The thing about Japanese and Chinese paintings is that they are more like Western water colors than they are like painting in oil. Once the brush touches the paper, there is almost nothing that can be done to correct it. In oils, we often find paintings under X-ray show changes – sometimes the changes are a big deal, for instance, John Singer Sargent’s famous Madame X: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/12127
Were you to x-ray this painting, you would almost certainly discover pentimento, where Sargent, perhaps the greatest portrait painter since Rogier van der Weyden limned “the Grand Bastard of Burgundy,” originally painted Mme. Pierre Gautreau with her right shoulder strap slipping off her shoulder. Quelle horreur! Sargent repainted it in its proper place to still the ensuing scandal; this repainting is possible in oil but not in ink and paint on paper or silk.
One has to be careful how one puts things down on paper or silk in Japanese painting. Suppose you cross some lightly colored lines already laid down – you wind up with a darker diamond where they touch. As great as the skill is to paint well in oils, it is a more forgiving medium than ink on paper or silk. It may take less time to paint a Japanese painting (there are larger surfaces to paint, such as screens, but hanging scrolls as opposed to long hand scrolls are no larger than, say, two or three feet by six or seven and may be smaller), but it takes every bit as much skill and talent.
The control of the brush is paramount. One starts to learn calligraphy and the control of the brush about age three. It is a matter of skill, for instance, to finish a character by pulling the brush up so the character ends with a sharp point. While I like scrolls in ink and color, there is a great tradition in Oriental art of painting only in ink, diluting the ink to have really rather remarkable effects. This study of pines on a pair of screens by Tohaku Hasegawa in Tokyo may be my favourite painting of all:
The brilliance of this is that the black ink makes the pines look close, while the grayer shades show the pines receding in the mist. It is a tour de force in three dimensions painted in two
Thus the precision of the painter’s skill, the gradations of ink and its darkness, the incorrigibleness of the medium, the rapidity and delicacy of the brushwork, all make for a long study. I was given a splendid fan by a Japanese student painted with the character for “cool,” which was a lovely pun on the fan’s purpose and, I hope, me! The calligrapher is very famous in Japan; he was asked why he charged so much to draw a single character. He replied that it took only seconds to make the character, but a lifetime to learn how. The buyers were paying for many years’ expertise, not just a character.
While precision and vision are required, sometimes an element of randomness enters in. This painting, a 20th c. work called Deer in Late Autumn by Kahata Tosen, is originally from the collection of a Japanese scholar expert in art and The Tale of Genji. It uses splashed ink. As I understand it, the artist carefully splashes sumi ink on paper or silk, and then uses the splash as part of his composition, painting in the rest. In this painting, the ink makes the trees in the storm and Tosen adds inter alia tiny maple leaves in the wind and a small deer left of the trees:
I really like this painting. It is more “modern” in style than some, but it is a favorite of mine. As an art expert put it, “In this painting, a deer is walking near a dark forest which is depicted using the ‘Hatsuboku’ (splashed sumi ink) technique. A cold wind blows the maple leaves. The deer, which feels the cold wind from the back, conveys a lonely feeling. The rising moon in the eastern sky also imparts a sense of cold.” Now this may not be quite as cold as Tennessee Williams, “We are all condemned to solitary confinement in our own skins,” which, without the Communion of the Saints would be all too true. Still, this deer is a solitary beast in a cold world. I like the smallness of the deer in its solitariness, and I love the little maple leaves tossed about in the air, probably from the tree at the painting’s right edge.
Japanese art and poetry reflect nature, but there is always present the human angle in how we view nature. In Ink Dark Moon, in the mourning poems for her lover, Prince Atsumichi, Izumi Shikibu likens fireflies to the desires leaving her body. Thus nature truly does reflect on us. (The other poet in the collection, Ono no Komachi, is famous not only a renowned poet and a great beauty, but also as a literary figure in her own right. In her old age, she could identify herself with a few halting steps as a dancer that evoked the beauty she once had. This became a play, which must be more charming, and not as graphic, as Villon’s Testament with Celle que fût la belle Heaulimière, which is a slightly raunchy but poignant reminiscence of a fille de joie when she had aged into poverty, decrepitude, and joylessness. Rodin sculpted her.
Thus skill with the brush both in painting and poetry is a matter of good composition. Great art takes a splash of ink or a statement about nature and turn it into an evocative world with winter on the way. I am afraid some Western painters just splash paint.