My Japan Journey Interview 4:
Nóra: ink painting artist
Our friend Nóra is a passionate ink painter.
Her foundational skills are in Chinese ink painting, and her training is in Japanese ink painting.
Recently Nóra visited Japan to collect an award for a painting selected for a prestigious Tokyo exhibition.
I knew she would be fascinating to talk to, and I hope you enjoy reading as we chat about Nóra’s Japan Journey.
Autumn Dream - the painting that won the award at the
22nd Exhibition of the International Sumi-e Association.
Absorbing the Spirit of Flowers
Cathy: Nóra, I wanted to know how you got on in Japan because you were featured in a prestigious Tokyo art exhibition, and you had a trip to Tokyo to see it - how did it go?
Nóra: Well, it was a really short trip, because I have other commitments, so I had to cram everything - most importantly visiting the exhibition and attending the award ceremony - into just two days.
I travelled to Tokyo and then I had half a day for myself where I went down to Kamakura. I enjoyed that little bit of free time because I really love it down there: it's near the ocean and Buddhism and Zen are surrounding you. And it was also the season for hydrangeas in sumi-e painting during the summer. The paintings are usually organised around the seasons.
And I wanted to paint - I love hydrangeas but we don't have many naturally occurring in the UK and I heard that Kamakura is a nice place to visit at this time of year.
I could absorb a little bit of the spirit of the flowers and it was the perfect decision to go there. I couldn't imagine that so many hydrangeas can exist at the same place and the same time!
Training to be a Japanese ink painting instructor
Cathy: I’m at the very beginning of learning about sumi-e. Do you teach ink painting, Nóra?
Nóra: Not yet, but I am currently doing a course in Japan with the International Sumi-e Association, and that is why I went to Japan.
During the pandemic I started learning with them - I found out about them on Instagram and I really liked what I was seeing, and I was missing my painting group here in Cambridge and I thought, maybe learning online and building relationships would be a good way to survive these difficult times!
And they also provide an instructor element to the course, which means they require some on-site training as well. So, in November, I had to go to Japan and complete the on-site classes.
Cathy: And that’s when we met in Shibuya, wasn't it!
Nóra: Yes, that’s right!
So, in just one week I tried to complete all of the face-to-face classes that are required during a two-week period. It was a very intense week and I learned a lot, so it was really worth going there.
I started ink painting about nine years ago, but I still have lots to learn. I feel that one lifetime is not enough to master all the brushstrokes in sumi-e!
One of the requirements to obtain the Japanese ink painting instructor certificate is to exhibit in their annual exhibition two times. I don't really have much time to paint so I only had time to paint one picture for this exhibition.
A friend came to visit me and we had a look through my existing paintings and she said, maybe you should send this other one, just try it. So I sent two paintings in the end, and both of them were selected for this exhibition!
Cathy: That's amazing! Well done!
Nóra: Thank you. And my biggest surprise was that the picture that my friend chose won an encouragement award, which is not a big award but it's still really, really encouraging.
Cathy: That's such an achievement!
Nóra: Yes, I was over the moon! And I thought that maybe this is a once in a lifetime experience, and that I should go to Japan and accept this award in person.
Cathy: Absolutely! What was it like!
Nóra: Well, the exhibition was just very - I can't even put it into words - when I entered! It was held in the National Art Centre in Tokyo, which is a big institution. When I entered the building it felt like I was entering the Tate Modern or a famous building like that.
I started shaking, I felt all goose-bumpy, and I thought what on earth am I doing here! I also felt really happy!
Cathy: It must have felt like a dream, it must have felt so other-worldly!
Nóra: Yes, exactly. I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm here in Japan! What am I doing here!'
Nora collecting her award at the 22nd Exhibition of the International Sumi-e Association.
And I looked around and stepped into the room, and I saw wonderful paintings from other artists, and paintings by big ink painting masters. I had a little bit of imposter syndrome kick in! It was really inspiring. I couldn’t comprehend it.
I think that ‘dream’ is the best word because you can't believe you're there, it really does feel like a dream. You have people coming up to you - you know how kind Japanese people are and how they are genuinely interested - they gave me some really encouraging comments and ideas about my future direction.
