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East Meets West - A Guest Artist Presentation

Since the last half of the nineteenth century, the Japanese philosophy of “aesthetics”, and it’s accompanying artistic disciplines have both delighted and intrigued Western artists including American painters, like James McNeill Whistler and William Merrit Chase, who, on many occasions, allowed the principles, and practices of Japanese art to influence the direction of their paintings.

It would be presumptuous for me to attempt to encapsulate the “classical” philosophy of Japan in a short newsletter, but a few observations may lend some assistance in understanding the beautiful paintings of my guest artist.

A Buddhist understands that our basic reality is in constant flux, that nothing is permanent. The arts of Japan have traditionally reflected this fundamental impermanence – sometimes lamenting, but more often celebrating it. Rather than despair at this condition of impermanence, the Japanese Buddhist rallies to the call for vital activity in the present moment, and gratitude for each moment that is granted.

The arts in Japan are deeply connected with the practice of “self-cultivation”. All of the arts are most closely associated with “ways of living” rather than mere reproduction. So it is not unusual, in Japan, for an artist to be, for example, a fine potter, a master archer and a poet, as well.

No one I know exemplifies this more than my good friend, and guest artist, Marilyn Leuszler.

Marilyn lived in Japan for ten years, where she studied Sho-do (Japanese Brush Calligraphy), Sumi-e (Black Ink Painting) and Nihon Shishu (Traditional Japanese Silk Embroidery) with renowned Japanese masters. While living there she also studied Pottery, Ink Stone Making, Sumi Ink Making and Paper Making. She also studied Dry-brush Charcoal Painting in Thailand and Woodcarving in Bali, Indonesia.

Her work has exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is included in private and corporate collections in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Marilyn’s Sumi-e employs the principles of nature’s vitality in its design and execution. Her brush painting aims to depict the “spirit”, rather than the “semblance” of her subjects. Through patience, self-discipline and concentration, she paints in the language of the “spirit”, distilling the essence from each subject. Her brushwork dances masterfully between vitality and restraint.

If you have questions or comments, you can reach Marilyn at

I now turn this over to Marilyn. Enjoy!




Sumi-e, like all other of the Japanese arts, is not referred to as such, but rather as “the way of Sumi-e.”  The word, “geido,” most closely expresses “the way of art.”  Even after ten years of intense study in the traditional arts of Japan, I would not begin to consider myself an expert at any.  The Japanese study for a lifetime, with the benefit of a shared history, culture and philosophy, and I merely scratched the surface.  I humbly offer what knowledge and training I gathered while living and studying there.

Sumi-e, literally translated, means “black-ink picture.”  Following are two descriptions, the first from my teacher of ten years, and the second from a Master in Tokyo.  Note that both mention Zen Buddhism.

“To be sumi-e, a black-ink painting must be like a living thing alive with the power to stir the hearts and emotions of all who see it.  For a painting to live, every line and even every dot within it must live.  And the lines that are said to live in sumi-e are the lines that remain after everything unnecessary to the subject has been excluded from its portrayal.  Sumi-e, in other words, communicates the essence of nature.”

“In sumi-e, as in Zen, nothing is wasted and the world is expressed in a language reduced to the farthest, most essential limits.”

Ms. Kumiko Hirayama, Sumi-e Master
Tokyo, Japan

“From the most complicated natural view, the artist must take the essence of the view and translate his impression of it onto paper.  The artist is the means through which this essence appears in the painting.”

“It is noteworthy that those who follow Zen Buddhism, poems and paintings are considered as coming from the same great spiritual force.”

“As Japanese poems are usually a few words that only suggest a thought, so the paintings that accompany them are just a few lines that suggest an idea.”

Mr. Ryukyu Saito, Sumi-e Master
Tokyo, Japan 


Sumi………………….Charcoal, black ink                                    Suzuri……………….Inkstone
Sumi-e……………...Black-ink painting                                    Kami…………………Paper
Fude……………….…Brush                                                            Hanko……………….Stamp

SUMI:                        Ink is made by combining the soot collected from burning wood, the finest 
being made from red pine, a glue extracted from fish bones, and a preservative somewhat like incense.  The mixture is kneaded and shaped by hand or in a carved wooden mold and then dried slowly over many months to prevent cracking.  Some Master sumi-makers, especially in Kyoto, use soot collected from burning oils instead of wood, the distinction being only in the subtle differences in color and sheen of the resulting ink. 


FUDE:            A brush used for painting or writing.  The calligraphy brush has a firmer center than one used for painting, although both are generally made of a combination of hair from the weasel and the hare.  There are many variations of hair, feathers and bamboo used in brush-making.

In traditional, formal sumi-e, a single brush is used for all painting, from fine lines to wide, loose brush strokes and washes.


