Once upon a time, there was a quiet temple who stood tall upon serene hills and golden paddies. Well loved by local farmers, its monks were simple people, quite pious and hard to the task.
Among them, lived a boy named Hachiro. It was a very small child, always daydreaming, who had been given to the temple by his poor parents.
As every young boy, Hachiro had little interest for daily prayers,boring lectures and long meditations. In fact, he had only one true passion: he loved to paint.
Under his nimble fingers, ink would cloud over white paper, turning into misty mountains and joyful streams, delicate birds and cheeky butterflies.
A far-away look in his eyes, Hachiro would often doze during sutra recitations, dreaming of all the fantastic beasts and far away lands he could sketch. Seniors monks were men far more down to earth and they would scold:
– Pay attention Hachiro! Or we will take away your brushes!
One day though, the boy fell asleep for good in the prayer room. The head monk sighted and roughly roused him:
– Enough is enough, I now forbid you to paint. Hand me your brushes! I’ll keep them with me until you are able to fulfill your chores.
Hachiro started to cry but the old monk was unwavering. And all was said and done.
Late that night, the child opened wide eyes: the most perfect pictures had crossed his mind and his fingers ached to set it down on paper.
Hachiro turned and turned on his futon but the picture refused to left his head: he had to paint it. Quiet as a mouse, he got up and crossed the sleeping temple.
In the study, Hachiro lighted a lamp, and took a sheet of paper and an inkstone. The only thing left to find was a brush. The boy sighted, missing his dearly. Suddenly, he had an idea.
Silent as a shadow, he went to the garden and took a straight stick. Then, with a sharp knife, he cut some of his hair. In moments, his skilfull hands turned those into a makeshift brush.
The boy smiled brightly: now he would be able to paint. He sat before the paper sheet and let his mind ran free. His hand seemed to move with its own will, ink flowing over the paper in supple lines.
Layers after layers, a prancing foal appeared. The young animal bounced on light hooves, its inky mane carried invisible wind billowing madly around its head.
Hachiro was overjoyed: this painting was by far the best he had ever made.
Dawn was nearly here. Down the corridor, monks were starting the awaken. Hastily, the boy tidied up his supply.
– The head monk will be so furious if he finds out I’ve disobeyed!
Pacing, the boy finally decided to tuck the painted foal in his kimono. And he went on with his day as if nothing had happened.
Yet, later on in the afternoon, a booming voice disturbed the tranquil temple grounds. Standing in the courtyard, stood a troubled farmer, all cold sweat and trembling legs. Falling on his knees, he cried:
– Revered monks, something strange happened to the fields! Our rice ears were ripe and gold, ready to give us a beautiful harvest. But this morning, we’ve found them all wrecked!
Surprised, the monks all rose as one man and soon, the whole temple was out by the paddies, inspecting the spoiled crops. One grunted:
– This was not made by a man but a beast. We cannot let such a thing roams free. Whatever it is we have to catch it!
Nodding, farmers and monks quickly built hunting huts out in the fields, hidden under fresh herbs and straw. And the watch began. The afternoon sun set and the moon rose lazily in the sky. Nothing moved but the silvery ears of rice gently dancing in the wind.
Suddenly, one hunter shushed his companions: in the distance, a soft thundering sound could be heard. Holding their breaths, the men all crouched down, ready to pounce.
A single foal had appeared from thin air. It was a graceful animal, with a coat soft as a cloud, hooves shining like the moon, and a mane dark as night. Light on its feet, the young horse pranced joyfully around, trampling the field. Then, it let a pleased neigh and started to graze.
Furious, all the hunters sprang like one:
– You won’t escape!
Surrounded, the night foal reared, ears down and eyes wild. And before anyone could touch it, it began to gallop, heading straight to the temple.
Chasing after it, the hunters ran as fast as they could but the animal did not stop at the gates, merely going through hard wood like a ghost.
Someone started to wail in fear while others cried in alarm:
– The beast is here!
The horse crossed the courtyard and jumped into the study, disrupting flabbergasted monks. Never stopping, its mane oily blue in the candlelight, it kept going on – straight to Hachiro’s room.
Having heard all the commotion, the boy had gotten up and could only gaped when the ethereal foal stopped right in front of him, its jet eyes glittering like stars. Under its skin, dark clouds seemed to swirl like ink into water.
No one dared to move. Finally, a stern voice broke the silence:
– Hachiro, is there anything you wish to tell us?
The small child bowed his head in shame as the head monk approached. Reluctantly, he reached into his kimono and handed him his makeshift brush and the painting. The paper was all white.
The old man sighed and turned to the spirit horse:
– You don’t belong here, go back to your world.
The foal danced on its hooves and without missing a beat, jumped into the the picture. Soon, it was all but black ink again.
Hachiro was sniffing, bravely doing his best to not tear up:
– I am sorry master, I didn’t think such a terrible thing would happen!
The head monk looked down at the fidgeting boy for a long moment. Then his wrinkled face cracked a smile:
– Your painting was so life-like that foal escaped. It is not a small talent you have. But for now, please only use real brushes ok? You put too much of yourself in that one!
And from this day on, Hachiro studied Art under the close patronage of the head monk. And they said that the dreaming young boy with nimble hands became of famous artist, creating masterpieces for many temples – and even the Emperor.
The art style depicted today is called sumi-e in Japanese. This technique came to Japan from China where it was extensively used for painting surreal and imaginary landscapes.
The ink wash painting method usually doesn’t show the real appearance of a subject but stress its spirit. With flowing lines and misty ombré, sumi-e artists catch the quintessence of their subject, which gives their painting a great expressivity.
The artist giving soul to their creations is a popular motif all around the world. In fact, some Asian folk stories stress the importance of leaving out some detail of a painting, a tattoo etc. so the subject doesn’t escape (usually it’s the eye which is left blank).