Ink Wash Painting: A Long Standing Tradition

Ink has many uses from practical applications to more artistic ones. One of the earliest of these ink art forms, and one of the most technically demanding, is ink wash painting. Said to originate out of China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), this art uses calligraphy ink to create landscapes that are often imaginary or loose interpretations of actual places. Since the Tan Dynasty, this type of ink painting has spread to other Asian countries, and has even inspired notable American artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe.

The Technical Details

Ink wash is one of the most technically demanding forms of painting. Artists first select a highly absorbent type of paper called xuan paper in China, or washi in Japan. Since a majority of the artists use only black ink, the absorbancy of this paper allows them to more easily adjust the tone of the ink to achieve values that range from deep black to light grey.

As in calligraphy, ink wash artists use an inkstick, a form of solid ink made with a combination of pine or oil soot, and animal glue. Though prepared inks are available, they are of a lower quality because the artist has less control over the process. The artist then puts a few drops of water on a small, flat stone, which is also referred to as an inkstone. By grinding the inkstick onto the inkstone, the artist can create the ink that helps achieve smooth brushstrokes of varying tones. Different brushes have different qualities, as well. For instance, a small wolf-hair brush that is tapered can deliver a fine point, while a large wool brush, also referred to as a big cloud, can create giant swaths of ink on the paper.

The Ink Wash Influence

Why does ink wash painting matter? First, it is an art form where there is no margin for error, meaning that those who do ink wash paintings cannot redo any strokes. This kind of technical skill can be applied as a model to other art forms. Second, as mentioned above, ink wash painting has had a major impact on Western art, particularly the Impressionist movement that began in Europe in the 19th century. Because these Chinese artists used tonal depth to paint landscapes in unrealistic or somewhat imaginary forms, they inspired a turn from realism in Europe.

Finally, within recent years, museums from the United States to Brazil have been conducting major exhibits showcasing this approach to ink wash painting. These exhibits often concentrate on specific countries or very narrow time periods. For instance, a recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City focused on Fu Baoshi, active in China from 1904 to 1965.

Though ink wash painters are, in some ways, struggling to maintain the use of traditional forms and techniques in contemporary culture, these centuries-old techniques remain instructive and valuable. We can understand how to develop dedication to craft and how to properly provide visual depth, if we are painters. At the same time, we can also use ink wash painting to recognize just how versatile and central ink has been in cultures across the world. Feel free to share your thoughts (or a favorite painting) below!

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