I felt more at ease at the award ceremony the next day, although it was a formal event. I got to
know some really lovely, like-minded artists from other parts of the world (e.g. from Japan,
Switzerland, Turkey and the UK), which was the best part of it, connecting with wonderful people!
Sumi painting and illustrating
Cathy: I was going to ask you, what could your direction be now? You're on a springboard now to even higher climbs! What will you do next?
Nóra: Someone pointed out that my pictures are good at storytelling, so probably I should learn some illustration painting in the future and think about children’s book illustration!
Cathy: I can just imagine it - sumi-e illustrations for a children's book - that would be wonderful! And you’re perfectly placed for children's art because you’re in the zone with your little boy. You paint beautifully and it’s a perfect combination - there isn't a better time to create a story is there!
Nóra: You're the perfect person to talk about it with me!
Cathy: Well, my art is very, very different as you know!
Nóra: Yes, but you also started learning sumi-e if I'm right?
Cathy: Well, I've just started - I always loved being a children's book illustrator. It is the best job working with the loveliest people :)
But because children's illustration at one point switched over from painting in watercolour to digital art, I haven't done a lot of brush painting for quite a while.
And there was a time when I used to really love it, you know that moment where there is a spring in the brush and the brush is loaded with colour, and then it has contact with the paper – I recognised at the time that that was a moment that made me really happy.
And so over time and through discovering new friends like you Nóra on Instagram, and being inspired by what you're doing, it has made me want to try Japanese ink painting. I’ve started with a Domestika course, which I think you recommended to me!
Cathy: It’s with Akemi Lucas, and her tuition is great for a beginner. And you fascinated me when you were talking about painting the hydrangeas at Karakuma, because I did one extra online class with Akemi, and in it she was painting hydrangeas.
It was fascinating to learn about the brush control. She was painting the flowers in the rain, adding milk to the paper. I guess the fat in the milk repelled the ink.
Becoming one with the subject
Cathy: So, when you’re talking about being in Kamakura painting the hydrangeas I can visualise your brushstrokes a little. How did you feel, surrounded by all that colour?
Nóra: It probably feels like I'm becoming one with my subject. I really feel their spirit and I try to imagine how a flower blooms, for example. I just let it flow, and maybe there's a little bit of science as well behind it.
And I don't know if this is too much information, but when I was having my baby and my contractions started, I was painting. I really had no idea how to cope with the pain and it was a very difficult labour, but I also practiced zazen and it helped me a lot.
Learning to focus and staying present
Nóra: I learned about zazen. It's not really about relaxing, it’s more about learning to focus, and just staying present - it's like how martial artists prepare themselves for a fight. My teacher always says you need to be in a state like a sleeping tiger which is alert all of the time and ready to attack.
I find that painting is so much about focusing as well, and it really helps me to learn to focus and stay in the moment, and just see my goal, and not focus on other distractions.
You have probably seen the magnolia painting of mine?
Nóra: That was during my contractions.
Cathy: That's incredible to have that presence of mind to be able to be creative… while you're being creative!
How did your painting journey start Nóra, and have you always painted?
Nóra: I'm originally a bio engineer, so I'm not a professional artist, and I didn't study art at all.
I always loved doodling in my classes, and I also contributed to some of my college’s art magazines but apart from that, I had nothing to do with art at all.
Discovering Answers in China
Nóra: And then I went on honeymoon with my husband to China, to Szechuan.
I saw many painters - they went out to the national parks and grabbed a brush and even with some water they started doing calligraphy. I saw them doing calligraphy on the ground in the parks on the concrete. They just created with anything they found, even if it was a piece of a flower or a dandelion - the one with the fluffy head - they painted with it.
It felt like they were so in harmony with nature.
And later I went on a difficult hike with my husband up to a Buddhist mountain (the rear, Buddhist side of Mount Qingcheng), and we were surrounded by nature.
I spotted some artists and some Buddhist monks, and we entered this very special temple. It's called White Cloud Temple and it was dedicated to Guanyin, who is the Chinese version of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and she had a thousand arms.
And in one of her arms, she had something that reminded me of a brush.
I don't know if it was a brush - probably someone who studies Buddhism would know what that object was - but somehow, it enlightened me that a brush or painting would be my path.
