The Subtle Art of Suminagashi

With most of my art supplies still traveling back home, I tried something simple and satisfying this weekend: suminagashi. It is a Japanese-style marbling done in black ink. It’s subtle and beautiful. And I’ll be teaching it March 22 at Arizona Art Supply in Phoenix. (Details and registration)

sumi4Using black sumi ink and brushes, suminagashi is created with patience and care. It’s a meditative art work: slow, careful and fun.

What you’ll need:

  • A non-reactive pan. I used an enamel palette (formerly a meat tray)
  • Tap water, not distilled.
  • Black sumi ink in a small cup
  • Olive oil in a small cup
  • paint brushes, size 4 to 6
  • Watercolor paper, 90-lb weight

Fill the pan with about an inch of water.  Dip the smaller (size 4 ) brush in olive oil and hold it in your non-dominant hand. Dip the larger brush (size 6) into the black sumi ink and hold it in your dominant hand.

Sumi1Touch the tip of the brush vertically into the water. A large black circle will spread across the surface of the water, turning gray as it disperses.

sumi2Touch the tip of the oil-brush into the center of the circle. The surface tension of the oil will push the ink away.

Repeat the process at least five times in the same circle. Ink brush, oil brush. You will have a series of concentric circles that will move on the surface of the water.

Gently blow on or fan the surface of the water to create movement.

sumi3When the ink pattern is interesting, place a sheet of watercolor paper on the water by “rolling” it across the surface. Let the paper drop completely onto the surface of the water. Immediately pick it up by one edge, and place it, wet side up, on a sheet of newspaper to dry.

sumi5Once the papers are dry, use Tombow or Koi dye markers (not alcohol markers) to add subtle color to the page.

You can use the dried sheets as journal pages, backgrounds for photos or photo mats. The first print will be more dramatic. If you are going to write on the pages and want to have the patterns be lighter, take two or three impressions before adding more ink.

Join me at Arizona Art Supply in Phoenix to take the class on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

—Quinn McDonald is preparing looseleaf pages. She’s on the road to Texas.

Suminagashi in Color and Gold

Suminagashi is a Japanese technique that is deceptively simple and wonderfully intricate, depending how much time you want to spend developing it.

Here is a journal page I made by using a suminagashi technique, then adding color and a quote written over the finished piece.


The quote is from Harvey MacKay: “Take risks–you are a lot better off being scared than being bored.”

Here is a variation in gold:


To read the complete step-by-steps, check out my post on the Niji site.

Suminagashi is done in one or two colors. You load a bamboo brush with black and another one with another color. Alternating brushes, you touch the tip to the surface of the water. But I wanted to use just black. The trick (which I struggled months to figure out)  is that the other brush is loaded with vegetable oil.


Several sites I researched suggested soap, which won’t work at all. Soap breaks the surface tension of the water and everything sinks. Vegetable oil does the trick.

Alternate ink and oil. The red in the bottom (of the photograph above) is some watercolor I added to show depth–that the sumi ink is floating on the surface.


You need the oil to push the ink back. Without the oil, you still get great patterns, but they are not as intricate. The pattern above was made without oil. You can see the gold paint that I floated very carefully on the surface. It likes to sink. You can’t use it to do suminagashi.


But you can paint gold watercolor on a piece of paper, allow it to dry, then suminagashi over it. I love the elegant effect. You can use it for journal backgrounds or cut out pieces of the ink and use it to create cards.

For step-by-step instructions,  visit  my suminagashi post on the Niji site.

Quinn McDonald loves experimenting; she is a member of the Yasutomo design team. In another life, she wears a suit and teaches business communications.


Writing and Calligraphy: Related

There is something elegant and deeply artistic about calligraphy. It’s a demanding art–patience, practice, an eye for detail–are all part of learning to be a good calligrapher.

I’ve always wanted to be a calligrapher, but it’s been daunting to me. In my first calligraphy class the instructor told me that I was already too old–that there were not enough years left in my life to practice enough to become really good. I felt crushed. And old.

The second time around, Laurie Doctor, the calligrapher and writer, encouraged me to do anything that engages my interest.Because enjoying art is the beginning of learning art.

Sherri Kiesel's Pressure-release Roman Capitals

Sherri Kiesel's Pressure-release Roman Capitals

Yesterday, Anne Law taught a class at the Arizona Calligraphy Society. It always surprises me how warmly they welcome me, knowing I am a writer and not a calligrapher. Anne had a folder for everyone, and the folder contained everything you needed for the class–practice

and R.B. Rives paper, two special pencils, frosted mylar, and a nametag done in the technique we were going to learn.

The technique, “pressure and release Roman Capitals” is one that Anne learned from Sherri Kiesel. Sherri’s example is shown on the left, above.

The pressure and release technique adds depth. The contemporary look is sleek and nuanced.

The technique Anne Law taught is far more than lettering. First, we used suminagashi marbeling on the heavy R. B. Rives paper. Sumi-e ink is used in this simple technique.

The writing could be done on the mylar, with bright pastel stencils applied on the Rives paper. When the mylar is attached to the paper, you get a layered look of nuanced color and delicate, yet powerful writing.

Some of us decided to work first on the paper. Anne demonstrated the formal technique, then several changes that made the writing dance across the page.

The class participants were generous in letting me take a look at their samples. They were incredible, delicate and easy. My own effort showed all the beginners effort–big letters, slightly wobbly, not quite lined up. I can’t make the letters small because the technique–pressure, release, pressure–requires space for me to master. My letters had a slightly

My first try and pressure-release

My first try and pressure-release

Hebrew look to them, because the pressure also varied the thickness.

Why was I pleased with my result? Because I did not expect perfection. I expected the suminagashi to be provide a beautiful background–which it did, and the stencil work to add a different element, whic is also did. My work that showed effort, and an improvement over my first effort. And that happened. Practice will make it better. That made the class successful for me.

—Quinn McDonald is a life- and certified creativity coach. She teaches business communication and personal journaling.

Visit my other website: Raw Art Journaling.