Sunday, April 10, 2011


Hello Art-in-a-Box volunteers!  Our project for spring is about Sumi-e:  the art of Chinese and Japanese brush painting.  This lesson is a little different from those in the past in that we will not be using the projector to display images.  Instead, I have several printed images of Sumi-e art that can be passed around the class, as well as traditional Sumi-e tools for the students to see and touch.  I find that this lesson lends itself well to a hands-on approach that I hope will engage the student's interest and involvement in the subject.

The art of Sumi-e is not exclusive to one artist, but is part of the artistic culture of China and Japan.  There are many legends about Sumi-e painting, and I wrote this lesson with the idea that it is part storytelling, part show-and-tell.  We cannot hope to teach Sumi-e in a day, but if we can introduce the students to the basic materials and techniques of this art and spark an interest in learning something new, then I feel this project will be successful.  Please read the lesson to become familiar with the art of Sumi-e, and feel free to add any creative touches you can think of.  At the training, I heard ideas for tea, sushi and kimonos which would all be so fun and memorable for the kids!  Also, I've included a cd of traditional Japanese music to play during the project which should help set the mood.  Thank you for being part of this project!

Sumi-e:  The Art of Chinese and Japanese Brush Painting
Grades K-5

Our Art-in-a-Box project for spring is about Chinese and Japanese brush painting. In Japan, brush painting is called Sumi-e (pronounce the "e" like the "ĕ" sound in egg), which means "ink picture."

History of Sumi-e
Ink painting began in China thousands of years ago. Pictures and calligraphy were painted on scrolls of paper to tell stories. There are many different stories and legends about brush painting. One legend is about a boy who loved to draw cats. His family was very poor and they had to send him away to live at a temple where he could have food and shelter. He was a smart boy, but he loved to draw cats so much he drew them on the ceilings and walls of the temple, and he got in trouble for this. He was told he couldn't stay there anymore, so the boy walked to an old abandoned temple. He didn't know that a rat goblin lived there. When he got to the temple he drew perfect cats on the paper screens that were in the temple, and then he went to sleep. In the middle of the night, the rat goblin came out, but his cats were so lifelike, they sprang to life and ate the rat. According to the legend, the goblin had caused all the crops to fail, and now that the goblin was dead the fields were lush and green. The harvest was so good the boy was able to return home to his family. He became known as a great artist, and every day used his ink and brush to paint at least one cat.

Most of the legends tell of a young boy (an eventual sumi-e master) who drew so life-like, the drawing came to life.  Another story is about a boy who liked to draw when he was supposed to be doing schoolwork.  As a punishment, he was tied to a tree outside.  He used his toe to draw mice in the sand, and the mice came alive and chewed through the ropes to free him. 

Yet another legend about Sumi-e is of an artist who painted a mural of dragons on a wall of a temple, but he didn't paint the eyes of the dragons. He thought that if he painted the eyes, the dragons would come alive. But people insisted that he paint the eyes!  When he did, the dragons came to life and flew away.

The Four Treasures
There are four simple tools used in brush painting that are called The Four Treasures because they are so important. They are the brush, ink, ink stone and paper.

Show the brush in the bamboo holder, the ink stick and rice paper to the class, and pass them around so the students can each look at them.

The Sumi-e Brush: The Sumi-e brush has a handle that is sometimes made of bamboo, and the bristles are made from animal hair such as sheep, deer, rabbit or horse. One Chinese master even saved his cat's whiskers to make into a paintbrush, and sometimes men even use hair from their own beards to make brushes!

The ink stick: The ink is made from different kinds of soot (a dark substance from burning wood) such as pine soot, mixed with glue. It is made into liquid ink by grinding the stick on an ink stone with a little water. In China and Japan, many artists collect ink sticks because they each are different. They have beautiful designs, and some even have a wonderful scent.

Paper: Before there was paper, pictures were painted on wood or bamboo. Now there are many kinds of paper, and a kind of paper called rice paper is popular for Sumi-e painting.

