How Does One Apply Calligraphy in Sumi-e Painting?

by | Aug 26, 2017 | 2 comments

The idea of using calligraphic strokes as means to create paintings puzzles many, yet it is the most natural way to create paintings of Oriental motives or other motives in the Oriental spirit. My newly published course, “The Way of Calligraphy in Shodo or Sumi-e Painting” explains this and teaches how.

It is hard to understand this concept, especially for those who have been introduced to or taught Chinese/Japanese painting by copying patterns and shapes by teachers who don’t understanding that those patterns and shapes have, through the centuries been painted using the same technique/way as calligraphic writing. After all, calligraphic shapes are stylised pictographs – pictures. Many of the teachers with Oriental schooling have this understanding but it is on a subconscious level since calligraphic writing is part of their culture and upbringing.

For a westerner who really enjoys and would love to be able to paint in this style/spirit, there are only classes using this “copying the shapes” method available with the exception of my school.

This method was taught to me by my late teacher Tomoko Kodama, who really understood these limitations and developed a practical and accessible way for western students to obtain this inner understanding of the calligraphic way; the way that comes so naturally to people with eastern schooling.

Many have taken my “Sumi-e Painting of a Rooster Using Its Calligraphy”course, which is an overview of this method. From their comments, I have realized that they think that they would need to copy me to be able to paint the roosters I am demonstrating in the course. By copying me, they would get a sense of it but it is not patterns that I am teaching. I am teaching a way and a language (for the lack of a better word) for painting. When one learns and understands this “way”, one can create their own images with eastern sensibilities…. roosters for that matter.

To go back to the main question on how does one apply calligraphy in sumi-e painting, it is important to understand that it is not the calligraphy (the meaning of the symbol or the recognition of it) per se that one needs but the way it is executed – the way of creating expressive lines (brush strokes) and making them in harmony to produce a powerful statement.

We can only understand this by learning and practising calligraphy. And again, we do not apply the calligraphic characters literally in our paintings (unless we want to) but the qualities and sensibilities of the strokes and how they merge and unify together.

I invite you to visit my school and learn the secret of painting with calligraphic strokes.

More on this in my next post.


  1. Regan

    Hello Lilith!

    Eileen Booth gave me your name – I’m a guest artist in her other course. As I read your article, I realize that the contemplative line exercises that are the foundation for the class I’ve recorded for Eileen were inspired by a calligraphy course I took long ago. My understanding of calligraphy is so superficial, but reading your article here makes me want to take classes with you! The connection between gesture and writing and image is very interesting.

    First though, I have to help my own income a little: Eileen mentioned that you are not so happy with Teachable. I am just about to publish a class with them and would be interested to know your experience, positive/negative, if you are willing.

    Wish I could meet you in person/on campus.

    Regan Drouin

    • Lilith Ohan

      Dear Regan,

      Apologies for the late reply.
      I haven’t been writing new posts recently so was not really checking my comments.
      Besides, I am in a process of moving my courses to my website so attention is mainly on that.
      Would love to talk with you about the Teachable platform.
      I am in Canada so meeting in person would be complicated :). We can talk online if you wish. That is how I talk with Eileen or you can contact me via my website’s contact page. Apparently, it was down, in case you have tried that already, but now it is working.
      Hope to hear from you soon,


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *