In sumi-e, preparing the ink is not just a necessity. Ink making is a basic step of the art itself, and requires patience and skill – just like drawing does.
The suzuri – a stone grinder used to prepare the ink – is made of two parts: the deeper part is called umi (‘the sea’) and the higher part is the oka, (‘the hill’). Start by dropping a tea spoon of water into the deeper end of the grinder. Hold the ink stick just in the middle; holding it too high means losing control, while holding it too low will result in black fingertips.
Gently touch the surface of the water with the tip of your stick for a couple of seconds. Then, slowly move towards the centre of the suzuri and start grinding the ink in anti-clockwise circular movements. Try to make your circles as big as possible without hitting the sides of the grinder. Do 10 to 15 rotations and then turn your stick by 180 degrees, and repeat.
Preparing your ink requires up to 5 minutes, and the process must be repeated several times during the same painting session.
The most important thing to keep in mind when making ink is to be as gentle as possible. Excessive strength is absolutely counter-productive and only leads to aching arms. Barely touch the grinder with your stick, and relax your muscles while slowly moving it. Remember to breathe deeply to enjoy the smell of fresh ink and stop only when you obtain a rich and dense pigment.
In this short video, I simply demonstrate the basics of ink grinding:
Music by my brother: https://soundcloud.com/nic-who
My teacher said that ink is a very personal thing, and everyone’s ink is different. For this reason, you should never use any ink but the one you make yourself. If you could only see the ink my teacher makes: it’s so dense, thick and black that I am starting to develop a case of ink envy.