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Sumi-e Brush Set: Free Brushes

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This week’s free brush set was inspired by sumi-e (also known as ink-wash painting), a style of East Asian art. Sumi-e first appeared in China as far back as the seventh century during the Tang Dynasty, but it also has strong roots in countries such as Japan and Korea. This nine-piece brush set contains all you need to recreate this beautiful style of art (or make some killer calligraphy). There are also a number of brushes in this set that will come in handy for any type of painting you’ll be doing. Download the Sumi-e Brush Set and keep reading to get some tips as well as knowledge about the history of this amazing style of art.

About Sumi-e

There are two very important points to remember about sumi-e. The first is that the paintings are made to capture the feeling or “spirit” of the subject as opposed to making a perfect photographic copy. The second is to do more with less. Sumi-e artists studied for many years only practicing making brush strokes. In this style of art, every stroke must present the maximum amount of information possible, omitting all unnecessary details. One brush stroke could be used to create the entire head and body of a bird by adjusting pressure and twisting the brush in the perfect manner. This left absolutely no room for mistakes for traditional sumi-e artists. It was considered a highly prestigious form of art practised only by the highly educated and skillful members of society. Today we have the luxury of using programs such as SketchBook to quickly erase any mistakes or make adjustments, so you won’t be needing years of training to get the hang of it.

The Four Gentlemen

“The Four Gentlemen” refers to the four most painted subjects that sumi-e students are required to practice making during their years of training: the Orchid (Spring), Bamboo (Summer), Plum Blossom (Winter), and Chrysanthemum (Autumn). These four subjects represent the four seasons and include all of the basic strokes these artists must learn. While these four paintings are the first to be taught as a foundation for learning brush strokes, they are usually the last to be mastered.

sumi-e orchid
Orchid: represents spring. It is said to be most associated with feminine qualities and is the embodiment of love and beauty.  Orchid paintings are also meant to show happiness and celebration for the coming of spring.
sumi-e plum bamboo
Bamboo: represents summer. The bamboo paintings also depict masculine qualities in East Asian society such as integrity and strength and are meant to show perfect balance. This is the most painted subject in East Asia.
sumi-e plum blossom
Plum Tree: represents winter. There is a beautiful contrast between the solid dark branches and the soft, delicate flowers. The plum/cherry blossom is meant to evoke feelings of purity and hope as it’s able to blossom during the cold winter months.
sumi-e chrysanthemum
Chrysanthemum: represents autumn. There is a sense of strength within the chrysanthemum paintings as it is a plant that remains sturdy even with the changing of the seasons.

Tips for Sumi-e Painting

As mentioned above, less is more. Let the texture of the brushes do the work; don’t fight the natural feel and messiness of the brushes. Use the synthetic brushes in this set (Mixed Hair Brush, Taper Brush) to push the ink around as much as possible — don’t DRAW as much as SMEAR into place. If you really want to go in the route of traditional sumi-e, use the fewest number of strokes possible to get your message across. Remember that the image represents a feeling and doesn’t have to be realistically detailed.

When it comes to color, try sticking to black with maybe one accent color (blue or pink can be seen in a lot of traditional pieces). Don’t use color unless it serves a very necessary purpose. Use light and dark tones to convey contrast and create depth within the image.

Use a textured background. Sumi-e artists painted primarily on rice paper so find a rice paper texture to place as your background layer. You can also put the texture layer on top of your painting and play around with the blending modes to see what looks the most aesthetically pleasing.

If you’re in need of some inspiration, there are some amazing examples on Pinterest that you can check out. If you’re someone who is perhaps inspired by video games, Ōkami was completely modelled after the style of sumi-e. Wherever you get your inspiration from, remember to let your emotions flow through the image to make it your own. Happy painting!

Installing the brush sets

Being able to share and install these weekly free brush sets in the desktop app is one of the features for SketchBook subscribers. If you’re using the latest desktop version of SketchBook, simply double click on the .skbrushes file, and it will automatically install. Check out this article for all the details about brushes and legacy versions. If you haven’t tried the subscription, you can download a free trial and unlock Pro membership for 15 days (no credit card required).