Artist Finds Peace in Sumi-E Japanese Painting

By PAT JOHNSON | Nov 15, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Artist Glenys Baulderstone enjoys demonstrating the Japanese art of Sumi-e, or ink painting, that she learned while living in Tokyo.

When her executive husband’s company, National Cash Register Corp., transferred him to Tokyo in 1998, Glenys Baulderstone and their family went through culture shock. The family stayed for two years – and “I loved every minute of it,” she told her audience at the Tuckerton branch of the Ocean County Library last week.

She was lucky to find a woman’s club made up of Australian business transplants like herself and Japanese women. Together they took classes in Sumi-e and Ikebana (the art of Japanese flower arrangement) and also explored the city and learned some of the language.

One of her friends also gave her the book Clueless in Tokyo by Betty Reynolds, which explained in a humorous way some of the puzzling things a newcomer would wonder about, such as “What is the Eiffel Tower doing in Tokyo?” (it’s a radio station) and “What is that weird creature lurking in the doorways of restaurants and bars?” (a ceramic badger called Tanuki –a symbol of good times.)

On Thursday, Nov. 9, Baulderstone gave a demonstration on the art of Sumi-e or Japanese ink painting, which translates to “Black Painting.”

Like the Japanese tea ceremony, painting Sumi-e is more than painting; there are traditions to uphold. The implements must always be arranged in a certain pattern: the double porcelain bowl holding water is placed an arm’s length in front of the artist to the right. To the right of the rice paper are the grinding stone and the ink stick; the brush holder is next, holding a specially shaped brush made for Sumi-e painting. Then there are two other small porcelain bowls that hold water and ink for washes. The artist should have four shades of ink, two in the bowls, one on the well of the grinding stone (called the sea), and the darkest ink on the surface of the grinding stone (the land). The act of making ink by moving the ink stick in a circular motion using water is the beginning of the ceremony of making a Sumi-e painting.

“The important part of the process is the ink-making,” said Baulderstone. “The art form came from Zen Buddhist monks from China.”

And the object of Sumi-e is not so much to make an object of art as it is to let the beauty of the world translate to the paper through the artist’s memory and practiced brushstrokes.

“Sumi-e is a form of expressionistic art that is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the object, but to capture the essence and spirit of the subject,” she explained. “The Impressionists (and Post Impressionists) like Vincent Van Gogh were influenced by Japanese and Chinese art.

“You should become one with the object you are painting. My Japanese friends are very into personification. One of my Japanese friends put a statue on a cushion and told me ‘so it won’t be uncomfortable on the hard shelf.’

“No beginner would sit at a table and start painting. First you would learn to copy the masters. You would always copy; it would be considered arrogant of a student not to copy from someone better,” said Baulderstone.

She took lessons from the well-respected artist Shoko Onta, a third-generation fine art painter and descendant of calligraphers of the Shogun in the Edo period.

“Her class was organized by the Australian Embassy and consisted of three Australian women and four Japanese women who met every other week for a full day of painting in the ancient methods. It was heaven.”

The first four subjects a student learns to paint are “The Four Gentlemen,” representing the seasons. The first is bamboo, which represents summer.

Baulderstone showed how to hold the brush and push it down to make the stalk of the bamboo and then using the tip of the brush and darker ink from the “land” to make the ribs, branches and leaves.

The second “gentleman” was “Chrysanthemum,” representing fall; this looked astonishingly simple as the artist made one curved brush stroke after another. To make the leaves, she “squished” the brush. This demonstration was followed by the Plum Blossom painting representing winter, as it is the first flower to bloom to mark the winter’s end. The last “gentleman” is a wild orchid to represent spring.

The audience was wowed by the graceful swoops of the brush that created the leaves of the orchid.

Baulderstone also painted her favorite flower, a peony, and its beauty was created right before our eyes, stroke by stroke.

“In Japan, they decorate in time with the seasons,” she said. “I went to buy a painting of an iris, and the salesperson said, ‘But summer is almost over, you will have to put it away until next year!’ I bought it anyway, and here I leave it up all year ’round. But in Japan, people do not hang pictures of flowers out of season.”

Baulderstone said she also learned to hold a small ball, a squash ball, in her hand while painting as a way to hold the brush correctly. “In Japan they suggest holding an egg, but I wasn’t that confident. I could see I would squeeze it too hard.”

Glenys Baulderstone is a member of the Pine Shores Art Association and teaches Sumi-e workshops there from time to time (the next time will be in August). She and her husband, Ken, are the gracious hosts of the PSAA bus trips to museums. 

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