Struggling through Art Practice: Reflections of a Sumi-e Beginner

After writing up my last post on taking a Sumi-e class, I was excited to do another at-home art session. As someone who hasn’t kept up a serious art practice since college, the idea of dedicating multiple hours to an art practice seemed a bit overwhelming. The last few years, I’ve done my art in short spontaneous bursts.

Recently, I spoke with a pastel artist at an art fair. I really liked her work and since I had a set of pastels at home, I thought I might give them another try. She recommended that I start by giving myself 3-hour blocks of time to work.

Woah, three hours? I thought to myself. I don’t have time for that. I’m constantly spinning my wheels writing and looking for more writing work; how can I just take three hours out of my work day?

Then I took that 7-hour Sumi-e class.

I’m not likely to ever spend 7 consecutive hours on Sumi-e ever again, but suddenly 3-hour sessions were feeling a lot more reasonable.

It’s funny how related experiences and pieces of information can come into your life at just the right time, in just the right combination. That’s serendipity, right? Because next I came across an article that mentioned that being busy doesn’t equate to productiveness. And boy do I understand that firsthand.

In short, all of these forces were telling me, do the art already. I can make time to do art for a few consecutive hours of my life without my freelance business falling apart.

But I still waited for Saturday.

Sumi-e Beginner title image

Sumi-e Beginner Strikes Again

Saturday morning I was ready. I excitedly took out my Sumi-e supplies, cut some paper, and ground my ink. And then…

I struggled.

I don’t know exactly what it was. Maybe everyone being at home on Saturday made the house feel too busy. Maybe it was too loud. Or I was distracted. Maybe I had my mind on other things, or maybe growth can’t always be linear.

Sure, we practice a skill and become better. And it seems like that growth is a steady, upwards path. But we forget about the outliers.

My first time doing Sumi-e at home went well. I was relaxed and easily drawing on what I’d learned, however imperfectly. I was happy with the majority of the work I produced.

sumi-e beginner 9 bamboo from first session

Naturally, I expected my second session to be even better. I made plans to try painting other subjects – something I’d attempted the first time, but only barely. Here are my failed attempts at Sumi-e succulents:

sumi-e beginner failed succulents

This time I’d do better. I’d warm with more bamboo and orchids and chrysanthemums.Then, using the Sumi-e strokes I knew, I’d try other stuff, like cats and scenery.

Only, I got stuck on the warm-ups. My bamboo looked really bad that Saturday. The simplest stroke, you know, the first one we’d learned with the pause, breath, pause thing?, I couldn’t even manage to get that right.

I moved on to orchids and chrysanthemums anyway, unsatisfied with my work. By the end of my session, I did make progress. And I did spend about three hours doing art, which I suppose was the goal, but I spent a lot of that time in a dissatisfied head space.


Well that’s a disappointing ending, you might be thinking. And we’re already at the conclusion, which isn’t supposed to present any new information, so that’s it, isn’t it?

In a way, that is it. Part of getting back into a regular art practice is me remembering that not every session is going to be amazing. I don’t like being a beginner. I’d rather be an expert. Right away. Being a beginner again is humbling and uncomfortable, two feelings that I want to be okay with.


But unhappy or ambivalent endings are no fun, so here’s one small victory. I’m getting better at Sumi-e succulents:

sumi-e beginner zebra succulents