Painting Technique

A sumi zen ink wash painting of a dragon fly by Russ Mead.

Russ Mead uses the Zen ink brush art form to capture the Spirit of  animals using only a minimal number of brushstrokes. The art form, also known as Zen painting, Sumi, Sumi-e, or Chinese ink brush painting,  is over 2000 years old.

Russ has collected around 30 sumi brushes over time.  Recently he discovered the custom brush maker Tracy Lebenzon. Most all of his work is now done with a single brush that can produce both the thinnest and thickest lines of any of his other brushes. This all purpose brush has a fine point made of synthetic fibers and can lay down a very narrow line. With a little pressure the line widens to a bit and with a lot of pressure the line is downright fat.

Russ breaks from tradition on  paper. Many artists use  “rice paper” made from mulberry trees.  Traditionally rice paper is wet mounted, requiring smearing handmade paste on the work and then adhering the work to a stiffer paper. Russ does not like adding this flour paste to the artwork  and uses a stiffer paper  that is archival and ph neutral.  This paper has the benefit of allowing Russ to use a dry brush technique that yields wonderful results in some of his animal designs. His favorite size to work on is 18 x 24″ full sheets of paper. Many have trouble finding a space that large to hang original art work so Russ does paint his designs on 9″x 12″ paper and mats the work down to 8″x10″.

The design process

Russ uses public domain photographs of  animals as the starting  reference material in developing a new Zen ink brush animal painting. The photographs are  stripped of color and turned into a black-and-white photographs. Russ then  studies the reference material and decides what elements of an animal’s body make up the essence of that animal.  Including an elephant’s trunk while excluding the elephants tail is an example.  Another example is  capturing the spirit of a wild horse by including the horses mane dancing in the wind while running.

Then, Russ   creates up to 150 practice studies on 9″x 12″ paper to find the best way to represent the complex animal form with a minimal number of brushstrokes.  Once the design is working, Russ then paints series of 18″ x 24″ renditions of the design. He surrounds himself by these works.  When painting each subsequent work, he looks around at the work surrounding him and then decides which element from the earlier paintings works the best. For example, he chooses which eye works the best for this animal. He chooses which brush stroke best depicts a wild horse mane. Does a solid black line work better or a grey line?  Is this where the brush should be loaded with different colors of grey to produce a continuous shading fat stroke? Will a dry brush technique work to extenuate some aspect of the design? Where should a dark brush stroke be accented with a shaded shadow line?

When Russ  is satisfied with a single completed 18″ x 24″  work, all the  prior work is destroyed. This new piece becomes the reference material to paint a series of subsequent paintings of the subject. But the subsequent pieces are not copies of this reference. Each painting is tweaked in an effort to improve the final drawing. This is an old tradition in Zen ink brush painting. There are stories of  monks who paint the same scene every morning of their lives. Each day they strive for a better painting than the day before.

Russ is simultaneously working on  developing new subjects to add to his designs.  He will even pull a design if it is “just not looking right”. The art work is sold in two forms. Originals painted in 18″ x 24″ size. The second is 8″ x 10″ paintings usually matted out to 11″ x 14″. This smaller size fits into the homes and offices of some clients better than the 18″ x 24″ size.

Original works can be purchased by contacting Russ Mead at

Prints can be purchased at Fine Art America

Go to gallery page to view more subjects.



Artist Zen Ink Wash