Become the Brush

“Because they’re the wrong colors, right?
Somebody else’s rainbow.”
| Seanan McGuire

For many years I have been a great fan of sumi-e, drawings made with brush and Japanese sumi ink, often on handmade paper. For me, these drawings contain all the characteristics that distinguish wonderful art: Mostly using only simple black ink and the careful orchestration of white space, Sumi-e beautifully captures the complexity of our natural world in timeless beauty and simplicity.

Sumi-e translates to drawing with black ink ((sumi 墨 = black ink, e 絵 = painting). In Japan, sumi-e drawings with a brush have a long tradition dating back more than two thousand years. Originally, this art was performed by Zen Buddhists who used it to practice their spirituality. By concentrating and perfecting the art, traditional brush drawings take on a meditative character in which the hand and mind must be coordinated. The artist exercises patience and concentration. He tries to balance rhythm and harmony at the same time. Vitality and restraint are required at the same time. In Japanese philosophy, it is assumed that the personality and character of the artist is expressed in every brush stroke. Therefore, time spent with the brush is also personality work.

In sumi-e, artists can experience the difference between a subject’s perceived appearance and the truth. This experience is therefore at the heart of this art form. It is more important in this philosophy of art to capture the inner nature of the subject than to reproduce the exact outer. The art of brush drawing seeks to capture the spirit rather than the semblance of an object.

The question I have is how we in photography might benefit from this mindset? For example, how can we bring our personality more fully into the image? How can we succumb to the temptation to take many pictures with a digital camera and instead step back to consciously capture a single image? How can we photograph from our soul, turning off our head in the process, to capture the essence or spirit of an object?

The video I am linking to is wonderful and shows us how to become the brush ourselves.



Shozo Sato: Sumi-e: The Art of Japanese Ink Painting, Tuttle Publishing, 2010.
Kazuaki Tanahashi – The Brush Mind (Calligraphy)Documentary (2014/15), original source: