Noted Zen artist Shozo Sato gave a talk on black ink painting and calligraphy at an open house for the Japan House on the University of Illinois campus.

It was a wide-ranging talk, starting with his own history at the University and at Japan House and his earlier work here with kabuki theater. Then he went on to talk about black ink (the same ink is used for painting and for calligraphy): how the blocks of ink are made, about how there are two colors of black ink (a slightly red warm black and a slightly blue cool black), and about how an electron microscopic image of the brush strokes of a piece of calligraphy looks distinctly different from a similar image of the artist’s signature (even though they’re made with the same ink, same brush, and by the same hand).

He talked about and demonstrated some painting techniques involving crumpling the paper—wadding it up to make random crinkles, and then painting the peaks of the crinkles to show a texture like a rocky surface, or folding it up and painting the edges of the folds to show a texture like clefts in a mountainside. (Then you can dampen the paper and the folds will relax.)

Calligraphy is going to be the topic of his next book, and he demonstrated that briefly. He showed us how to hold the brush (vertical, with the elbow high). Then, after pausing for a long moment, he quickly drew a few Japanese characters with bold strokes.

After just that one calligraphy example, he finished by talking about traditional Japanese and Chinese black ink painting. He showed us the basic brush strokes—thick-to-thick, thick-to-thin, and thin-thick-thin—and demonstrated how you can use them to draw a bamboo plant. (He even showed us an ancient Chinese secret: You can easily paint a leaf that goes behind the stem by masking the stem with another piece of paper as you paint.)

After the talk, he autographed copies of his new book Sumi-e: The Art of Japanese Ink Painting. (That page at Amazon has a video of Shozo Sato demonstrating black ink painting techniques.)

After the talk, walking through the Japanese tea garden, I wrote a haiku. In the original Esperanto it is:

La majstro staras
brosho en mano kaj jen!
Rapide skribas.

It doesn’t work quite as well in English. A literal translation would be:

The master stands
brush in hand and behold!
Rapidly writes.

It was a really interesting talk. I actually have a little Chinese black ink painting set—ink stick, grinding dish, brush, and a book of techniques. I think I’ll get it out and do a little painting.