At that time I felt so lost in my life and I was looking for answers, and whenever I journey to places, I always keep my third eye open.
Let's say I always think that the universe has messages for you if you're lost in life.
Cathy: It's extraordinary how you can look back to moments in your life and pinpoint moments that changed you. So, how did you start to put that into practice?
Nóra: When we went down from this mountain the rain started to fall and we ended up in a back street in Chengdu, and a very nice man invited us into his very tiny shop. It was really like a moment from the Never Ending Story.
And he was a professional calligraphist. He offered us some tea of course - it is a very important part of Chinese and Japanese culture that when you're making new friends and new connections, you offer some tea. And he also showed me his brushes and introduced me to basic brush strokes - and he said that he saw potential in me.
He was very kind and he set me up with my starting kit. It was really special. And then I was sure that I had to do something with this, that probably this was my path.
And then we came back to Cambridge and I was lucky enough to find an instructor. He is called Peter Cavaciuti. He is Italian, and he studied in China and he also lived in Japan. He's also a tea master in the Urasenke school. And with painting came other things to do with Japan and Japanese culture. I got in touch with the Cambridge tea people, and sometimes I go as a guest - only because I haven't had the courage to take the next step in my tea journey.
Cathy: This was so fortuitous wasn't it, that you had the opportunity to train in Cambridge. How long have you been training with your sensei?
Nóra: For about nine years.
Catching the spirit
Cathy: Every time you paint there must be something in you that has learned something from that painting and wants to apply it in the next painting?
Doesn’t each painting lead to the next one?
Nóra: Yes, but sometimes I have no idea what I want to paint. It’s a bit different from Western art. You don't always want to be creative. Sometimes you just want to catch the spirit of something that surrounds you. You’re trying to find something that speaks to you in your everyday life.
Every brushstroke represents something from your soul
Nóra: For example, I'm looking out of the window now and I there are some nice bamboos and I can see that it's a sunny day. If I had no ideas, I would just paint the bamboo on a sunny day.
But they say that every brushstroke will represent something from your own soul as well.
Cathy: It’s very interesting about the mindset for Japanese painting.
Nóra: When you begin learning you start with the basic brushstrokes for the Four Gentlemen: you practice the brushstrokes for the orchid, the bamboo, the plum blossom, and the chrysanthemum.
Cathy: That's what I'm learning now! I’m painting lots of bamboo leaves and flower petals.
Breathing and posture
Nóra: Even after all this time I still have bad days when my bamboos are just horrible! Maybe it’s because I'm not in the right mood, or my health is not perfect that day, there are so many things that influence how your picture comes out in the end.
You need to have the right posture. When you go to the sumi-e school in Japan they correct your posture - you should sit up straight and never cross your legs.
And your brushstrokes are affected by your breathing as well.
Cathy: I think one of the things that astonished me and which is so different to Western watercolour painting is how you seem to move physically with the brush.
When you’re creating the stroke for the bamboo, you're moving the brush with your body in a rhythm. It isn’t just a case of simply moving your arm, your whole body leans into it. Is that right?
Nóra: Exactly. In China you would say you are using your dantian which is the middle of your energy source – your life source, or qi/chi – that’s how we call it in the West.
Yes, you use your whole body. It's like doing dancing, you really are dancing with the brush. I do
dancing in my free time, zumba and dance fitness classes like Jazzercise, and I think it helps a lot to
have good body control.
Some masters say painting is also about muscle memory. So, the more you practice, the better you
Cathy: It sounds like a very long journey and something amazing to be committed to.
I'm interested in what you're saying about posture and correct breathing.
Nóra: When you think about tai chi, it's all about breathing techniques and reaching your balance. It's like the ocean waves pushing and pulling, and ink painting with a brush should feel the same.
It is all about breathing: pressing the brush down and lifting the brush up with the right flow and rhythm. You will feel it after a while, where to lift your brush, where you need to give it more pressure, but always with this movement…
Cathy: But this couldn't be more unlike watercolour, could it? When I first came to sumi-e through you and Anne and Mafalda, I did wonder if I was going to have to unlearn a lot of the things that I had learned about painting. After all, when you're painting in watercolour you’re often hunched up over the paper holding your breath! Especially if you're painting a small detailed illustration.
