What’s floating ink, and why is it the name of this blog? In its most literal form, it’s the translation of the Japanese word suminagashi, which is a form of paper marbling. I use it because I love doing suminagashi in either traditional forms or those which depart somewhat from the original applications.
This form of paper marbling has been practiced in China for over 2,000 years, and made its way to Japan in the 12th century. The technique of floating inks on the surface of a body of water may date back to the practice of zen monks who celebrated the impermanence of all things by “writing” their prayers on the surface of a stream or pond. Artists soon realized this technique could yield a slightly greater degree of staying power if the elusive design were quickly transferred from the water to a sheet of paper laid atop it. For centuries the Japanese aristocratic class kept this practice largely to themselves, and dedicated suminagashi masters developed a repertoire of traditional designs they passed down only to a few students.
Suminagashi papers were often used as a background for sutra copying or for more literary – and less religious – genres, such as love poetry. Eventually the practice spread to less privileged classes, who used the technique to decorate papers for books, fan making, gift wrap, and fine art pieces. There are few today who still practice this ancient marbling technique, but – as before – the art survives by evolving: modern suminagashi masters blend classical forms with more modern designs and uses.
When I began to participate in a zen practice whose seasonal rituals sometimes require practitioners to produce art projects compatible with the “zen arts,” I panicked a little, and I confess that I chose suminagashi for my medium for more of these projects than I can count, largely because these works are, to a great extent, out of the control of the artist. So it wouldn’t be my fault if I screwed up, you see?
I’m slowly adding different media to my repertoire, but this is where it began for me. I continue the practice not because no one can tell when I fail, but because of the capacity of this union: ink+water+brush+one hapless student to hold the brush–to sometimes (sometimes sometimes sometimes) not completely bungle expressing the ineffable.
I hope you will enjoy these designs, bearing in mind that, fundamentally, they are as ephemeral as ink on the surface of a stream.