Suminagashi is a Japanese monoprinting method that is often used to decorate paper for bookbinding or stationery. It is similar to Turkish and European paper marbling, but is simpler in that the water doesn’t have to be thickened for the pigments to float on the surface. The tradition started in medieval Japan, when courtiers would create beautiful ink paintings and then dip them into water and marvel at the beautiful patterns that rose to the surface. Ink divination was also a practice at the time (similar to reading tea leaves). I think you can do this type of printing with kids of any age because it is non-toxic and easy. I’ve used this process in the past to create large digital prints (24″ x 48″) by scanning my suminagashi prints and manipulating them in Photoshop.
This would be a great project for older students 5th grade and above. The sooner students are comfortable scanning and manipulating images on the computer the better. A school doesn’t need to have access to Photoshop, a similar program called GIMP is available for free.
A tray that will fit the paper you have and is 1″ deep
2 dishes/containers (1 for soap water, 1 for sumi)
washi (Japanese paper) or (as I found out later by experimenting) printer paper
Mix a little bit of soap into a dish of water and pick what brush will be the soap-water brush. It’s important that you don’t switch brushes. The whole process relies on the two mixtures repelling each other. Take the ink brush and load it with ink, then touch it to the surface of the water. The ink should spread out in a circle. Take the soap brush and load it with soap-water. Touch it to the water within the ink circle. Repeat the process alternating ink and soap-water.
When you are happy with your image, take the sheet of paper and carefully lower it onto the surface of the water. When you can see the image on the other side of the paper, carefully take the paper off of the water and let it dry on racks or boards.
The mistake I made during my first attempts this time around was that I didn’t wash the tray out beforehand. There was probably some residue in it leftover from baking. You can see that the ink just kind of falls to the bottom of the tray. That’s because the surface tension of the water has been broken.
So I rinsed out the tray, scrubbed it with soap and a sponge, filled it, and began again. My first prints were with washi, which is what I usually make these with. Some Western handmade papers also work nicely, I’ve had success with both Rives BFK and Somerset Velvet.
I apologize for my rough voice, I’ve been sick for over a week.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t have any experience in physics, much less fluid dynamics, and everything said in this video was 100% off the top of my head, so if I said anything completely false, please let me know. The last thing I want to do is spread ignorance.
One of the benefits of this technique is now little it costs.
2 ounce bottle Liquid Sumi Ink: $5.00
Printer Paper (200 sheets, 10 sheets per student): $5 for 500 sheets, so $2 for 20 students
Blick Economy Round Camel Brush Canister of 120: $47.98 (20 students need 40 brushes max, so $15.99 for 20 students
Trays, whatever you have lying around, baking trays work, find some at a thrift store or garage sale, but just so I can price this out:
20 – 9-1/2″ x 13″ x 1″ Quarter Size Aluminum Bun Pans: $67.80
soap: get some from the school’s general supply, you need less than a drop per kid
water: same as soap, but you might want to have pitchers at the tables and fill those up so you don’t have kids walking around with sloshing trays of water
Total: $90.79, $4.54 per student
You’ll have the brushes and trays leftover at the end and both can be used for countless other projects. You’ll probably have ink left too. If you already had pans and brushes, this project would cost $7.00 total.
Connections to other Topics
Suminagashi is a great introduction to basic concepts like surface tension. It’s also important to the history of science because papers on suminagashi and surface tension at the turn of the 19th century lead to the acceptance of the existence of atoms. The ink that spreads on the surface is only one molecule thick. That’s cool! It’s a hand’s on way to introduce kids to some pretty sophisticated scientific concepts.
You can also connect suminagashi to sociology and history. Japanese history is long, well-documented, and filled with many interesting stories that can captivate people of all ages. Manga and anime are very popular with elementary and middle school aged students, and learning more about the culture that produces those things can spark an interest in history or cultural studies.
It could also be made while an English teacher is teaching a poetry unit and then the students can write their haiku on their suminagashi paper, or write haiku about what they see in the patterns. Which also goes back to the history of suminagashi, it was often used to write poetry on, and poetry was a very important part of daily life in upper-class medieval Japan when suminagashi was invented. It helps connect students to people in that time, by doing something that they did.