HEKKTA delves deeper into the evolution of Japanese artist Hokusai, and his most celebrated piece, ‘The Great Wave’. The level of detail drawn, and time taken to create this piece is a fascinating eye opener into the mind of an artist, and how age and experience can bring the answer.

Katsushika Hokusai was around 72 when he completed the final version of his piece which would go on to become one of the world’s most celebrated pieces of art.

However, the journey to creating The Great Wave off Kanagawa was not such as easy one, and new photos have revealed that the process lasted over 39 years.

A key artist, integral to the Impressionist movement in Europe, he experimented with various different styles and techniques over the course of his long career. Showing early prowess as a youngster, as a teen he became a woodblock carver’s apprentice, where he learned the knowledge and skills that later lead him to create some of his most famous works he’s known for today.

Finally joining an art studio at 19, his work in the studio of ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunshō began what would be a stellar career.

Contributing to all sorts of different fields, he started designing board games, made several toys for children, and he is even credited for creating some of the earliest forms of Manga art, which has become iconic in terms of Japanese art and aesthetic.

Hokusai Manga

Hokusai Manga

Despite early success and signs of being a true visionary, it was personal turmoil that served to damage his career. After losing both his wives and two children, he was struck by lightning and also had a stroke which required him to relearn his art. In addition to this, bailing out his grandson’s gambling debts left him completely broke.

But it was this struggle that arguably created his best piece yet.

‘springtime in enoshima,’ 1797

Early thoughts laid the foundation for ‘The Great Wave’, examples such as the one above that he created in 1797 aged 44. Not a painting at all, he used woodblock printing techniques, where an image is carved in reverse on a piece of wood, leaving the image’s outline on the wood, and the block is then inked and printed on a substance like paper or fabric.

You can see early resemblances of The Great Wave in the photo; a slightly smaller lapping wave, with Mount Fuji in the background.

The Great Wave was not actually a stand alone photo, far from it. It was part of a larger woodblock print series titled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which was packed with vibrant colour and would become Hokusai’s proudest creation. Click here to explore the rest of the collection.

‘view of honmoku off kanagawa,’ 1803

A few years later, he created ‘a view of honmoku off kanagawa’, increasing the size and ferocity of the waves, adding ships aswell to give it that extra sense of danger and tension.

Notably absent however, was Mount Fuji, suggesting that this was not always intended to be part of his wider series, rather a spur of imagination.

Again in 1805, he had another attempt, switching the waves back, with the print slowly developing into the one recognisable today. That said, it lacks anywhere near the level of colour or detail of the final piece, and again, Mount Fuji is not present.

‘fast cargo boat battling the waves,’ 1805

Perhaps inspiration dried up for him, as he focused on other works, and he left the print, clearly unhappy with where he was with it.

After personal turmoil, he returned his attention to capturing the iconic volcano, going back to his previous prints to create the one distinctive image that has been hung on millions of walls, surfer cafés and student digs around the world.

'The Great Wave' / Katsushika Hokusai

‘The Great Wave’ / Katsushika Hokusai

Published in 1833, due to the nature of the print, he was able to mass produce it and sell thousands for relatively little money, which at the time served to discredit it’s importance in the eyes of art historians, but no doubt aided it’s popularity among the people.

The success of the print was delayed however, as Japan was not culturally engaging with other nations, only trading with China and Korea. Therefore Western artists didn’t lay eyes on Hokusai’s works until 30 years after they were published. In 1859, a wave of Japanese prints flowed across Europe, winning adoration from the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet.

When the tourism boost came in the 20th century, the prints enjoyed a resurgence as part of a booming industry for souvenirs, especially as they depicted its magnificent mountain.

Extraordinarily, he was vastly aware of the benefits and pools of creativity awaiting him in his later years, “At 100, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.” Believing he would live to 110, he was convinced that the last few years of his life would bear him the best of his fruits.

Sadly he never viewed himself as a true artist, being quoted on his deathbed to saying, “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.”

Adoration for Hokusai’s works may have come late, and despite his modest view of his own ability, when the praise and acknowledgment did come, it came in full.

An instantly recognisable piece, displayed in the biggest museums in the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum of London, the genius of Katsushika Hokusai has certainly been recognised.

Just goes to show, as long as you never give up, you can always improve and create something extraordinary.