SUZURI:            A carved inkstone with a slight well for holding water and a flat, smooth surface on which the sumi stick is gently rubbed with the water to produce ink.  The quality and price depend on the smoothness of the stone used, as well as its maker.  Many are intricately carved, and the finest are passed down for generations.  Most of the inexpensive ink “stones” purchased in kits today are made of a plaster material and are not of high quality.


KAMI:            Paper.  Known in the West as “rice paper,” Japanese paper is actually made from the bark of a specific type of mulberry tree.  The bark is stripped, soaked in water, cleaned of impurities and rough bits, bleached, pounded into a pulp, and finally mixed with water.  The pulp mixture is placed into a large vat of water and a screened frame dipped into the vat, moved to evenly distribute the pulp and raised to allow the water to drain out.  The finished paper is then turned out of the frame.  A stack of wet sheets is pressed to remove as much water as possible, and then the sheets are separated and dried.  Papers are divided into machine- or hand-made.  There is a great difference in the amount of sizing used in various papers.  One with little or no sizing will absorb the ink very easily, allowing it to spread, while a paper with a great deal of sizing will not absorb the ink and finer edges are possible in the painting.  For non-traditional painting, I like BFK Rives, a French paper used for print making.  It mimics the soft, non-sized Japanese paper, has beautiful deckle edges, and comes in white and a soft gray.


HANKO:            Stamp.  Carved from stone, the hanko is used in Asia as we in the West would use a personal signature.  The characters used for the name are specific to a person, and an artist’s “name” is generally earned and given by a Master or teacher.  Marble and jade are commonly used as they are easily carved materials and last for many years.  A red, waxy material made of cinnabar is used with the hanko to create the stamped signature.




You have seen, no doubt, scrolls and paintings in the Asian, or Oriental style.  There is a vast difference between the Chinese and Japanese, painting style.  While ink is the primary medium in both, mineral and vegetable pigment colors are used much more readily in Chinese paintings.  As well, Chinese work is more “flowery,” with more of the paper or silk being painted upon.  Japanese Sumi-e reduces the subject to a minimum and uses more blank space to balance the subject.  What we in the West call “negative space,” is, in Japanese Sumi-e, as important to the finished work as is the painted subject matter.

Most subjects will be directed to the left.  Odd numbers of subject matter are used for balance.  While the Kanji character for the number “four,” is different from that for “death,” both are pronounced “shi,” so one stays away from using four points of interest in the painting.  For the same reason, there is no fourth floor in a Japanese hospital.  The triangle is used to plan placement of subject matter, again for balance with blank areas, and much as the rule of thirds is used in Western painting. 

The first two most important choices when beginning a painting are paper and ink.  As mentioned before, the more sizing in a paper, the less the ink is absorbed.  As well, the larger the particles in the ink, the less it is absorbed.  The combination of the two is very important.  For crisp, sharp lines and edges, choose a sized paper and ink that is produced from larger particles of soot.  For a softer look, with edges that bleed somewhat, non-sized paper and ink made with finer particles should be chosen.  There is no way, other than testing both, that you can determine what will happen with any combination.  I have found that a French print-making paper, BFK Rives, is a fine substitute for my favorite, heavy, handmade Japanese paper.  I can get crisp edges or soften the lines with a water wash first.  It is readily available at fine art stores and
on-line, and comes in white and a soft gray.

I studied brush calligraphy for three years before being allowed to use bottled ink and we never were allowed such luxury in my Sumi-e classes.  As an American, I was very impatient and didn’t, at first, enjoy spending 30 to 45 minutes rubbing the ink stick on the stone in order to produce the proper thickness of ink.  Once I finally gave in to it, I found it a very pleasing preparation to painting.  It relaxed me, cleared my mind, and I found myself more able to create the fluid brushstrokes that I imagined.  At that point, my teacher explained that I had come to understand the principal of “mu.”  Basically, it is “nothingness.”  One cannot learn anything new until the mind is emptied and open to new thoughts.  I felt as though I had attained enlightenment! 

The darkest ink is generally not used throughout an entire painting, but is transferred from the ink stone by brush into a white porcelain dish with small wells and mixed with water to produce shades from the darkest to a very subtle gray.  The brush can be loaded from light to dark to produce instant shading in a single stroke.

The brush is not held like a pencil, but instead, held in the middle or even toward the end of the handle, perpendicular to the fingers and not resting in the crook of the thumb and first finger.  It takes time to become comfortable with this, but it helps in creating the fluid, rhythmic strokes of traditional sumi-e.  If you are painting in Western fashion, holding the brush a certain way is of no importance.

Once paper and ink are chosen, it then becomes a question of the “feeling” you want as the end result of the painting To use dark, light, or a combination of shades of ink; a steady or varied pressure of the brush; with a wet or dry brush?  It is often said that the first stroke determines the fate of the painting, so much deliberation should enter into the decisions before that first stroke is made.  Mentally arrange the painting before beginning.  Practice on newsprint or a roll of inexpensive Japanese paper if you don’t feel comfortable with the layout or techniques. 


