Taking in the evening glow, at the unexpected turn by the water path.

Late afternoon by the Limmat river, Zurich, 2021
Water landscape with small boat and passenger, ink on Japanese paper, 2021

This overview of works from my recent exhibition will be completed soon. Did you notice something different in last week’s work and today’s? Sometimes taking an unexpected turn, or change in materials, opens up an entirely different view on your path. Much like suddenly turning around on a walk by the river. The perspective behind you can be just as interesting, if not more, than when you first walked past it from a forward-facing angle. The same view, yet different.

In fact there are three main differences in both water landscape ink paintings.

A different monochrome

The first is that, although they remain monochrome both use a slightly different ink tone from the pure grey tones of the earlier pieces. Both paintings look slightly warmer, in yellow-brown tones. I used only one ink stick, no actual mixing of colors. It just so happens that this particular ink stick mixes pure sumi (Japanese ink) with a yellow pigment named yamabuki (after a yellow mountain rose). You can see the ink stick in the photo below. The photo was taken before last week’s artwork was matted for the exhibition.

Water landscape with deer, ink and scratches on Japanese paper, ​2021

“Broken ink” landscapes

The second difference is the very imprecise nature of the strokes, when compared to the previous works. These two paintings are “broken ink” mountain and water (haboku sansui) landscapes.

To create the main landscape elements of a “broken ink” landscape requires fully wet paper. It is nearly impossible to control the outcome of brushstroke. This is the main goal of this technique – to let go of artistic control and work with the random effects that emerge through the contact with water and paper. Once the main elements are in place, the work is left to dry. When fully dry, the artist adds the few small detail elements which identify a season or subject. In this week’s work, the boat with passenger, in last week’s the deer.

Often there are several works ongoing when creating this type of ink landscape, to make good use of the drying time. I often work with subjects where high control is necessary – birds and flowers. Alternating between techniques provides a good mental attitude challenge.

The most famous broken ink landscape in the history of Japanese art is perhaps the one below. Created in 1495 by Sesshū Tōyō, it is part of a long hanging scroll in the Tokyo National Museum collection.

“Broken ink” mountain water landscape (破墨山水, Haboku sansui), Sesshū Tōyō, 1495, Tokyo National Museum, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Also on the photo above: can you see the tool used to create the scratches that add a three-dimensional feel to the water surface in the landscape with deer? My single clue – it is a tool borrowed from nature.

What a difference paper makes

Finally, both works have something unexpected aside from the painting – the paper choices. Last week’s work breaks away from the square or rectangle shapes, by tearing and feathering the edges to match the contours of the sky elements. This week’s piece is an experiment with yet another Japanese paper – Kumogarashi.

Kumogarashi is mostly a decorative paper. It is extremely translucent, with a glossy surface, not a paper of choice for ink painting. But there is a certain something about its clouds of fibers and translucent pockets. I thought it could lend this quiet landscape a different interest.

All mountain water landscapes on display at the exhibition had a different choice of paper, in fact. I wanted visitors to see how one single choice could affect a sumi-e painting mood.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s additional insight on the creative process. Thank you for reading another zen Monday.

Every Monday is zen Monday. Always a weekly dose of Japanese ink painting coupled with one photograph from my archives. For more in-progress art, follow me on instagram.