Yvonne Palka’s Super Simple Sumi-e illustrated book shows Palka’s dexterity with Sumi paintings. Her illustrated book breaks down the steps of this Japanese art form.

“Sumi” is a kind of Japanese ink for art and “-e” is the Japanese for ‘painting’. “Sumi-e” put together is ‘Japanese ink painting’.

This quasi- picture book follows the lines of art instruction books. For instance, Super Simple Sumi-e resembles the existing instruction books for Westernized pen and ink art.

Sumi-e captures the ‘qi’ (chi) of each painting’s object. It is as though a dragon would breathe fire if the artist would draw out a dragon with Sumi ink on rice paper. Palka says that people look at Sumi paintings in the ways of “the brush dances and the ink sings”.

This illustrated work is a 40-page picture book. Although Palka subtitles of her book as “Easy Asian Brush Painting for All Ages”, the idea of Sumi paintings and the concepts that Palka introduces are for about ages 10 and older. Yes, a 10-year old artist may find much awesomeness messing with ink, water, brush and paper to create different paintings.

In some ways, Sumi-ink method is also like watercolor in Western art form, even though the practice of Sumi-e’s “qi” relates differently to, say, an impressionist’s contemplation of nature or other objects of art.

Palka’s illustrated paintings in the book include flowers and bamboos, and mice and snails, birds, pandas and dragons.

Palka sets forth eight types of brush strokes. Together and in different combinations with free-form strokes, these brush art works will draw out the flowers and bamboos, mice and snails, birds, pandas and dragons, and much more that pop up in your imagination.

Let’s take an example – mice and snakes. For a mouse, make one gray ink stab or blob on paper, first. Then a slightly elongated gray stroke beside the blob. Lastly, the tip of the brush is soaked lightly with black ink, using the tip to draw thin lines of the ears, eyes, nose, moustache and tail of the mouse. Then compare your drawing with that of Palka’s. Do they have the likeness of a mouse?

Simpler still, draw a snail. Make a spiral with gray ink. Gray ink is made from diluting with water the black ink on the brush tip. Then draw a curve underneath the spiral. The spiral is meant to stand for the shell of the snail. Use black ink on the brush tip again to draw thin lines of the antennae and nose of the snail, and the marks on its shell.

These are comparatively simple examples as exercises. Complex instances in the book are when we put all these creatures together, where pandas romp around bamboo trees, mice scuttle around snails, birds fly in fancy – this composite picture invites us to the image of a bird sitting on a bamboo branch with mohawk hair atop its head – and lastly, a fire-breathing dragon.

There are many things that Sumi painters may create, many things that stimulate our senses to see, as a Sumi-e artist would see, of nature and creatures. It takes practice and hands-on experience to master this ancient Asian art form. The art is as much ‘re-presenting’ what the Sumi painter ‘sees’ in a particular moment in time as it is for the on-looker to see that in the Sumi painting.

There is some history and cultural background. Palka tells the legend of a boy exiled to a cave on his own, where he drew Sumi pictures of cats on the walls of the cave and found that the cats protected him from a “goblin rat” hovering just outside of the cave during the night. Palka also noted the lineage of Chinese writing characters that influenced Sumi as an art form. She also compared Sumi paintings to Japanese Haiku poetry.

I hope some will think of this Sumi-e picture book as a gift to set someone on a path of discovery about Asian art and the history of Asian cultures.

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