The centuries-old East Asian art of sumi-e, or black ink painting, is more than a creative practice. Traditionally it embodies Chinese and Japanese philosophies, with each artwork intended to capture not just the physical appearance but also the essence of the subject at hand. The brushwork is accordingly free-form and highly expressive, requiring papers that can absorb ink quickly. The best papers are fine textured and feather light, many of them being xuan, rice paper that was developed for Chinese calligraphy and painting.
1. Megrez Rice Paper
There is a lot to love about this stack of rice paper: it absorbs ink well, feels smooth and strong, and has a reasonable price point. Megrez offers several paper sizes and levels of so-called ripeness. Raw (unprocessed) papers are highly absorbent, while ripe or semi-ripe papers are less absorbent and better suited for calligraphy. Whichever one you pick, this paper will make your ink stand out with minimal feathering. With 100 sheets in a set, this is a great option not only for experienced sumi-e painters but for beginners as well, as you won’t have to treat each sheet as a precious commodity.
2. Easyou Sumi Paper
A common problem with rice papers is their packaging. Many brands fold their sheets, which can leave unpleasant marks in your art. Easyou’s product is a single, 30-foot scroll of raw xuan paper that comes rolled up to avoid creases. This allows you to cut sheets of any desired size, an extra step that is well worth it, considering the high quality of this paper. It’s made of tough wingceltis bark, which contributes to its great ability to soak up ink without wrinkling or tearing.
3. Hmayart Mulberry Paper
Based in Xuancheng, the Chinese city famous for producing top-grade xuan paper, the paper manufacturer Hmayart makes some of the best papers for sumi-e. Handmade from mulberry, these sheets are beautiful to look at: you can see the plant fibers in each one, which adds some texture but not enough to interfere with your brushwork. The white filaments also create a unique background while giving the paper a satisfying cottony feel. As for their performance, these sheets hold moisture very well without bleeding or breaking up.
4. JapanBargain Rice Paper
With a weight similar to that of wrapping tissue, this paper is quite thin and delicate, but it presents good value for the number of sheets in each set. The bright-white paper does a fine job of absorbing sumi ink quickly, although too much liquid can lead to a soggy surface; a light touch yields the best results. The sheets also have a tendency to buckle when they dry, but this can be avoided by weighing them down as soon as possible. JapanBargain’s product is also more translucent than our other picks, which can be helpful for tracing.
5. BlueHeronArts Mulberry Paper
Like Hmayart’s paper, these sheets are made of mulberry, but the fibers are less visible so each sheet presents a beautiful, gentle-white surface with subtle texture. These are soft papers that feel delicate but aren’t flimsy. They perform well even with a lot of moisture and won’t warp as easily as some of our other picks. The fibers also resist bleeding while accentuating brushwork.