The Four Noble Ones

So I’ve officially taken up sumi-e painting. “Sumi” means “ink” and “e” means “picture” or “painting.”  I first became interested in this art form, which has its roots in Chinese calligraphy, when I was in Japan for the New Year. While visiting my husband’s obaasan (his grandmother), at her house, I couldn’t stop staring at some of the Japanese-style drawings hanging on her walls. They were so simplistic, by this I mean they used very few brushstrokes, and yet they captured the essence of the subject, in this case a bird, perfectly. She noticed me staring and told me that her husband was the artist and that he even had a special artist name, kind of like a pen name. The artist’s signature is called a seal, as it is a character stamped on the drawing. I’m not sure yet what my seal will be, but for now I’m using the stamp given to me on my wedding day, which has the character for my husband’s surname.

I also had the honor of going to Miyajima, an island off the coast of Hiroshima. There is a shrine there featuring a beautiful gate in the water. We also visited The Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats, a wooden structure created to pray for fallen soldiers. I was drawn to the artwork displayed in the hall, especially the paintings of horses. The simplistic brush strokes used to draw their features, particularly the movement of their legs, made me see this majestic animal, and painting in general, in a whole new way. Needless to say, I couldn’t stop thinking about those horses.

I came home and using my new colored ink. I tried my hand at drawing these horses, only mine were blue. You can see that in a previous post. I actually used chopsticks instead of a traditional brush. But this dabbling wasn’t enough. I decided to research this kind of drawing, and what do you know, I discovered a whole new art form.

Susan Frame offers a great introduction to sumi-e painting. You can view an interview with her conducted by Jeanne Emrich here. I was amazed to discover that sumi-e painting is compared to the style characteristic of Impressionism. Some of my favorite artists, including Monet and Van Gogh, came from this period. Ironically, there is a story suggesting that some of these artists, including Van Gogh, actually became influenced by sumi-e. It seems to me, with my limited knowledge of both types of painting, that the main difference in the two styles is that Impressionist paintings try to capture something transitory while sumi-e paintings try to express the eternal. Also, pure Impressionists avoided the use of black while pure sumi-e painters only used black, but in such a way as to bring out all the colors of the rainbow through tone.

I was lucky enough to find Susan Frame’s book as well as one by Naomi Okamoto on sumi-e painting at the library. It is interesting to note that this art form was originally practiced by Zen monks. I like how Susan Frame refers to it as a meditative practice, especially grinding the ink. According to her, you have to clear your mind before you start, and then try to become your subject. What a great concept!

Something else from Frame’s book grabbed my attention. She said, “The vigor and strength in each stroke contribute to the overall life force of the painting. Strong strokes make a vibrant painting, and indecisive strokes make a weak one.” Where had I heard this concept before? Ah, yes. Picture book author and illustrator Lisa Jahn-Clough discussed this very thing in Illustrating Children’s Picture Books by Withrow. She’s a mostly self-taught artist and she talked about having a “confident line.” This concept stuck with me. In fact, I’m still thinking about it….

So now we get to the heart of this post and the reason for its title: “The Four Noble Ones” (also referred to as “The Four Gentlemen,” but speaking as a gentlewoman artist you can perhaps see why I’d choose the former.) This term refers to the four subjects painted by beginning sumi-e artists, who are taught all the basic brush strokes using these subjects. The subjects are: the the wild orchid, bamboo, the chrysanthemum, and the plum blossom. These subjects also symbolize the four seasons respectively: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The desired personality traits attributed to each are what give these subjects their identity. The wild orchid represents grace, bamboo represents strength and flexibility, the chrysanthemum represents righteousness, and the plum blossom represents austerity.

Here is my first foray with these subjects. I do not know when or if I will master them. But I’m looking forward to the process of sumi-e painting. May it be a lifelong journey and time well spent.





6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. biscuitsspace
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 13:32:31

    I really like the one entitled “Haru.”


  2. Laurie Walters
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 15:56:38

    Love these!


  3. Trackback: Highlighting the Journey « Artwork and Musings by Angie Kidd
  4. Lulu
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 06:00:24

    Dear Angela,

    I allowed myself to post a link to your paintings on our Facebook page – love the fact that you refer to them as “The Four Noble Ones” 😉




  5. Trackback: Yohaku | Artwork and Musings by Angie Kidd

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