Andrea Peterson gently enlightens us about suminagashi, drop by drop

[Alyson Kuhn] Suminagashi is not the formal word for sushi or for delectable ribbons of rice noodles. It is a centuries-old Japanese technique for printing on water a drop at a time. Sumi means ink, and nagashi refers to moving or floating. Papermaker/book artist Andrea Peterson loves suminagashi. She practices it, prints on top of it, teaches it — and uses “sumi” as a verb.

The water bath is shallow, between half an inch and an inch deep. The water quality is not a factor — tap water is fine.

At the Friends of Dard Hunter Western regional conference (Oct. 21-23, 2011), Peterson taught a one-evening suminagashi workshop … which I didn’t take. And I hereby admit that I had never heard of suminagashi when I read the workshop description. Then two of my classmates in the nested accordion-fold workshop, Kathy Bower and Ken Lynn, gave Peterson’s class rave reviews. When I saw their suminagashi, I resolved to learn something about the technique.

Suminagashi by Andrea Peterson’s workshop students

Can you start by giving us a short explanation of how suminagashi works?
It’s the Eastern form of paper marbling. Basically, you are painting by dropping or kissing ink on the surface of a shallow pan of water, and then you print the image by transferring it from the surface onto a sheet of paper.

You hold a brush in each hand, one for dipping in your cup of water and one for dipping in your cup of ink.

And is the paper itself the big variable?
Exactly. My focus in the workshop was all about the paper that you choose to sumi on. I made paper for everyone to try — 10 different stocks: five natural fibers (sisal, wheat straw, cornhusk, abaca, mulberry); four different cottons; and a wheat straw and cotton combo. Different fibers and thicknesses not only look different — they absorb the ink differently.

The paper is dry before you kiss it to the surface of the water. The more absorbent the sheet, the more ink it will pick up.

What should someone consider when selecting a paper?
Just like with other forms of printing, your paper choice for a given piece should take into account what you are going to do with it. Papermaking becomes your tool. You can create the structure of the paper so it will do what you want it to do.

Rinsing: You immediately put your paper on a board, usually wood or Plexiglas, and gently rinse the surface with regular water to remove any ink that hasn’t soaked in. This literally takes a minute.

Say you’re making a book and plan to use suminagashi for the cover or the interior. In this case durability is key. For something else, translucence or a sense of delicateness might be your main concern. For certain projects, I add clays or other buffers when I’m making the paper. They attract the ink but still have sizing for durability.

A tablespoon or two of ink to which you have added a drop of flow aid … becomes pretty magical.

How controllable is the ink on the surface?
Ah. Think of a fish in the water. You see the ink floating and moving, but in a sense it’s not in your universe. You feel that it has a plane of its own. Making suminagashi is very fluid — if the wind blows, it will ripple your design. It’s very much about the senses, about combining nature, yourself and art all in one. It’s so fitting that many suminagashi are crafted to illustrate haiku. You can’t really control the process, and you aren’t really supposed to.

Corn Sumi, 24 x 48 in.

What is the role of suminagashi in your work?
For me, it’s twofold. It’s a decorative medium, of course. But I use it more for a “conceptual push,” as the perfect way to project the ideas I’m trying to get across in a piece. In my corn piece [above], first I sumi’d the “dark clouds” that I think are hovering over our production of corn. The sumi clouds became part of the ecosystem represented by the paper. After the sheet was dry, I did a woodblock print on top — the green — showing the actual corn.

I did a series where I printed the rings and chainsaw marks from cross-sections of logs that had been sitting on our property [above: #17, Before we were born]. I printed onto a still-wet sheet of cotton rag paper by “casting” the sheet onto the log slice, to which I’d applied oil-based printmaking ink. As the paper dried, it shrank and gathered the ink impression. This part took several days. When the sheet seemed completely  dry, I peeled back some of the edge, which allowed me to pop it away from the entire surface. The shape you see is the outside shape of the actual tree. Then, I sumi’d on the print. The sheet [34 x 36 in.] is about 1/8 in. thick. It’s board-like — which is appropriate — and sturdy.

Detail of #17, Before we were born

What prevents the ink from wandering all over the surface of the water?
You really use two fluids — one being the sumi ink and the other being water — the same plain water that is in the shallow pan, but with a drop of “sumi-factant” added to it. The sumi-factant serves to dramatically decrease the surface tension. When you dip your brush in your cup of water with sumi-factant in it and then dab it on the surface of the water in the pan, the drop floats out. It stays on the surface, and it remains separate from the water in the pan — and that’s how you can create concentric circles with your ink. The ink, to which you also add a single drop of sumi-factant, doesn’t mix with the water laced with sumi-factant.

What is the sumi-factant? It sounds a bit sudsy.
And in fact it could be as simple as dish soap, or as “exotic” as ox gall, which is bile from the gall bladder of an ox. I use acrylic flow aid, developed to improve the flow and absorption of acrylics and other water-soluble paints. It’s totally adequate and, in the middle of Indiana, it’s easy to come by.

Can you tell us about an unusual project you’ve done with suminagashi?
My husband and I were asked to create a public art bench from a rather challenging plastic bench. We proceeded to sumi handmade mulberry paper, and we created woodblocks that looked like a larger zebraesque sumi pattern. We fitted the sheets to the bench with PVA glue and coated it with marine varnish.

Once someone has taken one of your workshops, can he or she realistically work independently and be pleased with the results? I was certainly mesmerized by what my friends made in your class.
Absolutely. That is the idea of most of my workshops: technique to go. Suminagashi is so simple to understand and do — it is the practice that makes you become one with your ink. It is a dance in which you take turns leading. I originally read a couple of books by Diane Maurer-Mathison. Her Ultimate Marbling Handbook is a staple in my studio.

Above: A trio of suminagashi by Kathy Bower

Ken Lynn’s suminagashi on a piece of paper he made, with a sheet of orange tissue laid into the mould before dipping it into the vat of cotton pulp. The little breaks occurred when he held down the tissue paper with his hands.

A pair of Ken Lynn’s favorite suminagashi from the workshop

Kathy Bower’s suminagashi on paper made from sisal (pigmented blue)

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Comments (5)

  1. Posted by sjz on 07.1.13 at 1:53 am

    Could you share what type of ink was being used in the above samples? Was the water (in the bath) treated with anything at all? Any tips on dilution rate for ink to sumi-factant?

    Fantastic and beautiful work!

  2. Posted by Geri Whaley-Ewers on 10.30.13 at 11:05 am

    The curator at the Robert Williams Paper Museum (Georgia Tech) sent me your link. I am taking my French students to a Suminagashi workshop at the Williams Museum, on November 25th and your link has been inspirational. I look forward to experiencing this glorious art!!!

    Thank you very much.


  3. Posted by namliv on 10.26.15 at 2:02 pm

    Hello and thank you- I live in France and am having a hard time finding the right type of paper and “sumi-factact” as all my suminagashi are so light!
    For the moment I am using turpentine for the in-between space between the ink.

    I also wanted to know what to use for color in this techinique?

    Thank you for your help.

  4. Posted by Emily on 10.8.17 at 6:22 pm

    I am wanting to make suminagashi silk scarves, but having a hard time finding a pan to do this. My other question is how does the ratio of water to methcellulose work?

  5. Posted by Emily Lewis on 11.8.17 at 9:37 pm

    I’m having a hard time coming up with a tray for the chemicals to float in… suggestions?

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