And I gather, in sumi-e, there’s no pencil, there are no preliminary markings?
Nóra: That’s right, nothing. The brush strokes are just as they are, as they were born in their natural form. You may use charcoal or mark the paper with your nail in order to plan how to arrange some flower paintings but I personally prefer not to.
Cathy: Do you have the completed image in your head before you start?
Nóra: Sometimes I do, for example, when I'm painting a landscape, I have a rough idea about the landscape, but I also try to paint freestyle. I just let myself flow… if that’s the right word..
It’s so hard to put something so practical and spiritual into words!
When five minutes is enough
Cathy: Do you have to have a working space where you're quiet and you're on your own to do painting? Or can you work when there's commotion and family life going on?
Nóra: Well, if you practice zazen meditation you learn to appreciate every single moment that you have for yourself and it gives you the ability to really focus on something.
Sometimes I have just five minutes to paint. And I have realized after having a child that five minutes is a lot.
When my little boy is at nursery school I can work on bigger images. But my goal is not to achieve something like a masterpiece. I'm happy to be present in this life, to have my connection with my surroundings and nature - it's the same experience for me.
When you put something on paper and you then see the end product you realise that there is time in five minutes.
Cathy: I do recognize what you’re saying, I remember when my boys were small and I was illustrating. The minute they went to sleep or the minute that they went off to nursery school – the minute I had that time - I could really focus and get a lot of work done. I could do exactly what I needed to do and then I could switch again into mum-mode when they came back and relax and enjoy being with them.
I remember life being very compartmentalized in that way, and in some ways, I think you can be more productive when you're very busy than when you're not – when you’ve got loads of time to fill it can be more difficult.
Nóra: I agree, and that’s what I feel with sumi-e, that when you have just a tiny amount of time for yourself, you can really create something. You feel that you really had that moment for yourself.
Nora's beautiful peach painting + cat paw!
Cathy: Is that one of your paintings behind you because it's absolutely beautiful!
Nóra: Yes. This is a very special painting and I'm glad you like it - actually, this was a five minute painting.
Cathy: It's amazing! I keep getting distracted by it!
Nóra: This is a peach which represents longevity in the Asian culture. Sometimes they paint it together with bats. They say that bats and peaches are lucky together. I think bats because the word in Chinese sounds like luck.
Cathy: Are you learning Chinese, Nóra?
Nóra: I’m learning Mandarin, yes. It helps my journey to be able to recognize a few characters, and I'd really love to be able to read some of the books, especially the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting which is a very important book for sumi-e painters.
This painting is really special. I display this painting now because it has my cat’s paw on it. It’s a good memory of my cat who sadly passed away and he was my companion when I started painting.
Cathy: I’m so sorry. I know you wrote about him on Instagram.
Nóra: It's absolutely fine but I'm just glad that I have something. When I painted the peach I was sad that he'd ruined my picture with his pawprint, but then I thought maybe one day I will come to love this picture.
It's just so funny that the peach is all about immortality or longevity, and he put his paw on there. So, he's now immortal here in this picture!
Cathy: That’s lovely, Nóra, and it is an astonishingly beautiful painting. I love the delicacy of it, with the different shades of ink.
Nóra: I tried to apply many painting techniques, like for example, for the branches. They were made using really dry brushes. Dry ink for branches gives you a nice texture.
And there are some tricks! Usually, the paper is smooth on one side and has a texture on the other – you’ve probably tried rice paper and mulberry paper.
Cathy: Do you use the smooth side or the textured side?
Nóra: It depends on what I’m painting. If I need lots of rough textures like rocks, or I’m painting animals, for example, and I really want that fluffy look, I use the rough side.
Cathy: Does the ink spread in the water a bit more?
Nóra: If you really want to spread the ink you would use untreated paper, like the 100% raw mulberry paper or kozo.
I recently bought some in Japan and I love experimenting with it. It's beautiful and it spreads the ink like crazy. Every brushstroke will appear on your picture, you can’t hide any mistakes.
