Anatomy of a Masterpiece: Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849). ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa,’ also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830–32. Japan, Edo period. Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 10 1/8 x 15 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (commonly known as The Great Wave) has become a global icon, synonymous around the world not only with the artist, Hokusai (1760 – 1849) but with Japanese art in general.

Almost everyone has seen pictures of this magnificent woodblock print by the master of the technique, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). The Great Wave, as it is commonly known, utilizes an art form that became enormously popular during the Edo period (1615-1868). It was at the time the most advanced color-reproduction technology known in the world. A chief reason why The Great Wave is so captivating is the saturated blues and the extraordinary contrast of the waves depicted. Thanks to recent investigations carried out by scientists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, we are beginning to learn how Hokusai achieved these effects by skillfully using the color technology of the period

Spectroscopic analysis by the Met’s scientists shows that to achieve the illusion of 3D depth, Hokusai and his assistants did not simply substitute the exotic Prussian blue for the traditional (and duller) indigo. Instead, they mixed the two together to create a bold outline and printed one pigment on top of the other to darken the bright Prussian blue without reducing the intensity of its hue.

The striking effect can be seen in the towering wave that breaks over the leftmost boat. When the printing masters laid down the outlines of the design, they printed the dark vertical stripes first, using a mixture of Prussian blue and indigo to create a dark gunmetal blue. Then they printed the hollow of the wave in two steps: first, by applying a pure Prussian blue over the initially printed stripes, and then by filling the white spaces between them. The effect is a transition from the deep blue, produced by the double printing to the bright and saturated pure Prussian blue that animates the surface of the wave, adding visual depth and movement.

The double-printing method has another, more unexpected effect. As printing pushes the paper into the block, the reliefs carved in the block bite into the paper, indenting it as they deposit their color. The effect is even more pronounced when the block is printed twice, as in the deep blue hollow of the wave, where the white foam, the bright blue, and the deep blue all sit at different heights, adding to the picture’s three-dimensional depth (see image below).

Left: A 3-D scanning microscope zooms into a detail the deep-blue hollow of the wave. Right: The 3-D scan produces a topographical map of the detail, revealing that the white paper (at upper right) sits higher than the medium blue (depicted in green), which has been printed once. The medium blue in turn sits higher than the deep blue, which has been printed twice. Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York.

So while The Great Wave has been singularly associated with master Hokusai, it is now clear that it involved the work of many woodcutters and printers whose names we do not know. These artisans worked together with the utmost skil, patience and precision to imprint color and depth to what has since been considered as one mankind’s most iconic works of art.

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