The way of the ink : Alain Bonnefoit

As promised I would publish some stories about my way of the ink and the people I meet alongsinde this path. For this first one I visited Alain Bonnefoit, the French fine art painter that introduced me to the technique.

“Oh oh les artistes!”

Translated: “oh oh artists!” And alsmot directly followed by “Look at your model and how she is getting into the pose!”

The path of the ink that I follow with Alain starts in 2007. At that time I returned to the “Moulin de Perrot” for a painting workshop. That year I finally managed to get myself a spot in the atelier with Alain. It was an extraordinary encounter. Alain is the personification of sharing, the good life and optimism. There’s no room for any other thing. “Vive la vie!” and enjoy sharing.

Today it’s time for a visit to his atelier in Paris for a stroll down his sumi-e path.


It all starts in 1974 when Alain takes a shodo-lesson next to a course in aïkido with Masamichi Noro in Paris. He discovers the power of movement and the art of surpassing a goal by aming behind it. 

Those are things he’d love to incorporate in his painting too.

He’ll meet an art merchant there who will take him along on a trip to Japan to study sumi-e.


Sumi-e materials

Both men will be received in a temple in the Japanese countryside by Sugiyama-yu. The host will welcome them with a traditional dinner but Alain, still suffering a jetlag, falls asleep at the table. The host will then ask the other to let Alain sleep and at the end of the meal he will ask to put him on a matress. The bond between Master and apprentice is forged.

However, this is not a reason to skip stages! The apprentices will wait for 2 weeks for the course to start. 

After this period Sugiyama-yu will invite them to attend a demonstration in his atelier. In silence and full concentration he will put his felt in place. He unwraps his suzuri (inkstone), then his inkstick. Het places a bowl of water. Gets his fude (brushes) out. When that is in place he fetches a sheet of paper and gently stretches it on the felt. Then het prepares his ink and brush.

45 minutes have passed when he finally puts his brush on the paper for the first time. A few brushstrokes later it’s finished. Stunning.


A sketch by Volti in the atelier, next to one of Alain’s paintings

In the days that follow, Alain can finally start practicing himself with the  beautiful materials at hand. But the first strokes are awful. Although in the past he has learned to simplify his drawing (thanks to his spiritual father and teacher Volti) he doubts his ability. He will then fetch common paper to try and speed up learning, as the paper provided by the master is so thin and absorbing that the lines spread out way too much.

Sugiyama-yu will not stop offering Alain the best materials he has and after a while the Frenchman starts to feel and appreciate the quality of wispering papers and very old inks.

The calligraphy-sets he bought at the exits of temples will soon make places for brushes, stones and sticks his teacher gave him. When Alain leaves, his Master will break a 100 year old inkstick to give half of it to his apprentice.

For 10 years Alain will not keep any of his work. It is only in the second half of the 80’s that a first drawing will be stretched and shown in public.

Alain has elaborated his own style. Leaving the grey-tones away quite quickly, only keeping purely black lines full of sense and sensuality.

This scroll on the right was a present from the master. It was re-stretched for the occasion. Exceptional!

When he exhibited in Japan there was a Master saying “without resting the hand, and that for a foreigner!”. He was able to see that Alain hadn’t rested his hand just by looking at the end result. And yes, it is indeed a challenge to work that way. Japanese even consider that it is something that strangers cannot master…

There are many anecdotes that followed through time. As Alain visited Sugiyama-yu for over 30 times. He was introduced to brushmakers, including one that made brushes from mouse whiskers. He got presents like restretched paintings…

My path

Atelier Pavillon de Choiseul, Paris. Stage Alain Bonnefoit 2012

Alain brought sumi-e on my path. And that is more than just drawing or painting. There’s the smell of the inkt, the touch of the brush and the whispering of paper… it’s a whole and touches every sense. There are links and analogies with martial arts on every side! 

Even in daily life I see more analogies every day. Like the day I visited Alain and we shared some iPad techniques… We often let ourselves be so impressed by the value of things that we limit ourselves. We unable ourselves to use and enjoy things fully. It’s like the sumi-e apprentice that is aware of the value of the paper. That thought influences our concentration and often ends up in a very poor end result…

More about Alain Bonnefoit

For those of you who would like to know more about Alain Bonnefoit, you can find him on Facebook.


As the possibilities of learning with Alain were limited in time I have searched for other teachers. I will be telling you more about one of them in one of the next posts: Marjon de Jong.  



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