Suminagashi

Suminagashi is Japanese marbling and it is 100% fun with some frustration when starting out.  Very little preparation is required and in 1 hour you can set up, decorate a dozen sheets of paper, and clean up.  The basic techniques are simple, and the materials are easily obtained and not expensive.  It is a great activity for children.  The pinch of frustration comes from the fact that not all materials are the same and you need to find the right combination for success.  This will hopefully become clearer in this article, with the main goal of this article being to help you avoid any frustration and to achieve success quickly and easily.

Paper and paper arts are deeply engrained in Japanese culture.  They are associated with important cultural and religious ceremonies.  These associations elevate art and craft with paper to a level unrivalled in other cultures.  Many paper decoration techniques have historically been used for over 1000 years on Japanese paper, or Washi, such as dip-dyeing (tsukezome), pulp-dyeing (sukizome), decoration using gold and silver leaf, and mica (sunagogami), and many more including suminagashi (1).  Sumi is a type of calligraphy ink, and the name suminagashi means ‘spilled ink’.

Paper is commonly used in ways not common in western cultures, such as building materials, or even for clothing.  Another is the use in important documents which become works of art thanks to the wonderful calligraphy.  This is important in giving the context of suminagashi.  The earliest examples from the Heian Era (794-1185) are decorated in the top right-hand corners of the paper with short poems on the body of the sheet.  The motifs of the patterns were the “flowing motion of wind-blown white cloth, and patterns seen in slowly running streams” (1).  This is why suminagashi is subtle in comparison to western marbling.  It is usually not the main element of the page, rather the supporting background.  However, suminagashi has continued to evolved and bolder colours and a wider range of patterns are now often used, especially when decorating silk.

The basic elements of suminagashi are a bath which contains water (without size), sumi inks, a dispersant, Japanese calligraphy brushes to apply the ink and the dispersant, and paper.  The procedure is a bit messy and should be done with a cover protecting nice tables and in a still area, so a breeze does not overly enhance the patterns.  The process is as follows.

  • Fill 2 shallow trays (larger than your paper) with cold tap water to a depth of at least 2cm.  One is used for the marbling and the other for rinsing off excess ink.
  • Add 1 large drop of dish detergent to 1 cup of cold water to make the dispersant.
  • Put a small (1ml or less) of each ink in small containers or a water colour palette.  One brush for each ink and 1 for the dispersant.  Don’t mix them up, the inks or the brushes.
  • Wait until the water in the tray is perfectly still.
  • Holding them vertically charge one brush with dispersant and the other with black ink.  Hold them over their containers a moment and carefully shake off any excess ink on the tip.
  • Holding the brush vertically very carefully just touch the black ink on the surface of the water in the centre of the tray.  In a fraction of a second ink will disperse out from the centre across the water towards the edge of the tray.
  • Also holding vertically touch the dispersant brush to the surface of the water at the same central point.  Just as quickly the black ink will be forced out leaving a clear circle in the centre of the tray and a black ring of ink around it.
  • Continue to alternate touching the black and dispersant (often called the clear ink) brushes in the centre of the tray until you have tens of concentric circles of ink.  This can be done very quickly by holding one brush in each hand.
  • Pick the paper up holding the bottom right corner and top left corner.    As in western marbling carefully lower the sheet into the tray touching at the lower right corner first and then letting the upper left corner drop down.  This process prevents bubbles being trapped under the paper.
  • Count to 15 and then taking the corners closest to you, drawing towards you lifting the paper up and place in the rinsing tray upside down.  Vigorously (as you can with wet paper) agitate the paper to get rid of excess ink. 
  • Place on a towel until dry and then press between blotters under some weight.  More traditional is to put it on window glass for the initial drying.
  • After pulling the print you can drag newspaper across the water to try and clean the surface, change the water, or go with it and accept the changed conditions.  Using a contaminated surface like this is called “Funky Art” in Anne Chambers book.

