In conversation with Sarah Amatt, Suminigashi marbler. Sarah has been marbling for over 38 years - beginning initially with Turkish Marbling, and then moving into Suminigashi 2 years ago. Pieces of Sarah's work are held in The Olga Hirsch Collection, British Library and The Rosamund B. Loring Collection, Harvard and elsewhere.
Sarah: Suminigashi is somewhat lost in the mists of time. Some people think it started in China and then migrated to Japan, and even then they’re not sure how it started in China. Some people say it was a calligrapher dipping his pen in water and, seeing that the ink was floating, trying to take a print of it. Other people talk about it being a divination game, where ink was thrown on water and divined someone’s fortune – but that’s all very hazy. It’s not cut and dried by any means.
Originally it was used to decorate anthologies of poetry, and it was limited to just one family of makers in Japan as it was owned by the Emperor. It later was made by two families, but always passed down to just one child in each of those families, so it was a narrow line of learning and the patterns were kept very similar with not much experimentation. Then, in the mid 1800s, when Japan started to make more connection with the West again, the shoguns were no longer able to keep it under control and it started to expand. Following WW11 it closed up again and, as far as I know, post-war, there’s only been Mr Fukuda of Echizen doing traditional suminigashi, and there are a only a handful of other more experimental practitioners that use different colours and chemicals to get different effects.
The oldest piece of suminigashi in Japan is from 1118 AD at the end of the Heian period (794 - 1185) and is found on a piece of washi (Japanese paper) with calligraphy and suminigashi on one corner. It was originally also used as a kind of copy proof to write on because no two suminigashi can ever be the same. It’s thought to have originated earlier than 1118 however, with the process begin referred to in a text from the 9th century. It is definitely the oldest form of marbling. Turkish marbling doesn’t come in until around the 1400s and that’s using thickened water, onto which you drop the ink. With suminigashi, it’s just pure water and you touch the brush to the surface to make the discs of ink.
The whole process of suminigashi is very meditative and you don’t have to hurry it. With Turkish marbling, you have to do it in a certain window of time because the ink starts to either fall or disintegrate, and if you have a combed pattern that can get lost. With suminigashi however, you are encouraged to spend longer to see what happens, and there is no particular time that you should take a print. You could choose to leave it to see what happens – sometimes if you do that, the ink at the edges starts to break up…but in a rather nice way, in little strands. In a way, anything that happens in suminigashi is alright [she laughs], whereas with Turkish marbling, because you’ve got definite patterns that you’re trying to reproduce and do a run-of, you need a certain outcome. With sumi – at least with the way I do it – its much more about allowing and letting it happen.
Traditionally with suminigashi you have a trough full of water (fune), and you have ink sticks (sumi) which are made from pine soot mixed with a pine oil, animal glue and sometimes a scent (although its difficult to find out exactly the ingredient for sumi). That’s the black sumi stick, and then traditionally there is also indigo and red. They produce lots of different colours these days and the one I particularly like is the white one, which is made from oyster shells. You can add it to the other colours to give body. The ink is introduced to the surface of the water using a brush (fude) which you just touch onto the surface and it spreads out into a disc of ink. Then you use a surfactant (surface acting agent - suzuri) which is technically soap and it breaks the tension of the water and if you put that in the middle of the disc then you get a ring of black ink. The surfactant is traditionally some kind of pine oil, but soap works just as well – I’m not one with sticking to traditionally material when you can get the same effect.
You then put maybe 40-100 of those down, so you have a trough completely filled with concentric rings and then you manipulate them either by blowing, or fanning it, or you can stir them gently with a stick, or you can just leave it, or use all those methods. It’s simple but at the same time its very complex – there’s quite a lot to keep an eye on. Making the ink float isn’t always straight forward either. Ready-made ink floats easily, so I suppose they put something in it, but the sumi stick inks takes a bit of encouraging – it helps to mix some of the soap solution in with it. I actually use Ilfotol, which is something photographers use to rinse their negatives. It doesn’t leave any residue which could show on the paper, unlike something like washing up liquid.
I started off rather absurdly using an Indian paper, mainly because it’s very high cotton content. The paper has to absorb the ink because technically it’s a mono-print - every time you take a print you remove all the ink (apart from round the edge) and then you have to start all over again, so they are one-offs. With Turkish marbling you have to prepare the paper in a solution of alum in order for the colour to stick to the paper. With sumi you use a paper with very little sizing.
To explain sizing a bit – blotting paper is not sized so it absorbs ink readily, but it also goes all furry and bleeds into the paper. The opposite extreme would be a really glossy paper that had a surface coating to it, heavily sized, and it probably wouldn’t print – you could write on it and it would have a very clear outline, but it wouldn’t absorb anything as a sumi print. So those are the two extremes and what you want for suminigashi is something around the middle but more towards to the blotting paper end. It’s trial and error really. I now use pretty much any washi and/or a printing paper such as an artist would use for a print... Zerkall or Bockingford or Somerset, but again its just trial and error. But I use the washi for the lampshades because they’re translucent and strong.
An artificer is one who makes with art and skill – do you think of it to be as an artistic practice?
I don’t know. I have a lot of trouble knowing what to call myself, but I think I’m most comfortable with calling myself a maker. But it is probably is an art, to contradict myself [she laughs]. There’s thinking and assessing – it’s certainly not just the same thing stamped out again and again.
When I first started try to get to grips with it I set myself 40 days to do a print a day everyday, and I really learnt a lot from having that discipline. I previously trained in Colour Mirrors which is a system of using colour in psychotherapy. It’s a basically a series of bottles each with two colours – the bottom half has one colour, and the top half has another – each of which represent a certain, or set of emotions. Throughout my 40 days print, I also chose bottles everyday – without thinking, because as soon as you start thinking it doesn’t work – and so I was able to relate how I was feeling to the suminigashi patterns I was making. It was surprising how much they differed because of how I was feeling and even how the environment was – humidity, heat, the weather. It was clear that how I was feeling that day, was affecting what I bought to the tray each day.
Sarah goes on to talk about her experiences using colour therapy within her psychotherapy practice and, without ever making it explicit, makes it clear that a lot of what drives interest in suminigashi is its eloquence as a tool for expressing emotion. An eloquence that is not necessarily obvious to anybody but the maker themselves. It is an opportunity for a very abstract expression without words – a deeply subconscious, soothing act of mindfulness and mediation. In her own words, “Suminigashi relinquishes control; it is an expression of the maker’s ‘sense of being’ in that moment.”
More of Sarah’s work can be seen on her Instagram page, and we very much look forward to stocking some of her work in the near future.