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Book Review: "The Sumi-e Book" by Yolanda Mayhall

Robert A. Sloan is a San Francisco-based science fiction writer, art writer, art teacher, artist, artisan, and Renaissance man.

My scan of the cover of my favorite Japanese ink painting book—"The Sumi-e Book" by Yolanda Mayhall.

My scan of the cover of my favorite Japanese ink painting book—"The Sumi-e Book" by Yolanda Mayhall.

Why Take Up Sumi-e Ink Painting?

First, as a hobby, sumi-e or Japanese ink painting is not expensive to start up. You can find beginner kits from various suppliers, including Dick Blick, ASW, Acorn Planet, and Oriental Art Supply. Acorn Planet carries colored ink sticks in a set of five colors and also Marie's Chinese Watercolors set. ASW also has Marie's Chinese Watercolors set, which has artist Chinese watercolor, unlike Marie's Western transparent watercolor sets. It costs a little more, but it's well worth it.

The Sumi-e Book by Yolanda Mayhall, published by Watson-Guptill Publications, ISBN 0-8230-5022-X, is the best book on sumi-e that I've ever read or tried. Ms. Mayhall describes "The Four Gentlemen" in step-by-step detail. These are the traditional strokes used to paint bamboo, wild orchid, chrysanthemum, and plum branch. Within each category, there are actually several strokes used, but these four classic subjects also contain every stroke needed to create anything else in sumi-e.

Sumi-e is a Japanese ink painting. It's wonderful for stress reduction because the traditional process of painting begins with grinding an ink stick, made with soot, other ingredients, and special glue, in a suzuri stone—an ink-grinding stone. You make the ink on the spot. There are five "colors" to create, dilutions of ink that imply color when you paint with them, from the palest gray to the darkest black.

You can do sumi-e painting in watercolor, too, using ivory black or Payne's grey, or you can do non-monochrome sumi-e by using the colored ink sticks or Chinese watercolors provided in some sets. OAS also sells Chinese paint chips in Chinese Yellow, Red, Indigo, and Vermilion. You can get ink sticks in Cinnabar red as well as black at some places too. So it's not always pure black-and-gray monochrome.

While it's easy to find bottled sumi-e ink at art stores, Ms. Mayhall recommends using an ink stick and suzuri stone for the meditation of grinding your ink and preparing it. I agree with her on that, even though I've often practiced using a water brush and Sakura Pocket Box set of watercolors. Once I had tried the Four Gentlemen strokes, I found myself applying them in many Asian-style watercolor paintings as well as doing pure sumi-e.

For a beginner, though, especially if you're not already an artist with lots of watercolors around, the ink stick is much less expensive than the bottled ink. It seems small, but it will last for a long, long time and your ink stone is a permanent thing. I have three of them, the oldest one I've had around for about 20 years. I bought it in San Francisco on vacation when I picked up some ink sticks in red and black in Japantown. The other two came in good sets and are convenient if I want to grind a color as well as the black ink to use in the same painting. I have considered getting two or three more so that I have one reserved for each color.

The colors in the colored ink set are white, red, dark blue (indigo), yellow and green. These sets sometimes turn up in import stores and at Renaissance fairs too; they are very popular. The colors can be used separately or mixed on the paper, or you can double load a brush for some delightful effects. They are all good at mixing colors.

Sumi-e ink is waterproof once it dries. The sticks dissolve when you put a little water in the slanted end of the suzuri stone and then rub the stick gently in the wet area. Stir it with a stick and pour it out into a porcelain or plastic flower palette. This is the one that has a center well and six or eight side wells. Then add more water, grind a darker color, and so on. Or you can grind it very dark, pour the ink off, dilute it with more water, and so on. It doesn't matter how you come up with five evenly graded shades of ink, only that you do.

Another type of ink dish is those stacks of little single well porcelain dishes with one cover for the whole stack. These are beautiful, and OAS has one with blue designs on it, so I may get that sometime. They aren't very expensive either; Blick often has them on sale.

Other than that, you will need Chinese or Japanese brushes for painting, a seal stone, a container of red seal paste (for putting your chop or signature on the finished art), some rice paper or xuan paper available from all these suppliers, and one more thing that I did not really find out about till I met someone who did Chinese painting and sumi-e regularly.

Get a piece of white felt to put under the rice paper!

Rice paper works like a blotter. If you put it on a drawing table or drawing board without a pad, the ink or watercolor will spread out and create soft edges whether you want them or not. A lot of the more beautiful effects have a soft edge, a hard edge, narrow lines, or other sharp-edged details that work fine with a felt pad under your rice paper but not so well when it's just on the table.

Ms. Mayhall mentions this in her chapter on materials. "If you are using rice paper, it is also important to have an absorbent cloth directly under it."

My friend Sandra, an Asian lady who lives in the Far East, tells me that she uses plain black felt from a hobby store. So it doesn't need to be an expensive absorbent cloth. It just needs to be there, or you'll get out-of-control blotter effects.

Until I actually noticed this important detail on page 12, I struggled with rice paper from the same Japantown trip, gave up, and used regular Western watercolor for it. My resulting Asian paintings have been a lot of fun, and they did something more. They improved my grasp of composition and use of negative space in every kind of painting or drawing that I do.