Memorizing the movements
Nóra: The books are so helpful, you learn such a lot by copying other artists works, and that’s absolutely acceptable.
Cathy: Did you do a lot of that as part of your training? I can see that that would be insightful.
Nóra: You do learn a lot because you learn to look at a picture and you try to reproduce whatever the master did.
And then you memorize the movements, and you need to figure out how much ink they used and how much water: what the proportion of the water to ink is loaded into the brush.
You also need to work out the speed of the brush, and how they position the brush, and the angle of the brush – whether it was an upright or tilted brush.
There are so many aspects to a painting and it's so nice to learn from the masters by copying. Then you can adapt everything that you have learned into your own painting and create your own style.
You can go to a nice Japanese or Chinese bookshop and look up famous artworks. You can find many books online from museums, and they have nice albums sometimes if they have a temporary exhibition.
I often go and try to copy, even if I just copy one tiny part of the picture.
So even if you're out of ideas for a composition, you can look up an original picture and translate it into your style.
You do your research and you look at pictures. You see what you like and it leads you to your own style which you will develop in the end.
Ink Painting Manuals
Nóra: In Chinese painting you can find these types of books, like this one which is all about trees. I
bought these at a flea market in Chengdu. There are manuals and they will teach you how to use these basic brush strokes to paint trees.
They show some fundamentals which are useful, like the directions of the brush, but they are not for complete beginners. You already need to know how to create your ink and how to hold your brush.
But the more you copy, the more you learn and you realize, for example, the type of brush an artist was using to paint these particular petals, whether it was an orchid brush, or a bamboo brush..
They’re great to look at to try and learn. I think that's the best way to learn sumi-e.
Cathy: I think I remember you mentioned when we were in the Shibuya art shop that some of the brushes are named after the objects that they paint?
Nóra: Yes, some of them. If you go to a brush shop, sometimes you can ask to buy an orchid brush. It has a long and quite thin point but it holds a lot of water nicely.
Cathy: I can see how with a little bit of pressure and swing a brush like that would create the long, slim orchid petals.
Nóra: Yes, also orchid leaves are quite long. And your brush needs to be very comfortable if you want to turn it to give a little twist to create the leaves.
When it comes to holding the brush, it’s a bit like the way you hold chopsticks - it's basically about your thumb and first two fingers.
I always say it’s the same as holding a vial in the laboratory because my background is in science. These are the three most stable fingers. And the two smallest fingers should be used to lean the vial on to, they are just for support.
Some movements will be big, and you will move your whole body and the energy comes from the middle of your energy stores, your chi.
But you often add small details as well, and then you can put your wrist onto the paper.
At my Sumi-e School in Tokyo they showed me so many nice tricks! One of the tutors said it's useful to keep the cap of your brushes. The little tube of plastic that protects the brush – you can cut it and then you can put your brush back into it and you can draw a line with it with a ruler!
Cathy: No way! You can create a rest out of it! That’s genius!
Space and Balance
Cathy: For sumi-e I think I have to learn how to say enough is enough - in my illustration work I've learned to pile everything into a picture!
Nóra: It’s all so different to Western painting.
When you compose your painting you have to think about the negative spaces as well. They are also a part of your picture, and it needs to be well-balanced.
You need to have space for emptiness or nothing, which have a perfect yin yang in your picture.
When you go to an exhibition, you realize that there is great potential in this type of art.
Nóra: I have one more book for you – I already mentioned the Mustard Seed Garden Manual. This book is also like a Bible for Japanese painters. These are the basics of ink painting.
Cathy: How old is this book?
Nóra: This is a modern printed version, but the original I think is from the 17th century. I think it’s the earliest manual – the text is made with woodblock prints.
The images introduce you to good composition. And this volume is all about plum blossoms.
Cathy: A whole volume all about plum blossoms!
Nóra: They teach you how to build up your flowers; how to build up your trees; how the branches should interlink with each other.
This other volume is about bamboo.
Cathy: That’s so interesting that there is a manual to show how branches should cross in a painting.
Nóra: These manuals are from a time before the internet. They’re a little like a biological book as well. They will teach you how different types of bamboo look. There’s a little bit of the anatomy.
