Sumi-e artist Roselyn Levin writes how-to book

October 22, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

Roselyn Levin is in the habit of doing amazing things, particularly during the last 40 years or so, beginning at the Ottawa School of Art. By pure happenstance, she walked into a class being taught by Tomoko Kodama, of Sumi-é Japanese painting. Ms. Levin asked if she could sit in on a class and was made welcomed. It was one of those very profound home-coming moments.

The Shelburne resident has been learning, painting and, eventually, teaching this intensely interesting and disciplined form of art ever since. She has won many prestigious awards, amongst which, Ms. Levin’s Sumi-é painting has been valued by the Sum-é Artists of Canada at events when she was the first caucasian in Canada to win first prize and, in another year, the first person to win first prize twice.

She is an elected member of Sumi-é Artists of Canada and the Society of Canadian Artists.

Ms. Levin is also participating in the Autumn Art Sale fundraiser for and at the McMichael’s Art Gallery in Kleinberg from October 19 to 21, with the Opening Gala on Friday, October 19, from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Now, she has written a book, The Brush Dances. When she said she was producing a book, one imagined a hard-backed coffee table book of a collection of her many beautiful paintings, but no. Ms. Levin has written a hand book on how to paint Sumi-é.

She tempts you immediately in the introduction by telling you the ancient form of Japanese painting can be mastered using only four simple tools: Sumi (ink), Suzuri (inkstone), Fude (Brush) and Washi (paper).

With meticulous attention to detail, she takes the student from an absolute standstill to full blown painting.

Before you can proceed at all, Ms. Levin says in part,“In sum-é, you are attempting to paint your subject in the simplest manner possible.”

So, the challenge of Sumi-é painting, as she explains it, is to produce a clear image as minimally as possible, with, at best, a single of a handmade brush, using simple black ink.

“There are,” she writes, “feelings of energy and peace in these paintings.”

An image, considered to be ideal, is one delivered in a single brush stroke.

With patience, these paintings are lovely to behold. They embody strength and even power.

Says Ms. Levin, “[There are] areas of white space, creating what can only be described as Zen.”

Sumi-é means “a black ink picture.” The black ink comes in slate form and is made with pine or vegetable soot. The resultant “inksticks” are etched with messages in Japanese characters. Of the three tones of ink, Ms. Levin prefers the pine soot for its blue/black tones as opposed to the brown/black or black/black tones of the vegetable soot.  The specific ink that she uses is not mixed with essential oils as are some others.

She assured us at another time, “All the tree growth in Japan is sustainable to provide this ink.”

The method of achieving paint to use, is to grind the inkstick on your inkstone, which “typically has a well area [for] water, and a flat area for grinding the ink.”

Your next tool is your Fude, your brush.

During a joint exhibition with the Sumi-é Artists of Canada and of America, a Japanese artist was invited to teach the craft of making brushes. As she relayed previously, this was yet another skill Ms. Levin was pleased to work on and she began to make her own brushes.

You can buy brushes made commercially; you can buy hand-made brushes but she comments, “Each brush is an adventure in painting, as no two will react the same way in the hand of each artist.”

A piece of felt is laid to cover your work space where your paper will go and everything else is placed methodically and tidily: “…the neatness of the artist’s space is a reflection of the clarity within [the] mind and heart, allowing the creative spirit to flow.”

The felt’s role is to “keep the table clean,’” to “help prevent the paint from spreading…on the [paper]” and “it allows…” more clarity to “see the variations of grays used in the painting.”

The preparation of the ink is to grind it on the inkstone, where there is usually a well for a “tablespoon of water”. You work it slowly grinding and blending with the water until it reaches the right texture of “silky, smooth and slightly thick.” Then you clean up the end you sumi (inkstick) to keep it from cracking.”

Writes Ms. Levin: “The hanko is the artist’s signature. In sumi-é, you are not to use your own hanko until you have received your first name-stamp from your [teacher].”

Having learned how to, “I can carve anything,” she had told us, implying  having learned how to first, it was also as a matter of right or privilege. “The stamps are carved [into the ends of small, polished stone pillars, made in China] – they are ancient symbols. My artist name is Shun Swee, which means Spring Water.”

In the book, she tells the reader in one of her side boxes, which carry notes on her personal history with sumi-é, “Some of my hanko are my artist name…I have also carved other words that seemed significant for my paintings, such as heart/mind/spirit or journey.”

The ground work is done, you are set up and prepared to carry on to “Your First Brushstrokes,” the amazing journey on which Ms. Levin knows her little book can lead you. This is a surprising and unique how-to book, the only one of its kind and it has originated here.

You can purchase The Brush Dances by Roselyn Levin at BookLore, Maggiolly or at Dragonfly where Ms. Levin had her studio space. Dragonfly is staging a Book Launch of The Brush Dances on Thursday, October 25 from 7 to 9 p.m.

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