What is Sumi-e? Japanese ink brush paintings

Japanese Koi Japanese Sumi-e Ink Painting by Dazzling Art Boutique

Japanese Koi Japanese Sumi-e Ink Painting by Dazzling Art Boutique 

There’s something about Japanese art that feels simultaneously ancient and modern. Even when you see it in books, or on your computer screen, the images seem to exist outside of any particular time period. As if the art were always meant to be exactly where we see it today. Ink painting is one such example of this timeless quality in Japanese art. It’s a method that dates back thousands of years, and is still used by artists today. But how did this style come to be? What does it signify? And what do its different variations say about the people who practice them? In this post, we delve into the history of Japanese ink painting, called sumi-e, and explain why so many people love it so much.


What is Sumi-e?

Sumi-e is a style of Japanese ink painting, which dates back to the 7th century. What makes sumi-e unique among other forms of art is that the artist works almost exclusively in black and white. Traditionally, artists used a special type of black ink called “boku” (though in modern times, many artists also use Chinese ink), and nothing else. The brushes used to create sumi-e are also unique to the style. They’re very long, made of bamboo, and have a very thick bristle. The brushstrokes themselves are very short, and done in a particular order to create layers of shadow. The result is a very graphic, yet elegant style of art, with lots of negative space and very few colours.

The Meaning of Sumi-e

Sumi-e is often translated as “ink brush painting,” or “ink wash painting.” The word “sumie” has its roots in the word “sumu,” meaning “to ink” or “to mud.” Since the ink used in sumi-e is thick, and uses a lot of water, it often leaves a muddy residue on the paper. But why mud at all? Well, the early artists who practiced sumi-e often used water from the nearby river or lake. The water was dark, muddy, and contained many small particles of silt and sand. This water was mixed with ink, creating a very thick, rich ink. The thick ink, mixed with the silt from the water, created a “mud” that left a subtle, yet striking, mark on paper. This mark was the very beginnings of Japanese ink painting.

Differences in Sumi-e Styles

Sumi-e was an important part of Japanese culture for centuries. Early examples of sumi-e date back to the 7th century, and the style remained popular until the early 20th century. During this time, there were many different variations of sumi-e, with some having more rigid rules than others. Some styles even evolved into their own schools of painting, with their own set of techniques and tools. Here are a few of the more popular variations. - Suibokuga – “Water and Ink” painting was the most basic form of sumi-e. In this style, artists used water and ink to create images on paper. There were few, if any, rules when creating this kind of art. - Haiga – Haiga was a variation of Suibokuga in which the artist worked with a specific theme. These themes were usually very short poems, or haiku, which the artist tried to illustrate with their brush. - Kokuga – This form was a bit more structured than Suibokuga and Haiga. In Kokuga, artists used a round brush and ink made from Chinese calligraphy ink. This ink was much thinner than the ink used in other forms of sumi-e, making it much easier to create fine lines. - Sou-Hanga – This was a combination of the three styles mentioned above, but with more specific rules. Artists used a round brush and Chinese ink, but they had to follow a specific theme and attempt to convey a certain sentiment with their art. - Zenga – Zenga was a more modern form of sumi-e, in which artists tried to create a single image with a single brushstroke. Zenga was very similar to the “haiga” style described above, but artists had to create their art with a single brushstroke, without going back and correcting any errors.

A Short History of Sumi-e

The exact origins of sumi-e are a bit unclear. Some historians believe that the Chinese were the first to use a similar style of art. Chinese paintings from around the 5th century used the same black ink and brush techniques, but the images themselves were very different. Chinese paintings were often realistic, and full of bold colours, while sumi-e was much more abstract and minimalistic. The first examples of sumi-e were found in Japan’s prehistoric Jomon culture, which existed between 8000 and 300 BCE. Jomon pottery was often decorated with black markings. These markings were believed to be early examples of sumi-e. The style was very popular in Japan during the Heian period, from 794 to 1185. During this time, many aristocratic families hired sumi-e artists to depict nature scenes and images of everyday life. The images often reflected the ideals and values of the family who commissioned them.


Sumi-e is an ancient style of Japanese ink painting that uses simple tools, few colours, and a lot of negative space. Sumi-e is one of the oldest forms of Japanese art, and one that has remained popular for thousands of years. It’s a very unique style of art that makes use of very basic materials, and can be traced back to the Jomon period of Japan’s history.

Japanese Sumi-e Ink Paintings

Traditionally Japanese sumi-e ink paintings are created with the "four treasures" (the ink stick, ink stone, brush and paper) and depict the "four gentlemen": bamboo, wild orchids, chrysanthemum or plum blossom. Sumi-e is also known for its beautiful landscape ink paintings.

Below you will find both traditional Sumi-e artwork as well as modern renditions inspired by Japanese Ink Paintings. Please enjoy this special collection inspired by the brush (fude), ink (sumi) and rice paper (washi). The Fine Art Prints in this collection are printed on original Asian Rice Paper of high-quality and long lasting. Each fine art print is signed by myself: the artist (Ricarda).