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Sumi-e studies and the art of materials...

In between absorbing as much of Kyoto as we can and working on our own works, we are being exposed to masters of Japanese arts and crafts. Self-discipline and respect for the pursuit of aesthetic perfection pervades the arts, much as it dominates many of the cultural norms here. To become a master requires years and years of repetitive studies of what has been learned in the past. When I studied Sumi-e (the art of Chinese Ink painting) in Tokyo years ago, I only made it as far as black and white bamboo strokes and sakura flower petals. The movement was from the elbow and shoulder, and free expression is not allowed from students. I only got to the flower petals after months of bamboo strokes on this scroll of paper that had meters of mystrokes--over and over and over again. The possibility of working in colour was years away, as one must master black and white first.

Here in Kyoto we had an introductory lesson on Chinese Calligraphy from Yumiko So-Sensei. One of the reasons I really wanted to come here, is that those lessons on lines ten years ago embedded themselves in my psyche and have become very important in my work. However, I already knew I was not going to create the perfect kanji character, and am more interested in how to use these brushes, inks and papers in my contemporary urban works. My "Otheries" series is created on my iPhone using an App called Zen Brush that emulates these materials. I wanted to go back to the original materials and see what could be achieved.

Sensei (left) is showing us the proper way to hold the brush. In front of her is the traditional stone block upon which she rubbed the Sumi (or ink stick) adding water to create the ink. This patient circular stick rubbing should have lasted 30 minutes to get the proper density of black. Instead we used the instant ink:

She explained about the many many different "blacks" used to create different effects. They have different hues (some are bluer, some are warmer) and opacities (some are so beautifully delicate, whilst others are very bold). The papers also have a huge effect on the outcomes, as they all have different absorbency rates- and the majority are handmade. The variables are endless, and therefore nothing can ever be repeated. There's also zero room for mistakes, as there's no erasing this stuff, and blotches are huge, ugly and very common.

I enjoyed experiementing with the calligraphy, but soon pulled out my iPad and started experimenting with copying my digital creations using the same principles of varying line work and opacities. We only had the one black to work with, so it wasn't quite what I'd hoped to achieve, but it was a fun exploration:

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