Sunday 26 June 2011

Suminagashi: Painting on Water

When I saw the words, I at first thought there must be another meaning, a double meaning, or some sort of interpretation of "water". Well no, this is actually what the artist does: he or she literally paints on water. Now there's a canvas I had never considered before.

The artist works with a shallow pool of water in a rectangular container. He drops paint onto the surface and it spreads out in a circular pattern. Using a stick, he spreads the paint out or swirls it around forming shapes. Of course, the results are in no way permanent so the artist spreads a rectangular piece of paper, the same shape as the container on the surface of the water where the paper absorbs the paint. VoilĂ , you now have a painting which has involved no brush and the most unusual of techniques.

The following video demonstrates this art. Personally, I find this gentleman, coupled with the music, to be quite hypnotic. Enjoy.

Published on Jul 11, 2010 by bitbocs
Painting on Water

Decorating paper with inks in this manner is known as paper marbling and apparently dates back over 2,000 years ago in China. The Japanese technique called Suminagashi, literally "ink-floating", involved dropping ink on water then having the artist blow across the water to create swirls and patterns. The use of a stick to displace the ink came afterwards and seems to be the preferred method in modern times for transforming the circular spots of ink into other patterns.

As a sidebar, the term marbled paper may not be familiar today but was previously used quite frequently in book binding. It served mainly to hide the binding itself. You would find marbled paper on the inside of the front and back covers hiding the spine to give a more aesthetic look.

In following video, the artist takes a different approach to creating his canvas. He creates several intermediary drawings which he then wipes out to create something else. This strikes me as an interesting aspect of some live art. The desired results are not necessarily the end product, the canvas, but the process of doing. In other words, the filming of what the artist is doing becomes the art. We watch him make a drawing; we look at the results; he wipes it out and starts another one. It is only at the end with the final drawing that he lays down the paper to capture this final image.

Uploaded by iamgood119 on May 30, 2010
Chinese Water Painting
Artist: Zhu Lin
Music: 'Blue-White Porcelain' by Jay Chow

Final Word
Off the top of my head, I don't remember if I had ever seen this painting technique before. Maybe I have but I've just forgotten. Whatever the case, this "new" introduction to the art is quite mesmerising. Having an overhead camera film the artist's movements as he drops his inks then swirl them around is delightful. It is surprising to watch these deft actions transform blobs of ink into recognisable objects such as flowers, mountains, and even faces. Ah, how wonderful are the skills of a painter to convert the raw materials of paint and canvas into a picture of beauty.

Take a video of the artist working on his water canvas; add some interesting music and you have a hypnotic and relaxing "new age" film. I have visited various workshops of artists where you can watch them execute their craft and it can be fascinating to watch their skilled hands carry out their creative trade. Watching them do this can be as interesting as the final product, the work of art itself.

I have left some Google searches below, both for web pages and videos. There are a lot of materials out there and numerous videos so you can further explore Suminagashi and while away some hours watching various artists practise this most ancient of paper marbling techniques.


Suminagashi is the ancient Japanese technique of decorating paper with inks. It is believed to be the oldest form of marbling, originating in China over 2,000 years ago and practiced in Japan by Shinto priests as early as the 12th century. Suminagashi (sue-me-NAH-gah-she), which means literally "ink-floating" involves doing just that. Japanese Sumi-e inks were originally used, dropped carefully to float on a still water surface and then blown across to form delicate swirls, after which the ink was picked up by laying a sheet of white rice paper atop the ink covered water.

The practice of Suminagashi remains much the same today, although now artists also use acrylic paints that flow and spread over a liquid water surface. Combining the knowledge of fluid mechanics with artistic talent, the artist controls the floating pigments through the viscosity and surface tension of the water to create images suggestive of mountain ranges, landscapes, clouds and animals before printing them on a sheet of paper. The europeans had their own version of marbling also called Ebru or Turkish-style marbling.

Suminagashi: Decorative Papers
Marbling, as it is known to bookbinders, is a method of making patterned paper by transferring colour from the surface of a liquid to paper. These papers are then used for the endpapers, to hide the lumps and bumps caused by leather turn-ins and cords, or to cover the sides of books where patterned papers don't show marks of wear so easily as plain papers.

The traditional manner of marbling paper is often called "Turkish" marbling or ebru because it originated in the old Ottoman empire of the 15th century. Water-based inks containing ox gall (bile) as a dispersant are floated on the surface of water thickened with gum tragacanth or carragheenan moss (actually a seaweed). The colours are then drawn into patterns by means of sticks or combs, specially-prepared paper is laid gently on the surface, left for a few seconds, and just as gently removed, rinsed (to wash off dirty size or excess colour), and hung to dry. Papers used should be fairly hard-surfaced and treated with alum as a mordant to take the pigment and to improve colour tone and colour fastness.

Wikipedia: Paper marbling
Paper marbling is a method of aqueous surface design, which can produce patterns similar to smooth marble or other stone. The patterns are the result of color floated on either plain water or a viscous solution known as size, and then carefully transferred to an absorbent surface, such as paper or fabric. Through several centuries, people have applied marbled materials to a variety of surfaces. It is often employed as a writing surface for calligraphy, and especially book covers and endpapers in bookbinding and stationery. Part of its appeal is that each print is a unique monotype.

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1 comment:

BigLittleWolf said...

I've never seen this. SUPER cool.