The Three Friends of Winter:

Ask for three volunteers to hold the scrolls. The three scrolls represent the three friends of winter: pine, bamboo and the plum tree

There is a saying in China that the pine tree, bamboo and the plum tree are the three friends of winter. The pine tree is strong, has a long life and lives where is is cold. Bamboo grows straight and tall and keeps it's leaves during the winter. The plum tree blossoms in the spring even when it is still frozen outside, and represents good luck for the coming year.

People who do sumi-e painting practice painting the pine, bamboo and plum tree over and over again to practice brushstrokes.  Once they are good at making brushstrokes they paint other parts of nature like birds, insects, flowers and trees.  Pass around the printed pictures by the Sumi-e master artist Xu Beihong.   

There is not just one person who paints in the sumi-e style, but many people have learned the technique.  Families and children in China and Japan often practice Sumi-e painting for fun.

Ask, "Have you started to see blossoms on the trees here? We are going to paint a plum branch in the Sumi-e style"

Project: Sumi-e Plum Blossom Branch
Grades K-5

Project: Students paint a blossom branch inspired by Sumi-e brush painting

Project Goal: To introduce students to the art of China and Japan by exploring the tools and techniques of Sumi-e brush painting. Most importantly, to have fun trying something new!

Watercolor paper
Black and pink liquid watercolor (we are using Blick Liquid Watercolor)
Small containers/palettes for the pink watercolor
Sumi-e brushes
Red markers
Hole punch/ paper reinforcements
Black ribbon

Project Steps:

If you like, play the included cd of Japanese instrumental music quietly in the background.

1. First, please demonstrate the project to the students. Place a piece of watercolor paper the tall way, then squeeze a small amount of the black liquid watercolor (an area about the size of a nickel) near the bottom of the paper. With the straw held nearly horizontal to the paper, blow the watercolor toward the top of the paper. This works best if you get down on the same level as the paper. Where the watercolor puddles up, blow the paint in different directions to form small branches. Keep doing this until there are no puddles of watercolor.

2. Hand out one piece of watercolor paper and one straw to each student. Remind them they will blow the paint from the bottom of the paper to the top, and it works best if they bend down to look across the paper, and blow the paint with the straw held sideways, not up and down. Come around to each student and squeeze a small puddle of watercolor near the bottom of the paper. (It's fine if the paint blows off the paper and onto the desks--it's completely washable.)

3. Give the students several minutes to blow the paint with the straws, and allow a few extra minutes for the paint to dry a bit. Now demonstrate how to paint blossoms. Place a small amount of pink watercolor in a dish, and use the sumi-e brush to paint the blossoms. Explain that the blossoms can just be dabs of color, or they can draw blossoms with the paintbrush. Hold up the examples so the students see they can paint many blossoms or just a few.
When you are finished painting a few blossoms, take a red marker and write your initials on the bottom right corner of the paper, surrounded by a square. Explain to the students that Asian paintings are signed with a carved letter stamp called a seal. When they are done painting blossoms, they can use the red marker to write a letter from their name surrounded by a square to make their own seal.

4. Hand out the sumi-e brushes, and a small dish of pink liquid watercolor for each table or every few students to share. A little goes a long way--each dish only needs a Tablespoon or two of watercolor to paint the blossoms. Then hand out the red markers.

5. When the student are done, hole punch the paper at the center of the top, and put reinforcement tabs on the front and back side of the hole. Loop the black ribbon through the hole for hanging, and place the included label on the back of the artwork. Thank you!

*For cleanup, please rinse the brushes and shape the tip to a point so they will stay nice for the next class.  Thank you!

My Sources and recommended reading:

Yolanda Mayhall, The Sumi-e Book. Watson-Guptill, 1989.

Naomi Okamoto, Japanese Ink Painting. Sterling Publishing Co., 1996.

The Fine Art of Chinese Brush Painting, Sterling Publishing Co., 2006.

Wu Yangmu, The Techniques of Chinese Painting. Herbert Press, 1990.

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