Sunday, February 26, 2012

6th Grade Sumi-e

I was really looking forward to ink working on sumi-e* with my 6th grade students. I made a big deal about ordering the special brushes and real rice paper and sumi ink because I was trusting them to try really hard. This was difficult for most students but I was just as frustrated by the lack of effort from some, as they were by learning a new media. I allowed one class period to practice using the brushes with diluted black tempera paint on regular paper and one class to use the "real" supplies and paint Kansas landscapes. I wanted the students to create landscapes from their place in the style of another place to make it really multi-cultural. 
*In case you were wondering (I had to look it up,) "sumi" is the Japanese word for ink and "sumi-e" means ink painting.

"Practice" painting from the 1st class. I like these better than the landscapes!
The frustration had 2 causes. First, it was hard for the students to translate a photograph into the simpler style we saw in traditional sumi-e. I don't mean "simple" as in easy. I think it is hard to understand how a "simple" style and composition can be harder to plan. You have to get just the right balance. This part was my fault. I demonstrated using the brush and showed some videos from YouTube, but I didn't want to over-demonstrate and have all the paintings look the same. Maybe the students could have used more instruction.
The second cause was that my supply order didn't show up in time so they had to practice with tempera instead of ink. It was really hard for the students to achieve a value range with the real ink so after the first two classes, we switched back to black tempera.

Even though it was hard, and I admitted that I was learning too, most of the students did make an honest effort. Some, did not. I was tempted to bust out a "no-no" board when I saw giant suns and loopy flowers showing up because it translated as a lack of sincere effort. We stopped and talked about effort, craftsmanship, attitude, etc. The paintings I've included here were all by students who were really trying. 

This painting was a major accomplishment! This was the only student to reference the little waterfall photo who actually used directional lines to differentiate between the rocks and the water while still showing texture.

So now I have lots of supplies leftover but I'm hesitant to try sumi-e again anytime soon. I think we'll paint with the ink on top of water and pull prints. I know there is a term for this besides marbling, I just can't remember what it is!


  1. Katie, Don't give up! The results you posted are really nice and Sumi-e is challenging. I love your idea of interpreting Kansas landscape using brush and ink and it took me a while to figure it out, but the results really remind me of Charles Birchfield's watercolors. In trying to remember his name I found this site...
    He might be a good starting place next time to get kids to think in terms of value and brushstroke. Just a thought...

    1. Thanks! I will definitely look into that site. I showed a video demo of bamboo painting but I didn't want them to just copy. We're doing an Asian hocus next fall for cultural heritage week so illprobably give it another whirl then.

  2. Good advice from Barb. Burchfield is fantastic and his watercolors are fresh and spontaneous looking with wonderful rhythmic use of line and color.

  3. I love Sumi-e and Charles Burchfield so that's a great connec tion, I agree. I think your kids did a fine job, especially having to use black tempera. I totally understand your disappointment when a project doesn't turn out the way you envisioned, but ultimately, the kids created original works AND learned about another culture. That's a win-win in my book!

  4. I have found that newsprint works really well even for finished project. My best results come when I put a stack of paper on each group and they are instructed that every stroke is sacred and cannot be changed. They just keep making on that cheap paper so they have several. I really talk up the calm, serene, and quiet. I couldn't tell if you gave them example sheets of the strokes used but that works for me also. The symbols are traditional so repeating what they see is not a problem. I'm pretty good at it but I would not want to try and copy a photo. Keep trying.

  5. I love your honesty, and how you share what works and what doesn't work for you!

  6. I had a very similar experience with 4th-8th graders painting sumi e cherry blossoms with red and black diluted watercolors. Terri