Arlington Painter Interprets Life Through Ancient Sumi-e Art

Bold Strokes of Quiet Contemplation: Oriental brush painting transforms simple plant soot into art for your home

Article by Alysha Sideman

Photography by paintings by Carol Waite

Originally published in Arlington Lifestyle

Carol Waite wakes up in her Arlington home and quietly contemplates the day ahead. Her dreams were filled with a cacophony of nature scenes and enchanting life moments.

Some of those dreams may be interpreted into bold art --  using the traditional process of Sumi-e or Oriental Brush painting -- as she makes room for new muses. 

The painter heads downstairs to eat her cereal and drink her coffee. After reading most of the morning newspaper her day begins to shape up into something highly unusual. Something most people don’t experience. Waite walks out of the door and embraces the day in hot pursuit of new inspirations. 

As an award-winning artist, she is extremely prolific, often showing her paintings at several exhibitions at same time, while continuing to work in one of her several studios. As a successful artist it’s vital she remains connected to her creative spirit. In addition, she accepts commissions for a particular need in someone's home, though mostly she sells to individual collectors.

Sometimes "embracing the day" begins with tennis in the morning, a museum visit or a walk in the park. 

Inspiration-bound, she often finds the day’s muse shortly after getting “out-of-doors,” she says. 

In fact, that’s what Sumi-e is all about-- capturing what is outside and what is natural. If you know Waite’s love of the outdoors, it will be obvious why she was drawn to the Sumi-e way of painting, which is geared towards interpreting various aspects of nature and life in art.

“My inspiration is always nature,” she says. It is a passion that began when she attended Girl Scout camp as a child. Then, it evolved when she began visiting National Parks.

Photography also serves as a constant companion when she’s in need of a creative pick-me-up. 

“I have taken many pictures in my travels, plus I peruse the wonderful images in National Wildlife magazine, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and others, and take inspiration from them. The beauty and peacefulness of nature make me happy,” says Waite.


Although Sumi-e depicts lifelike images like flowers, animals and landscapes it evolved from ancient Chinese calligraphy which used sumi ink and rice paper. Chinese characters generally depicted "pictures" in their writing, similar to the Egyptians. 

Sumi-e translated means  “oriental brush painting.” The process entails preparing “sumi” or organic ink . It is made from the soot left from burning a mulberry or cattail plant. Waite takes the black caked solid -- created when combining the soot with glue from a deer horn -- and rubs it on a piece of slate with water. This makes the ink (sumi) that is applied by brush onto rice or cotton paper mostly. It can also be applied to silk. Waite uses both the ink and watercolors for her pieces. The “e” in sumi-e means “painting” in Japanese.   


She loads her brush with different shades of sumi, depending upon how much water was added during slate grinding. A brush loaded with either sumi or watercolors gives a shaded or multi-color effect. The process deems it be administered in one stroke of the brush and “executed without hesitation.” 

“Bold brush strokes are important in this style of painting, showing strength to the images,” she says. The bold strokes offer an enchanting contrast to her love of painting “flowers and birds, and anything to do with the sea,” she adds.

While Waite majored in fine arts/oil painting in college at George Washington University, it wasn’t until years later she discovered Sumi-e in a class at the Torpedo Factory. She immediately fell in love. It also brought her back to her heritage of growing up in Japan.

 “Also, one works very fast on rice paper, and I have little patience, so it suits me well, in addition to my love of nature,” she says. 

Besides looking to nature to jazz her up, when the painter heads to a studio to work, she can choose between her private studio, the Arlington Artists Alliance Gallery Underground or Gallery Clarendon. 

Waite said she prefers her space at The Red Studio in Crystal City, which she shares with other artists. She feeds off the energy of her compatriots there and can usually be found working at this location. “It is also an inspiration working alongside other artists,” she says.


Her workspace contains two big tables which she covers with felt or an old army blanket, which is needed when painting on rice paper.

“I do not use an easel, one paints [sumi-e] flat using rice paper. I also have several sets of shelves where I store framed works, and portfolios holding unframed pieces. In addition, I have a small cabinet and containers holding my paints, brushes, mixing bowls, framing supplies, and other equipment,” she adds.

Since Jan. 2020 her paintings have been showcased at Gallery Underground in Crystal City, Portobello’s Restaurant, Virginia Hospital Board Room, Arlington County Judicial Chambers, Arlington Free Clinic, and Brush Strokes Gallery in Fredericksburg. In Dec. 2019, she was honored as an artist of the month at the Arlington Artists Alliance.


The highest compliment to an artist in Japan is to say he paints with his soul.

For sure, Waite’s brush indeed follows the dictate of her spirit. 

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