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Celebration of Ink2012.01.30


    Sumi is considered one of the Four Treasures of Calligraphy (文房四宝), Fude 筆 Brush, KamiPaper, Suzuri 硯 Grinding Stone, and Sumi 墨 Ink. Each has its own story, but Sumi is where they all come together.


    The character for Sumi 墨 is written with the radicals for black 黒 and earth 土, though it refers to a type of ink made by craftsmen who mix pine soot with a binding agent known as nikawa, made from animal bone. Sumi is produced in the seasons when the air is cool and dry, and the temperature right for the Sumi stick to harden.


    A delicate fragrance is added, and the mixture is carefully kneaded to remove just the right amount of air and moisture so that the ink will dry and harden properly. The Sumi ink sticks are pressed into a mold with an artistic imprint of the brand. The ink sticks are then wrapped in straw and hung to age for 10 years or longer.


    It is this ink stick which calligraphers and painters use to gently grind with water against the Suzuri grinding stone, releasing a delicate cloud of particles which collect in the well of the Suzuri.


    Depending on the ingredients of the original mixture and the proportion of ink to water, the color reflected in the stroke runs on a scale from black to grey, blue, gold, purple, yes five shades of black.


    The finer the particles, the more nuances are possible in the strokes, although this also depends in no small measure on the quality of the paper and the brush. The patterns of the particles are apparent even under an electron microscope, whereby it is possible to determine if a piece of calligraphy is an original masterpiece or a copy. It would be difficult to label it as a forgery, for copying masterworks was the primary way of learning calligraphy. Nevertheless, even at the microscopic level the patterns of the Sumi particles leave patterns.


    Even in digital scans, or in digital ink such as in the Sumi illustration shown here done on an iPad, the patterns of ink arrange themselves into strokes and shapes that respond to the hand and appeal to the imagination. It is the play of these strokes as they create meaning through words that improves our ability to think, to feel, and reflect on finer things.


    Originally in China there was no separation between the arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, all connected through the brush and Sumi. An excellent book for exploring this art form is The Way of the Brush: Painting Techniques of China and Japan, by Fritz Van Briessen, which delves deep into technique, style, and tradition.


    The power of language is such that even printed letters on a screen have a remarkable power to move and shape the human mind. The Infinite Monkey Theorem has it that statistically speaking, a million monkeys tapping on typewriters would eventually type out all of Shakespeare’s works. According to Ian Hart, “Thanks to the Internet, we know now that this isn’t true.”


    Through the strokes of the brush, the pen, and even the printed page and the power of language, we enjoy the benefits of civilization to preserve and convey culture across generations. In this process Sumi has a special place in Asian culture. For this alone it is worth celebrating the power of ink to make us think.



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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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