Suminagashi: floating inks

The Japanese art of floating inks: from intellectual game to decorative technique, from Zen meditation practice to art therapy, for a better understanding of one’s own emotions.

Luisa Canovi

The art of Suminagashi is born in Japan slightly after the year 1000 as a technique to dye paper through the use of ink (sumi) that floats (nagashi) on water. The traces that the ink leaves behind are then transferred onto a sheet of rice paper that is laid upon the water. Around the year 1000, the country of Japan was living a period of artistic splendor called Heian.

Among the various art forms practiced, particular attention deserved calligraphy using ink that later took on the name of shodoo, the route to writing. Writing through the use of ideograms arrived in Japan around 600 AD from China, together with Buddhism and the secret of paper production. From calligraphy, the art of Suminagashi was born.

THE INSTRUMENTS FOR CALLIGRAPHY, CALLED THE 4 TREASURES, are stone slates (suzuri) on which the ink stick (sumi) is melted and is collected by the paintbrush (hude) which is used to write on the rice paper (kami). Once finished, the painter-calligrapher (in China and Japan there is no distinction between painting and writing, since both are considered art forms) would collect his four treasures. One day, an artist who was a bit more observant than others realized that the brush left harmonious traces on the water in which it was washed.

IN JAPANESE TRADITIONAL CULTURE, inter-twined with mythology about the numerous gods of the shintoo religion, there is a legend that tells of how Suminagashi was a gift from one of the gods to man. But it was probably chance and the intuition of a calligrapher that gave life to the art of floating inks.

Besides the classical 4 treasures for the new art form, a contrast substance is also required so that the ink floating on the water expands creating the concentric circles typical of Suminagashi.

THE PROCEDURE FOR MAKING A SUMINAGASHI PATTERN IS SIMPLE AND RITUAL: all materials and instruments are prepared: a large, shallow bowl containing water, a smaller bowl containing some contrast liquid (ox’s gall or turpentine), two soft, pointed paintbrushes, the stone slate and the ink.

The first step is to dissolve the ink on the stone that has been previously dampened with a few drops of water. This job, slow and constant, puts the artist in a serene state of mind that will ensure the successful outcome of the drawing. Concentrating on his own breathing, the artist then dips one of the brushes in the ink and the other in the ox’s gall and then, with extremely light touches, he pricks the surface of the water always in the same spot, alternating the two brushes. The ink quickly forms a series of concentric circles that will expand to occupy the entire surface available. The drawing thus created will be different and unexpected each time, due to the vibrations emitted by the artist to the water. The artist’s own has only a partial influence on the final result.

When, by listening to an feeling coming from within, the artist retains that the drawing is complete, he puts away the paintbrushes, takes a sheet of paper and delicately lays it on the water until, like magic, he sees the drawing made by the ink appear through the fibers of the sheet. He collects the sheet and places it on absorbent paper to dry.

Before placing the sheet on the water, if the artists wants to, he can create special effects by blowing on the pattern in the water or creating a vortex with a pin or “moving” the ink traces using a fine thread.

The result is that each Suminagashi is absolutely unique. The drawings, even though abstract, still have a visual connection to the elements of nature: rocks, the veins of wood, the whirlpools of water, stormy skies, branches…

IN THE COURSE OF THE CENTURIES, SUMINAGASHI HAS BEEN CONSIDERED A DECORATIVE TECHNIQUE TO DECORATE PAPER AND MAKE PAPER OBJECTS, BUT ALSO AS A BACKGROUND FOR PAINTINGS, PRINTS AND CALLIGRAPHY. Due to he fact that no two drawings are alike, it also seems to have been used as a basis for official documents. In the intellectual life of the Japanese court, it was also used as a divine art form, interpreting happy or unhappy destinies through the harmonious or tormented marks made by the ink. In more recent times, following the widespread of Zen cultures and of artistic techniques such as that of the bow and arrow, the tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arrangements), calligraphy used as a form of meditation, even Suminagashi finds its place as a method to find one’s own interior state.

Thanks to its extremely simple technique, anyone can experiment the great sense of intellectual and aesthetic gratification that floating ink can grant. •

The interpretation of Suminagashi

The interpretation of Suminagashi drawings supplies an indication on the moods of the creator of the drawing itself. The theoretical assumption that underlies the interpretation criteria is based on the fact that each human being is enveloped by a field of frequencies that can be measured through sophisticated instruments created by quantum physics (squid) that represent the quality of his or her biological and emotional life.

The first to “discover” this dimension was the pioneer of molecular biology, Rupert Sheldrake, who called it the “morphogenetic field of learning”. In synthesis, every time we express a thought, manifest a consequent behavior, an emotion, we give a characteristic shape to our frequencies which, in turn, have an impact on other people’s frequencies, interacting and influencing one another reciprocally. This impact happens also with matter, which in this case is constituted by water and ink. Our emotions are impregnated on the paper sheet that absorbs the distribution pattern of the ink in water.

Analysis of two drawings

Drawing A

There is a symbiotic tie with the mother that develops around a deep nucleus of complete identification with motherly vision. This prevents an autonomous vision of the masculine world with which there is apparently no sort of tie at all. Indeed, there appears to be a veritable conflict with the masculine world that pushes the person away form the father. The consequence will be the impossibility of living a serene and balanced relationship with the relative partner.

Drawing B

The author shows strong conflict with the father that makes his emotions fragmentary. He tends to have a strong tie with the mother, even though at times it can be rather critical and not at all peaceful. The strong fragmentation of his interior world would request an elaboration of the emotional traumas of his life. Even though these traumas are old, they prevent a serene integration with the present and a relaxed mood.

Anna Zanardi

Psychologist, expert in psychosomatic science•

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