Classic Asian Brushwork For Watercolours


Kiwako Yamazaki Burkosky

What a rewarding experience it has been to search out traditional painting methods in Japan. Being somewhat of an advocate for respecting classic studies, you can imagine our delight when my daughter-in-law Kiwako and I just visited the June 2017 Exhibition of International Sumi-e Association. Just as we walked in the entrance we heard the announcement that a live demo of master painters was about to start. It turned out to be more than that – it was a hands-on workshop and of course we jumped in! Kiwako painted this with confidence and accuity – she has obviously done this before! I admire the brevity of expressive strokes. Basically, all the strokes done in this piece are either “Zouhou” – upright brush, or “Rohou” – oblique brush. Zouhou is painted with the brush held completely perpendicular to the paper. Rohou is painted with the brush held at an acute left or right angle to the paper. The gradation of dark to light is achieved by loading the tip of the brush with ink and adding extra water to the brush tip as needed.

Sumi-e painting, which refers to any ink painting derived from Asian brush techniques, embraces classic calligraphic brushwork. Originating in China over 6000 years ago as calligraphy, it went beyond the written symbol to images and pictures which influences ink painting throughout the world to this day.

Traditional sumi-e is painted on rice paper or washi – both derived from natural plant materials such as cotton, linen, bark, and bamboo. Naturally 100% rag cotton watercolour paper is an excellent support with a similar organic feel.

Think of calligraphy as a design element (line) that varies in width with variation of expression – slow and deliberate, quick and expressive, thick, thin or gradated, curved or straight, rough or smooth. All of these strokes can be produced through any watercolour brush, and I literally mean any brush since even a “flat” vs a “round” will produce interesting results.

A fabulous and free resource for further study: The Project Gutenberg EBook of On the Laws of Japanese Painting by Henry P. Bowie. This book has an excellent overview of the various Japanese painting styles and mentions the use of line in another classic style somewhat similar to line-work used in Art Nouveau.



This simple exercise includes Rohou and Zouhou strokes. Most often the larger upright components of the bamboo stalk are painted from bottom to top in Rohou strokes. Leaves are painted upwards or downwards in Zouhou strokes.

Garden Boughs by Peggy Burkosky

Now let’s see how those brush strokes work so well in the watercolour medium. I like to think of the strokes as much like practicing a golf swing (although I’ve never mastered golfing yet I can appreciate the principle!). Loading the brush with heavy pigment at the tip, brevity of strokes, creating distance with lighter values – it all adds up the same way as painting in a classic manner.
















Kaburaki Kiyokata 

Here we see yet another classic use of line illustrated here in a style called BIJIN-GA (pictures of beautiful woman), created in the early 1900s by Kaburaki Kiyokata, a great painter of the modern Nihonga (Japanese-style painting). Such elegant, minimalist line! He developed his career as an illustrator, later turning to painting in the Japanese style and creating his most famous works of graceful young women and the everyday life of common town-folk. I had the delightful opportunity to visit Kaburaki Kiyokata Memorial Art Museum located in Kamakura. I have somewhat of a passion to see these traditional art forms mentored to following generations. Having trained in commercial design 40 years ago with Swiss art director Willie Westman in Vancouver British Columbia Canada, I truly appreciate the “apprenticeship” that comes from old school European and Asian artists. Willie was remarkably generous in teaching us young newbie artists how to illustrate, design and develop full renderings in perspective.

Apprenticeship is highly honoured in Japan. A few days after visiting the museum I was invited to paint with master painter Goyoo Ootake (seated in front). Ootake is a 3rd generation successor to Kaburaki Kiyokata. You can imagine it was a special day for me as I painted with along with this fun bunch of professional artists in Kamakura.




Comments are closed.