Cathy: That’s amazing, so if you can understand the composition rules, then you can go beyond them and begin to express yourself...
Letting your subject’s energy flow into you
Nóra: I’m the type of person who can't just learn from books and from copying, I need someone to support me as well, to correct my posture for example.
Sometimes I forget about it, but my master always tells me to uncross my legs so that my energy will flow. This is what you naturally do, you cross your arms and your legs if you want to deny something or you want to defend yourself - but you really need to open up when you’re painting and let your energy flow – let your subject’s energy flow into you.
Catching the spirit
Nóra: In ink painting it is said that you catch the spirit of something, and I think to catch the spirit of something you need to be a kind of medium. You need a connection with the subject.
Sometimes I just sit in the garden. From an outsider’s point of view, I probably look like I’m sitting there doing nothing - but in the meantime, I am making a connection with a hydrangea, let's say.
You are seeing how it moves in the rain or in the wind. And you are trying to understand the spirit of your subject.
Cathy: Your experience of nature is so outside the experience of most of us. You're making me think of Ted Hughes, the poet, sitting by a riverbank observing nature as he was fishing, and from this creating the most beautifully observed poetry with accurate descriptions of wildlife.
Nóra: That’s just like the ink painting masters. They probably spend years looking at a flock of birds.
It’s about sitting with nature and trying to interpret nature.
Cathy: I must ask you, do you use ready-made ink or do you grind your own?
Nóra: Yes, sometimes I use ready-made ink when I don't have time to grind my own. I know the proper way would be to grind your ink and it's also part of the process to get into the mood and calm your mind.
Down the ages Japanese ink has had perfume in it like musk to fragrance it.
The next time you're in Japan, please just smell the ink sticks, they smell like perfume, the fragrance is so amazing!
Cathy: That all lends to the experience, and I love that detail of fragrancing the ink, it’s so in keeping with the ancient Kyoto art of fragrance-creating!
Nóra: It’s like having incense sticks around you, they also help to get you into the right spiritual mood.
Cathy: Does it matter if ink is old?
Nóra: I think the older your materials are the better they are.
Sometimes they say they get better with aging like good wine. I think ink is one of the things that if it's aging and it doesn't dry out, it gets better. But you need to protect it.
You need to know how to store them – it’s another topic and it’s huge - but they can actually get better with time and the same applies to paper.
If your paper is really fresh, sometimes it doesn’t behave as you would expect. Treated paper can act weird and spread your ink when you believe you’re using the same amount of water.
I learned this from Japan on my last trip from the president of the school. You need to buy your paper and probably leave it for a year and let it settle.
Cathy: That's really interesting to know.
Nora, could you tell me about your exhibition at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where you exhibited three of
Nóra: My painting group had an exhibition at Trinity Hall in the summer where I had the honour to
display three of my paintings. I chose two of my favourite cat paintings and one of Kinkaku ji,
as I felt this trio would be a nice and brief presentation of my works.
Two of them were painted as part of my imaginary trip to Japan during the pandemic, when I had to cancel a trip which would have been the first to Japan. I was really looking forward to visit Kyoto and Koyuki, the cat priest.
The exhibition was very intimate, still attracted quite a few visitors, thanks to the programmes including artist talks, musical performances and Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies.
Cathy: That sounds amazing, I would have loved to have seen it!
Could you tell us about your beautiful photography too?
Nóra: I am also a big fan of travel and nature photography as you already know. It is a good way to collect references for future paintings but also helps me to experiment with compositions and understand my subjects.
A few years ago I also converted my old compact into an infrared camera, which completely changed the way I need to look at the world since colours do not exist in the infrared range anymore. I think it helps to improve my painting skills, too.
Cathy: Thank you so much for joining me today, Nóra, you’ve been so fascinating to talk with. It’s been so illuminating listening to you talk about your passion for sumi-e painting.
Nóra: It’s been lovely to see you, thank you!
Nóra Hamucska is a sumi-e artist living in Cambridge, England.
Paintings on Instagram: @liulangmao_art
Photos on Instagram: @ladymucur
Photography Blog (with paintings in the future): norahamucska.com
Copyright: all photos and artwork are by Nóra Hamucska.
Thank you for reading, see you next time! xx