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

Sumi-e: Japanese Ink Painting at the Bemis School of Art

Sometimes the most obvious blog topics slip my mind. Like writing about an art class I attended for my blog about art. I’ll pretend that was just my brain on summer vacation. But now it’s September and my mind’s back on track (I hope).

At the end of August, the Fine Arts Center hosted visiting artists Tei Kobayashi and Sensou Miyajima. They taught several classes through Bemis School of Art, gave an artist talk, and have two on-going exhibitions in Colorado.

The Instructors

Tei Kobayashi was born in the US but currently lives in Japan. She received her undergraduate degree at Colorado College and went on to study Taoism under masters including Gia Fu Feng, and both Chinese and Japanese ink painting. Tei frequently visits Denver, her home base.

Sensou Miyajima is a calligraphy master. Unfortunately, I don’t know as much about her and couldn’t dig up a biography in English. I only took one of Tei’s classes, but Sensou was also there to help us out and was lovely.

Sumi-e: Japanese Ink Painting

The class I took was Sumi-e or Japanese ink painting. There were also classes on Shodo (or Japanese calligraphy, taught by Sensou Miyajima) and on combining Sumi-e and Shodo. The culminating class then took both Sumi-e and Shodo and mixed in ceramics. Since my class was the first in the series, I met a few lucky souls who planned to take all four courses.

Tei packed so much into just one class that I can’t imagine how much I’d have learned from taking all four.

Sumi-e Japanese Ink Painting

Why Japanese Ink Painting?

This series of classes caught my eye when they mentioned ink grinding. When my mom was a kid, she excelled at calligraphy and even when to a competition to represent her school. Whenever she tells me this story, she speaks of grinding ink on a stone. Probably like you, I had no idea what this meant.

Then I spent two years in Korea…and never learned a thing about Korean ink painting or calligraphy. It’s one of my biggest regrets. But now, here in this catalog, was a class on Japanese ink painting where we’d be grinding our own ink. This had to have some similarities, right? In any case, I love pen and ink, and I like painting, so I was going to make it to this class.

Heading Out like a Normal Person

The Sumi-e class was on a Wednesday, from 9 am to 4 pm. That’s like a full day of school. Since I’m a freelance writer and haven’t attended any 7-hour-long scheduled events in a long while, this was a bit of a shock to my system.

I packed myself a lunch and headed out, missing the worst of the morning commute traffic and weaving around the perpetual road construction sites. An employee at the center welcomed me with a parking pass – good because I didn’t remember how that worked – and followed her instructions to my classroom.

Learning New Materials

Sumi-e Japanese ink painting supplies

I found the room a little over half full, with neat stations set up for each attendee. We each received several sheets of rice paper atop a sheet of black felt, a decorative rock that held the paper down, two new brushes, an ink stone, a tiny wooden box, and a rolled up bamboo type thing.

Sumi-e Japanese ink painting ink blockThe tiny wooden box turned out to be a block of ink, and the bamboo thing was roll-up paintbrush holder.


After introductions, we got started.


Our first task was to grind our ink. It was a slow meditative practice, except that after watching Sensou grind extra ink for a demonstration, you realized that ink grinding didn’t have to be that slow.


Lots and Lots of Bamboo

Once we had enough ink, we began to paint. First subject: bamboo. We’d go through the four paragons: bamboo, orchid, plum, and pine. We also did chrysanthemum though, so I’m not sure which is the odd one out. In any case, we spent the entire morning on bamboo.

Bamboo is the simplest paragon and teaches you all the basic strokes. And the strokes were important. The process of Sumi-e takes just as much practice as producing the end result.

First there was the bamboo stalk, which required movement from the entire body, or at least the whole arm. I was repeatedly corrected and told not to draw or paint – no wrist movement, no flicking the brush. Stay with it the whole way.

The phrase we used to remember the process was “pause, breath, pause.” It took a lot of messing up and repeated corrections for me to start getting it right. I had several little epiphanies along the way – oooh right,  a bamboo segments are skinnier in the center! They were like dumbed down light bulb moments; things that should have been obvious or that Tei had already explained, but it took practice these things to actually click.

And that was just the bamboo stalk. Then we moved to the nodes, super thin lines that feathered across each segment of bamboo stalk, and then bamboo leaves – which took a surprising amount of time to get used to painting.

After a lunch break, we moved on to the other paragons. Since we were running low on time – we still had to complete a final piece and a seal – Tei asked us to focus on the paragon we wanted to learn most. I watched the demonstrations for chrysanthemum and orchid but decided to focus on plum.

Here’s my final piece, complete with crooked hand-carved seal. At least Sensou thought the seal was cute.

Sumi-e Japanese ink painting final plum painting with red background

Fortunately, I tackled the final piece early and had time to try orchids and chrysanthemum.

Something about willingly attending a 7-hour class makes you feel closer to the people in the room. It’s probably just the amount of time we spent together. We celebrated our final paintings, took a group photo, hugged Tei, and left Sensou with our heartfelt thanks.


Bonus Session:

Sumi-e Japanese ink painting at home ink stone and brush

I had an ink painting session at home a week later, using heavyweight drawing paper. I ended up doing a slew of artist trading cards and ran out of surfaces to paint on.

Sumi-e Japanese ink painting at home paintings

With no teacher over my shoulder I was free to paint any way I wanted, but that felt like cheating. Besides, the paintings didn’t look as good when I went rogue. So I continued to repeat to myself, “pause, breath, pause.”


Current Exhibitions

You can still see the work of Tei Kobayashi and Sensou Miyajima in Colorado Springs and Boulder (and probably Denver somewhere, but I don’t know where).

Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Bemis Gallery, at Colorado College until December 30th

Boulder: University of Colorado, Norlin library until October 27th