Suminagashi is the Japanese art of ‘floating ink.’ Originating in the 12 Century, this ancient tradition has spread through the world. Many cultures have a similar floating ink art form but none are as simple or as naturally beautiful as Suminagashi. All you need is a pool of water, ink and brush, and paper or silk. Things can get more complex and involved as you add additional colored inks and techniques (of course we’ll get into that in this DIY), but capturing a moment of beauty on the surface of water is what Suminagashi is all about.
Sumi Ink (traditional black and colors)
Rice Paper (the thicker, the better)
2 Paint Brushes (preferably sumi brushes)
Tray or Basin (preferably rectangular and clear or white)
Drying rack (baking metal cooling rack)
Paper Towels or Tea towels
Selecting and Preparing Your Workspace
When selecting a spot to work, keep in mind you will want a surface and space that can get wet, that is close to a water source like a hose or a laundry sink, and preferably is somewhat sheltered from high winds (if you are working outside). I worked outside against the house on an outdoor table that could be easily rinsed off. You can also work inside – if you are worried about your table, lay down a plastic picnic table cover on your work surface to protect it from water and ink. You want space to set up two distinct stations. The first is where you will be doing the inking. The second is where you will take the wet and delicate inked paper to dry.
Preparing Station 1
Make sure your tray/basin is filled with water high enough that your drying rack can be set underneath the surface. The purpose of this test is to ensure you’ll be able to get your paper out of the water by just lifting up the rack. The goal is to neatly and carefully remove it from the water surface without tearing the paper. I needed to rub my drying rack with a dryer sheet since it was metal; this removes any charge that will prevent the ink from floating on the surface of the water. Trust me, there is science going on here that I can’t fully explain but it just works. If you are working with smaller pieces of paper (8.5 x 11) you can also forgo the rack and try removing the paper from the water by hand. Set out your brushes, one for the black ink and one for the clear/white soap water. I mixed a pea sized drop of dish soap with water in a cup and scraped the resulting layer of bubbles off the surface to make my soapy water. Finally, have your colored inks laid out if you have them, and have your first piece of rice paper close at hand for when you are ready to pull the print.
Preparing Station 2
Here you will want paper towels/tea towels, more drying racks if you have them, and plenty of flat surface to lay out your finished prints to dry.
Preparing Your Mind
Before you begin, prepare yourself for a few failures. I recommend your first few prints be black and white and not to spend much time on them. As I was initially learning the art of suminagashi, several prints ended in a pile of pulp and ink. Once the paper is wet it can be delicate and one false move can end in torn disaster. So, start small and think of your first few attempts as test runs or learning experiences.
Applying the Ink
Brushes in hand, water still, mind calm – we are ready to go. Dip one brush in the soapy water and one in the black ink. Hold a brush in each hand and rest your forearms on the table surface if you can or on the edges of the basin to steady yourself. Delicately touch the tip of the black ink to the surface of the water. You should see it very faintly spread across the surface. Now touch the white inked brush to the surface. You should see the black ink push out leaving a clear circle in the middle. Keep alternating between touching the black and white inks to the surface of the water, try to keep touching the surface at the same spot.
A Note on Control
You will notice as more and more rings of color are created, things will start to shift and swirl. The ink on the surface will be affected by your breath, the brushes touching the surface, you touching the basin, and the breeze in the air around you. Some of these things you can control, others you can’t. Allow yourself to accept this lack of control and watch as the rings of ink take on a life of their own.
Pulling Your First Print
Don’t get too carried away. Once you have ink floating on the surface of the water in distinct thin concentric rings, set down your brushes, and grab your paper. Delicately hold it by two opposite ends and allow it to sink down in the middle until the low point touches the water’s surface. Begin to slowly and evenly lower the rest of the paper down till your fingers are about to touch the water, then let go of the two edges. In my experience and with the paper I used, I could pull the paper out pretty much immediately after the paper is in and get a great ink transfer. With thicker paper you may want to keep it in the basin longer. Once you’re ready, lift the drying rack at the bottom of the basin up and the paper floating on the water surface with it.
Drying Your Print
Allow excess water to drain away from the paper and carefully step over to Station 2. Set down the drying rack and lay a towel over the surface of the paper, soaking up water. Then …carefully… flip over the paper and towel onto the surface you want the paper to rest on and dry. It should dry quite quickly or at least be dry enough to handle soon if it is in the sun. I had an area where these wet prints sat and an additional area where the dryer prints sat to fully dry. If the surface the paper is drying on is perforated like a metal picnic table or grass or drying rack this whole drying process will go even faster. Once completely dry (I waited till I had everything cleaned up and put away) iron your prints to flatten them. Then, press them under some heavy books or objects to complete the flattening process.
Resetting for Another Go
While you wait for the paper to dry, you can go back to Station 1 and prepare the space for another print. There is most likely excess ink remaining on the water surface and the water may be murky. If the water is still quite clear, just run a scrap piece of paper over the surface to collect the excess ink – but if the entire basin is murky, dump your water and start fresh.
Once you get the hang of the process and have pulled some clean prints, start playing around with other colors and other ways to apply and manipulate the ink on the water. You can flick the ink by holding an inked brush and a clean brush in a cross shape. Tap the inked brushes handle against the other brush over the water surface. You should get a nice splattering effect. Also try moving the ink around with a fan, blowing with your breath, using a stick/toothpick/cat whisker/ whatever you’ve got to swirl around the ink layers. The smaller the item you use to swirl the more exact the line in the ink will be.
Next Level Ideas
Suminagashi is an art form just like any other. It takes practice, trial and error, and creativity to execute. I hope you find a spark of excitement in this technique and try it out for yourself. Try printing on silk and make a pillow cover. Use your print as a wall hanging, cut out circles to make coasters, rectangles for bookmarks and cards, or cover the surface of a journal to personalize it. The possibilities are many and only limited by your imagination. Go forth and create. 🙂
Inspirational You Tube Vids
Suminagashi Sensei (in a very cool apron) Shows How It’s Done \ Link
This Girl Showing Some Great Experimenting \ Link
Another Great One Showing Different Techniques of Applying and Manipulating Ink \ Link
Black Sumi Ink \ Link
Colored Sumi Ink \ Link
Rice Paper \ Link
Sumi Brushes \ Link
Professional Quality Paper and Book Sources from Suminagashi Artist Linh My Truong \ Link