Sumi-e painting, in its classical form, relies on value to imply color and simplicity to imply complexity. Sometimes it can become beautifully realistic, and then you realize just how few strokes went to create that realism. It's a completely different way to paint than anything Western and also forms a good introduction to Chinese painting in all its many styles because Japanese art and all Asian art have common roots the way European art does.

Two Birds, watercolor, by Robert A. Sloan.

Two Birds, watercolor, by Robert A. Sloan.

Two Birds

Two Birds is a watercolor painting done with a 12-color Sakura Koi watercolor set on watercolor paper. It's an ACEO. I used some of the bamboo strokes and other strokes to create the shapes of leaves and birds; it's in the style I learned from The Sumi-e Book. So if you don't actually have the sumi-e supplies or plan to get them, you can start working with the ideas and techniques in the book just using Western watercolor supplies you have on hand.

I've found that the water brushes available from Sakura and Niji, and other suppliers, are very good for sumi-e effects in watercolor. I wind up doing the darks first, and then as the color wears off the brush, I do the lights. Very often, I'll work monochrome with something like that. So the book is useful even if you don't plan on going the full traditional route with ink stone, ink sticks, and Chinese brushes.

Sumi-e brushes, suzuri ink grinding stone, ink stick.

Sumi-e brushes, suzuri ink grinding stone, ink stick.

Chinese Brushes and Sumi-e Brushes

There are some differences between Western watercolor brushes and Chinese ones. For one thing, the Chinese brushes always come with a loop on the butt end. This is so they can hang from a brush rack to dry, pointing straight down. The concept is so good for protecting the fine points of round brushes that I've been tempted to glue or tape loops to the handles of my Western watercolor brushes and get several of those brush racks, or at least one for my best brushes.

Mine are in a bamboo roll-up that protects them well enough. Some sumi-e kits have elastic bands in the lid of a silk-covered box to keep your brushes from laying on their points. As with watercolor brushes, never put their hair ends down in a bucket or cup of water! You will bend the point and ruin it. Some of them cost as much as the good artist-grade Kolinsky sable watercolor brushes—for similar reasons. Expensive natural fibers, handmade by experts and then imported from far away, the high-end Chinese brushes are just as fine and have different qualities from Western ones.

Instead of watercolor flats, Ms. Mayhall uses a hake brush. This is traditionally soft goat's hair bound onto a paddle-shaped handle from 1" to 4" wide or even wider. Most art supply stores carry them. When you're working large, the big hake brushes are wonderful. Many Western painters use them anyway.

The other general type of brush is a pointed round with a fat belly. Very often these brushes are made with combination hairs, softer longer hairs on the outside coming to the point, and very absorbent hairs in the middle. They're made with wolf hairs and rabbit hairs, and sometimes very expensive ones are made with special Chinese rabbit hairs, goats, ponies, and a wide variety of animal hairs. Sometimes bamboo pens or frayed bamboo brushes are used.

This is an entire tradition as deep and complex as the history of Western painting. Ms. Mayhall gives plenty of information on the history and a good start on understanding the principles of sumi-e, which also gives some introduction to Asian painting as a whole. Understanding the sumi-e principles makes other types of Asian painting more comprehensible when I look at museum examples or websites.

The book has plenty of step-by-step exercises, almost one stroke at a time. All of them result in beautiful classical paintings. My birds came out of the exercises for the Bamboo strokes since she has several types of birds in that section. She also shows how to paint insects, a dragon, animals like pandas, koi, cats, and squirrels, trees, landscapes, buildings, and people. All of her examples have an elegance and poetic conciseness that takes my breath away.

She also has a companion book available, The Sumi-E Dream Book, which I may want to get later on. I'm having so much fun with this one working through it and learning more every time I practice that I'm not sure if I'm ready for it yet, but I know I'll enjoy it when I get it.

Two Trees, watercolor, 4" x 6" by Robert A. Sloan.

Two Trees, watercolor, 4" x 6" by Robert A. Sloan.


I recommend The Sumi-e Book wholeheartedly. This one volume contains everything necessary to get started in traditional sumi-e or to incorporate Asian strokes and design principles into your other artwork. I first found it in the library some years ago and bought it when I had to return it. I knew I couldn't manage to do everything in it within a few short weeks, even renewing the volume.

Used copies are probably available on Amazon or eBay most of the time because people do get rid of other people's books or old books sometimes, even when they're good. This classic has been in print since 1989 and is much more comprehensive than many other books on sumi-e that I've tried. Also, it goes into more depth on the principles.

Yolanda's Ten Rules on page fifteen are excellent suggestions for anyone to master this art in a reasonable amount of time. Most of all, her Rule #4 was liberating.

"Always practice in a way that will lead naturally to a finished painting. Practice in composition, (not isolated details), and with a shaded brush for strokes that require it.

That rule is the author's idea, not something out of other books I've found. It completely changed my approach to practicing many types of art besides sumi-e. Because I started treating any practice strokes as the beginning of a small sketch or painting, I've wound up with some incredible serendipity like the Two Trees I painted above. If I were just covering page after page with repeats of the same stroke, I wouldn't have come up with that or many other beautiful small paintings I've done.

I work small for personal reasons mostly having to do with disability and limited space to spread out for art. You can work to any size you find comfortable. The supplies are so simple that even if you start with the best artist-grade supplies, you won't run out of them for a very long time and won't spend a fortune getting started.

What you'll gain in serenity, stress management, creativity, and better art is priceless.