the other Japanese families. And this is what they do throughout winter when the ume trees bloom, all through cherry blossom season. Most parks have flowering trees at the moment, from white blossoms to deep pink hues. This really is a beautiful part of the world.
I have also painted coi:
And capsicums (which contain, believe it or not, contains only 5 brustrokes):
I have so much more to learn about this art form and Japan, and I am so grateful to be here; though I feel like if I live here for the rest of my life I will never know the intricacies of either. But I kind of love that idea too (I believe the unknown is good for you).
If you would like to see what I’m working on in Japan, feel free to follow my art page on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/laurenottawayart/
Written by Lauren Ottaway.