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I was first drawn to sumi-e (pronounced soo-mee-eh) painting more than 40 years ago. At the time, I was living in New York City and exploring different meditation techniques. Sumi-e, a Japanese form of quick-stroke painting that literally means "black ink picture," combined the beauty of painting with the spontaneity of dance and the depth of mindfulness.
I fell in love from the first brushstroke! The power of the black ink coupled with the immediacy of the movement mesmerized me. My first attempts lurched from uncontrolled squiggles to bloated blobs. In encouragement, my teacher, Paul Siudzinski, would say, "There are no mistakes, only happy accidents!" I continued splashing in the ink and feeling the cares of the outside world recede as I studied sumi-e.
Asian-style brush painting is based on the strokes used to write characters, or calligraphy, which is why Asian-style brush artists refer to it as "writing a picture." Instead of swishing the brush around to create an image, specific calligraphic strokes are used to build flowers, birds, and landscapes. This is where the concept of mindfulness comes in, keeping your attention fixed actively on what is — not what was and not what might be. Focusing on the process of painting strokes instead of the finished product requires you to stay in the moment.
"Ch'i," or "qi," is a Chinese word meaning life force, breath, or energy flow.
This active awareness is the essence of mindfulness. You may have a composition in mind, but a brush painting is a living thing. Sumi-e permits no presketching and doesn't allow for corrections once the ink is on the paper, so the composition evolves with each stroke. Your brush is like a dancer: You cannot take back the steps you have just performed. However, the advantage is that unlike a ballet performance, the dance of the brush leaves the vibrant trace of your ch'i on the paper and continues to delight viewers after the movement of the brush has stopped.
What does this mean for you, and how do you develop mindfulness through sumi-e painting? First, you will need lots of playful practice, paper, and ink! I have painted enough bamboo leaves to encircle the globe, and I still love to practice them. Painting strokes without a finished picture in mind is like warming up before exercising: It's not a competition, so you can remain calm. Use this preparation time to focus your awareness on breathing as well as the brush, ink, and paper.
I will show you the traditional way of painting subjects as passed down through generations of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artists over hundreds of years and as taught to me by my teachers I-Hsiung Ju and Paul Siudzinski.
Learning the strokes will allow you to express yourself with sumi-e.
But here's the secret: As you relax and enjoy practicing these strokes, you will also learn to express yourself in the moment, without self-judgment. This is also your mindfulness practice. Will your strokes look just like mine? Probably not. But are you having fun? Focusing your attention on the task at hand? Feeling the joy that comes from creating? Ah, now, those are treasures!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "SUMI-E Painting"
Copyright © 2019 Virginia Lloyd-Davies.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
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