Collections from Asia: Sumi sticks

Looking for something in my studio, I ran across my sumi collection again.  I am always so wistful as I don’t have time for Japanese calligraphy (shodo) lately though I do on occasion sumi paint images for use in my surface art and designs.  It is something I plan to take up seriously again when I retire. (?!?!) I think I have enough sumi of both kinds to last forever.  Sumi is the ink that is used both in calligraphy and in painting.  It is made from soot and glue and compressed into sticks, and then rubbed against a stone with water to create the ink used to paint. The quality of the ink depends on the type  of wood used- pine is very common.

The calligraphy sumi is more opaque black with a brownish twinge, the sumi for brush painting has a blue tinge and does wonderful shades of grey. I’ve primarily used one brand for sumi painting, that I used to get from either my sumi-e sensei Ilan Yanizky, and I also found it in Yuzawaya in Tokyo – a fabric and craft supertstore with a huge section for calligraphy and sumi painting supplies. By the way the word for “painting” in Japanese is “e”, pronounced “AY”, so sumi-e means sumi painting.   There are so many different kinds of sumi, and grades and sources.  I received a few gifts of sumi from Nara which is known for having the best.  They often have script on one size and an image on the other, the packaging can be simple or ornate, the smells are all slightly different and part of the charm.   The preparation to paint and rubbing the sumi stick on the stone to create your ink to paint with is an indescribable part of the process.

By the way if you notice any prices on the packages they are either in Japanese yen or Taiwan dollars. Sumi stick prices have a wide range based on quality and sources, but most of the ones I have (that I bought myself) are from $10-$75. So let’s take a look inside those boxes…

the current complete collection

The brand of blue sumi I use for painting images. When a lot is needed, you can fuse two blocks together. I used to keep a supply at the beach shack, one at the home studio and one to travel with for classes. (I am excusing the fact I have so many started and not finished) When they get really low its hard to use, but you can also fuse them vertically--they have a small amount of glue in them, so can be fused together just using some liquid ink freshly ground.

A sumi painting of gourds using the "blue" sumi.

These are some of my favorite high quality sumi for calligraphy. The small stick was a gift from Nara.

Calligraphy scrolls--the ink is matte black and solid.

This is actually a stick of blue sumi, a gift, and so beautifully packaged

These I bought in Taiwan, and I ran through several of these while I was there. They were truly workhorses, affordable priced and they produced ink quite quickly, as they weren't as dense as the good Japanese inks, but I am quite fond of these. Heping East road in Taipei has a number of calligraphy supply shops. Great for getting large sheets of paper that cannot be found elsewhere.

These are all different inks I used at one time or another, most were for calligraphy, except for the one second from the left which is for sumi painting.

Don't you love it?

And these I've never used, though the one in the bottom right corner is gold and its very good, so am intending on trying that sometime.

7 thoughts on “Collections from Asia: Sumi sticks

  1. Hi,

    I am learning chinese calligraphy presently and am using a Sumi ink for practice. I read in many websites that most of these inks and ink sticks have a animal glue in them. I want to use an ink or an ink stick that does not use any animal derived ingredients. I read in a book by Carolene and Susan Self that ink sticks made using pine glue and fir glue are available. This was in fact confirmed by one of the dellers of ink sticks though they did not carry the nor had the knowledge of the brand name.

    Do you know of any such inks/ ink sticks ? If not, can you help me find out where I might find one. I find it difficult to get any information on this in the internet and am considering using some other calligraphy inks like Windsor and newton etc. However, if I can get a chinese/Japanese ink itself, it will be really good.

    The above post was really informative (pictures especially)



  2. Hi,
    What an envious collection!! On my side its paper that I have a slew! LOL
    My I’ve been sumi painting off and on for the last 15 years. I’ve been trying to see how it would be possible to paint fabric with sumi ink?? Haven’t found anything so far… Any suggestions?? Anywhere I can look for info??
    Christina de Barros from Boca Raton FL


  3. I have some of these, from when my grandfather (unsuccessfully) tried to teach me Chinese calligraphy. It brings back some great memories. But none if my ink sticks are any where nearly as beautiful as these! It’s almost a shame to use them! Except when you can make turn them into wondrous works of art when you are one Carol Van Zandt. Are those gourd paintings yours? Beautiful! Is that your seal on the painting? Thanks for sharing!


    • Yes the gourds are mine, and the seal is also mine–made by Ilan Yanizky. Its Ka-ra-ro, meaning the dewdrop remains on the flower (which I always interpreted as “she sweats a lot”–it was always so humid in Asia, my face was always glistening!)


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