As some of you may already know, I was strongly influenced by the art I was exposed to during the three years I spent in Japan while in my teens. In particular, I came to appreciate the simplified, flattened forms typical of wood-block prints, and the minimalistic line-and-wash work found in good examples of sumi-e. I didn’t realize at the time how much that sense of essential simplicity was affecting my preferences in art. But many years later I have come to value the training it gave me for understanding the way critical information in a subject can be expressed with minimal detail.
As I began thinking about doing more travel sketches in the coming months, I decided to revisit an old favorite medium, sumi-e, using a single Oriental calligraphy-style brush and a single pigment. (Traditionally, black ink, “sumi,” was used, but other colors may be substituted or incorporated.) Not only could it simplify the equipment needed on casual outings, it would also force me to think carefully about simplifying the essence of the subject into key points, lines, and masses.
I decided to explore some of those early unconsciously absorbed lessons to practice them now with more deliberate intent. Out of practice both with the calligraphic brush and with actively seeking the most telling elements in a scene, I set out to at least begin to rectify those shortcomings. The exercise promised to include many additional aspects of good design. These include looking for graceful and rhythmic lines, variations of repeated elements, and seeking ways to achieve dynamic balance. It also required a sensitive but confident touch, since every mark “speaks.” Even though I didn’t intend to pursue the art form in its own right, I was sure the exercise would be time well spent.
The first and foremost need was to identify the concept for each painting. What was it about the subject that I wanted to express? Nothing else mattered as much as that. That was the essence of the painting, and if I could narrow down the subject to that single point, I would know what I needed to focus on. Anything else could detract from that concept and should probably be omitted.
I had no black ink on hand, so I chose to begin working with sepia watercolor. Although sepia tends to be fugitive, fading over time, it is a natural organic dye from squid, so should leave no granular residue as it dries, thereby risking little damage to the fine hairs of my brush. (I certainly have no expectation of my initial efforts being saved for posterity, so, for my purposes, I don’t consider the fugitive nature of the pigment detrimental.) I also substituted watercolor paper for the traditional rice paper.
Relying only on values, without variations in either hue or saturation, requires me to focus on value contrasts to design a painting, effectively controlling visual overload. Both understanding of the brush’s behavior and awareness of how light and shadow depict form are also important in helping me minimize the number of brushstrokes needed as the brush flows across the paper. And limiting the number of brushstrokes contributes to simplification of the subject matter by eliminating unnecessary “noise.” Typically in sumi-e the artist provides no unnecessary details. In writing or speaking, we’d call it being concise. It’s a quality I highly admire and appreciate in many different fields, including artistic expression.