Home > Fun Stuff, Mail Art, Painting > How to Brush Paint Bamboo with Ink

How to Brush Paint Bamboo with Ink

I made a batch of paper that came out thick, with a rough surface but soft and fibrous. It just loves to soak up ink like a paper towel.

I made a batch of paper that came out thick, with a rough surface but soft and fibrous. It just loves to soak up ink like a paper towel.

Painting bamboo with ink in the Chinese brush painting / Japanese sumi-e style is really relaxing. Trying to create my own bamboo art gave me an even bigger appreciation for the masterful works of Asian artists. I have some oddball hand-made paper that I created that needs to be used up. What I made is too soft for drawing and not strong enough for many paper crafts; so the brush paintings will be sent out as mail art. The bare minimum you need to get started is paper, a brush and ink. I like grinding an ink stick on the stone because it is also relaxing. If you feel bored or stressed out, give this a try. I have collected two videos and some scans from Japanese Ink-Painting:Lessons in Suiboku Technique by Ryukyu Saito [Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1959] so you can get started right away.


It helps to have a proper Chinese brush. These are the same as for brush calligraphy and sell for a few dollars at most art supply retailers. I like having a few different sizes. I’m apt to spend a few dollars more on a brush to get a nicer one that does not shed a lot of hairs when I am painting. You want to wash your brush to get the starch out of the bristles and give it a little massage to get any loose hairs before starting.

Don’t choke up on your brush too much, have a few inches of the brush handle below your grip. Move your whole arm for strokes rather than just your hand or wrist. Sensei Saito illustrated how to hold the brush shown below:

Saito 01

Saito 02

Here are two tutorial videos by different skill level instructors that show how to hold the brush and movements for strokes.

The similarity to calligraphy is shown better with the illustrations below where the arrows show the directions to move your brush. Sensei Saito indicates in his book that how much ink is on the bristles matters as well as how fast you move the brush. The speed you work at creates very different brush strokes; slow brush strokes are wet and heavy. Light halos where the ink bleeds away from the brush stroke in a wet puddle are indicated as undesirable; you want the edges of the brush stroke to be crisp and clean. I experienced going faster and using less ink as solutions to prevent the ink from bleeding rather than being laid down with control using the brush. Saito-san recommends beginners only dip the bottom third of the brush bristles into ink so they have good control.

Saito 03

Saito 04

Saito 05

Getting the leaves to look good takes practice. It seems the more beautiful bamboo leaves have a curve to them and taper nicely at both ends. The variation in different leaves makes the painting interesting, since the leaves will have the most rhythm and movement. If a leaf looked awful, I painted over it in a second brush stroke right away and that helped.

Saito 06

Soft, absorbent papers seem to work best for brush painting. Many rice papers and soft fiber Asian papers are thin, so put down a few layers of newspaper under your art paper so the ink does not stain your work surface. I put a plastic zipper bag inside the envelope shown at the top so the ink did not soak through and that worked well. If you are worried about ruining a good art store paper you bought, practice on newspaper, blank newsprint or recycled book pages to get the feel of the brush and how to use it until you are ready to use the valuable paper.

Categories: Fun Stuff, Mail Art, Painting
  1. Elscribble@gmail.com
    August 6, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Ok so, I guess maybe it’s weird to leave a comment here but oh well. I’ve been teaching myself how to do linocut prints for a while… I’ve probably done a somewhere between ten and twenty projects at this point. Slowly improving so I’m happy. Decided to see what kind of tips I could find on Google and I came across an old post of yours (so old, I guess, I couldn’t comment on it). Anyway, a lot of your tips I had already been doing, but the ones that were new to me made me SO EXCITED. So helpful!!! Especially #12, I’ve always done reductive layers for colors. I’ve seen other prints where it’s obvious this method wasn’t used but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to do it so cleanly! GAH! THANK YOU!

    • August 9, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Yay, glad the blog post helped. I don’t know why the comment did not work. I have a new linocut tool that I will have a brief write up about. Check back next week!

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