This all seems simple enough.  However subtle interactions between the different elements can cause complete failure.  I found that one brand of dish detergent worked perfectly with some ink I bought from Japan but failed with calligraphy ink bought at the local art store, yet another similar detergent worked great with the locally bough ink.  I tried many different types of absorbent paper (based on recommendations from the web), including using alum as a mordant, but found plain reflex copy paper worked the best.  The expensive calligraphy rice paper I ordered from Japan was a complete failure and turned to mush.

To avoid the frustration, this is the materials list I have found to work in Brisbane in 2018.

  • 2 light grey cat litter trays (280cm x 380cm) from the cheap shop ($3 each)
  • Pack of 4 pointed calligraphy brushes from the cheap shop ($9 for the set)
  • Tap water (I have tried purified water but the pH7.8 tap water worked better)
  • Earth Choice “Lemon Fresh” dishwashing detergent, 1 drop per cup ($5 supermarket)
  • Sumi ink from Riot Art and Craft ($10)
  • Reflex Ultra White A4 paper ($5.50 ream of 500 sheets)

Once you have the basic concentric ring pattern working it’s time to get creative.  You would have noticed that the slightest air movement, or movement of the water, caused the pattern to swirl and distort.  This is exactly what should happen.  The next step is to enhance this motion, either by physically touching the surface or disturbing the air.  Traditionally artists have blown, sometimes using a straw, or waving a fan to manipulate the pattern.  Or you can physically manipulate the pattern with a wooden stylus (I use bamboo skewers) or even a comb, like in urdu marbling.  It is even traditional to use a hair off your own head to drag through the pattern.

If you’ve had success to this point, chances are you’ll want to take it further.  The next obvious step is to add colour.  I ordered a Japanese 6 colour Boku-Undo Marbling ink set from eBay.  With colours, one thing to note is that often you need to add a dispersant ring between each colour.  The colours themselves are not dispersant enough to push the existing inks out.  Anne Chambers reported she had painting inks containing shellac that did not require this.  I will experiment with inks available in Brisbane and post my results to the QBG FaceBook page.

There are a number of resources on the web.  The best by far is Crystal Shaulis’ YouTube video demonstrating the technique.  You should watch this before trying for the first time.

Ruth Bleakley is an artist from Florida who was featured on a Japanese reality TV show.  She was sent to Japan to visit master craftspeople and had the opportunity to have a go in their workshops.  The first master she visits uses a very interesting technique to touch his ink brush with the dispersant brush instead of the alternate dipping.  The next day she visits a workshop where they marble a 12 yard bolt of silk for Kimono’s.

The best video of a Japanese master at work shows some interesting technique.  The very first thing is the way he pulls the print by holding the paper in the middle of the sides and lowering it so the centre touches first and then continuing to lower the edges.  I found this works well but I often get a hesitation line from the initial contact.  I also love how he holds multiple brushes to alternate between black, indigo, and red.  He also demonstrates blowing and fanning the pattern.

This should be enough to get you started in this fascinating paper decoration technique.  You are welcome to contact me if you have any problems.  Finally, to borrow from Don Guyot, this article “is not to teach the reader to do suminagashi; rather it is to teach them how to arrange things so that suminagashi occurs” (3).  Have fun!

Bibliography

1. Keio University. The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books. Future Learn. [Online] 2018. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/japanese-book-paper.

2. Suminagashi The Japanese Art of Marbling A Practical Guide. Chambers, Anne. s.l. : Thames and Hudson, 1991.

3. Guyot, Don. Suminagashi: An Introduction to Japanese Marbling. 1988.

Figure 1 My basic setup.  The deck wasn’t the best choice because of a slight breeze.

Figure 2 The first pattern to attempt is concentric rings.

Figure 3 Once you can get ink on the water and onto paper, it’s time to manipulate the pattern.

Figure 4 Once you’re