(click on any picture to enlarge)

Step 1:                       

For the quick, fluid brushstrokes used in a traditional style, I prefer Japanese paper.  I choose paper and ink according to the result I want and in this case, will use a lightly sized paper and an ink stick made with fine particles.  I do not normally sketch anything on the paper, but rather mentally create the positioning of the fish.  With a Zen principal, there will be nine fish swimming toward a single goal, but within the parameters of reaching the goal, are all swimming in a slightly different direction.  To help, I have drawn simple lines to show where I’ll paint the fish.

Step 2:

I begin by wetting the brush with clear water and remove most of it by gently rubbing the brush against the side of my water container.  Paper towel can also be used to absorb most of the water in the brush.  I have mixed Sumi Ink with water to create five shades and I dip a third of the damp brush in a medium-black ink and the tip just slightly in the darkest ink=water mixture.  I now have clear water and two shades of ink on the brush.  With a quick stroke, I paint the upper half of each fish, dark tip along the top edge of the stroke, reloading the brush as needed, but varying the combination of inks on the brush so all fish are not the same.  If the brush runs out of ink before finishing a stroke, DO NOT try to add ink to the brush and paint over the initial stroke.  Simply continue the stroke to completion.  The dry-brush portion of the stroke is a positive addition to the image and leaves the viewer to visually complete it.

Step 3:

While the paper is still damp, randomly place small dots in the strokes with the darkest ink.  You want them to bleed a bit, but not so much as to blend with the lighter color.  Add some as well to the unpainted area just below the stroke.  Remember, less is more.  With a medium ink, add the dorsal fins on top of the fish.

Step 4:

With a very dry brush, dip only the tip in the pure Sumi ink and with quick strokes and no pressure whatsoever, complete the shapes of the fish by creating the line on the bottom of each.  Again, don’t worry if the lines skip..  It adds visual interest and lets you know that the brush, rather than the artist, has control.  With varying values of ink and quick strokes, paint the tails, changing direction based on each fish,

Step 5:

With the pure Sumi ink on the tip of the brush and a light touch, add the eyes and gills.  Next, varying from light to medium ink, use quick strokes to paint the pectoral fins.  Lastly, choose the location for the signature and stamp, if used.  It should never compete with the overall continuity of the painting and should be placed to the rear or under the subject.  If the subject is facing the signature, it is said to afford too much pride to the artist and take away from the value of the image as a whole.






Step 1:

When working with a more painterly style than traditional Sumi-e, I do a rough sketch on the BFK Rives paper.  Normally, it would be very light, but for the purpose of photography, it’s darker here.  The sketch lays out the basic shapes and placement.  The details come as I work.


Step 2:

I do a light wash with water in the area above the ducks.  Much like cooking, it simply “feels” right when the paper is just damp enough that the ink spreads evenly.  Too dry and the edges are too sharp.  Too wet and the ink simply runs, creating odd-shaped pools and swirls instead of a gradual nuance of tonality.  I first run very light brush strokes along horizontal lines on each side of the paper.  This denotes slight changes in the surface of the otherwise calm water.  The value of the ink here is almost nonexistent, and hopefully, can be seen in the photograph.

Step 3:

Once the above areas have dried, I continue to the ducks.  As with the water wash, the same is true when loading the brush; a little bit goes a long way.  I will lightly dampen an area, and then dip the brush in the blackest sumi ink and lightly run just the tip along the edge I want to be darkest and let it bleed to the lightest value on its own.  This takes practice, but don’t give up as the result is smooth and pleasing.  If an area is to be all one shade, it’s simply painted in, but I don’t do this often as I like softer lines of demarcation between lights and darks.

Step 4:

When satisfied with the ducks, it’s on to the water in the foreground.  I will often begin with the darkest areas and work to the lightest.  It makes it easier than going back and forth between shades of ink.  It is also here that I determine the number of shades to use; in this case, I mixed five, testing them on paper until I happy with the range.  I continue adding to the rippled water until I first question whether or not I need more…….that’s when I stop and let it dry, coming back to it a bit later.  I usually find I can stop at this point.  I can always add more, but can’t take brush strokes out once painted.  Finally, I choose the location of the signature and stamp, and it’s finished.  I generally use a 4” mat and a very simple frame so as to reject complexity and continue the idea of minimalism. 


I am including several images, both of traditional and non-traditional Sumi-e to give you a better feeling for the work I do.  I love the aesthetics of Japanese and other Asian arts and will be ever grateful for the opportunity to study it.  I hope you will find this interesting and that it will perhaps inspire you to give it a try.

Old Men Playing Go

Wind in the Garden



Fishers Peak)

Grazing #18