Sumi-e: An Art Form based 100% in Nature

Tamayo Samejima
2 min readJan 5, 2021
Sumi-e painted Kimono

Years ago, a gallery owner told me that her uncle was a painter who suffered from bad health. She believed this was caused by the chemical art materials he used.

If you are a painter of Sumi-e (Japanese traditional ink painting), you are lucky! You will only use natural materials.

First of all, Sumi is a black ink stick made of soot and Nikawa (animal glue).

There are many kinds of Sumi, but they can be roughly divided into two types; brownish Sumi and bluish Sumi. It depends on what kind of soot was used.

For brownish Sumi, oil (rape seed, sesame seed or others) is burnt to collect soot. And for bluish Sumi, pine tree branches are burnt to collect soot.

Nikawa glue has a beautiful amber color, which reminds me of whisky. Mmm! But it is not drinkable.

To make Nikawa, animal or fish bone and skin is boiled and dried. It functions like a glue and a coagulant as well as adding a glossy element.

Craftsmen knead soot and Nikawa together and dry it very slowly to avoid getting cracks.

So, how do painters and calligraphers use Sumi?

First, we pour water in Suzuri (ink stone), and grind the Sumi ink stick on it. Then the water will become black, which is liquid black ink for writing and painting.

Thanks to the permanence of Nikawa, Japan has preserved many Buddhist sutras and other ancient texts written in Sumi, dating back over one thousand years.

Keep in mind not to wear your favorite dress when you first use Sumi. Why? Because, if you accidentally drop ink on your clothes, it is almost impossible to remove the stain!

As you may already notice, Suzuri is a natural black stone cut from the mountains. Next time, I will introduce Japanese brushes and Washi papers, which are also 100% natural.


Will you join us to paint?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to incorporate Sumi-e artwork into your home or office space? By appreciating these artworks, you can experience the beauty and Zen spirit of Japan in your daily life. They would also make exclusive gifts for yourself and your loved ones.



Tamayo Samejima

Sumi-e (Japanese traditional ink painting) Painter, Online Sumi-e Classes, Items on Etsy