What I learned from Hokusai

The task I'd set myself for this week's blog post was to talk about the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum.

I have to confess though, I've been putting it off. Although I absolutely loved the show, I just couldn't get excited about the idea of writing about it.  Looking through my notes this morning, I realised that what I'd been planning to write was simply boring. What feels more interesting (if a little self indulgent, sorry!) is not to pick apart sublime prints and paintings, but to consider what spending a few hours with Hokusai's work has taught me.


The Power of Collaboration


As the artist, Hokusai might be the name we all know, but creating a Japanese woodblock print takes the work of a skilled team. Hokusai would usually work to commission, passing his finished drawings to a specialist block maker, who would painstakingly carve the series of woodblocks needed. These would then go, along with the artist's colour specifications to a printer.
I'm the first to admit I'm not that good at letting go of things, I do tend to feel like I should take ownership of the whole creative process. It's very easy to get caught up in the minutiae of my own work and miss the wider picture. Over the last few months though I've had some great experiences collaborating on styled shoots. My favourite, of course, is the one where I was actually there and involved on the day; although there is something wonderful about being able to send off the work that you've poured all your passion into, to be part of somebody else's grand vision.


The Value of Craftsmanship

Working in the way I do, starting from scratch with my own drawings and printing everything by hand, it's no surprise the craft and skill that goes into something is always important to me. I always want to know how things are made, and the artistry involved in transferring Hokusai's original drawing to the wood block is breathtaking. Each of the fine outlines which give Japanese prints their distinctive look has to be precisely carved from a single block; it makes me feel slightly sick to think about one slip of the chisel and having to start over! But it's not just the fine lines, he manages to carve from wood the subtle changes in line as the ink starts to fade on a long brush stroke.



It's all about the Detail

I'm a big fan of paying attention to the details, but more than ever I'm convinced that it's the little things that make the biggest difference. Little things like the quality of line, or that the wood grain from the printing block comes through in large areas of colour. Being able to get up close to Hokusai's work has really validated for me all the time I spend zoomed right in on Photoshop making sure the finished print will be perfect.


Beauty in the Everyday

As you might expect over such a long career, Hokusai tackled a wide array of subjects, from the very commercial early "floating world" prints, to Japanese landscapes and clearly the sea. What really struck a chord with me though, were some of his later paintings: mundane, everyday moments treated with sublime delicacy. A watermelon cut in half and covered with tissue, long curling strips of its rind dangling above. A wonderfully vibrant purple morning glory vine, with an almost-missable green frog hiding among the leaves. And perhaps most startling of all, brightly coloured chickens, standing proud, each scale on their legs carefully described by Hokusai's brush. Everything can be beautiful, so long as you choose to see its beauty.


More to Explore:

Sadly the exhibition is all sold out, though the British museum do have some Japanese woodblock prints in their permanent collection.

For more on the traditional Japanese woodblock printing process, this video explanation by Rebecca Salter is fascinating:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeMAuIErLgs

This brilliant article by Stef at Makelight explores Hokusai's belief that he produced nothing of any value before his 70s: https://medium.com/@stef/ephemeralds-23b793ed2943