What I Learnt From Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave

It’s worth braving the crowds at the British Museum to see ‘Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave’ this summer. Aside from the insights in to Japanese culture and image making, there’s a lot you can learn about building your own brand and making a living from your art which is relevant to modern creative practice. Hokusai’s broad range of subject matter, influences and imagery means if you’re making images and looking to sell your art, whether you design clothing and homeware or sell art prints, you’ll benefits from Hokusai’s wisdom.


Innovation and inspiration

Historically, the most famous individual in Japanese art; the vibrant colours and energetic scenes will transport you to a world of flowers, animals, ancient spirits, and overwhelming landscapes. Hokusai opens a window in to a society which was closed for two centuries, until 10 years after his death. The small amount of European contact that was permitted had great influence on Hokusai as he experimented with European ideas of perspective, lighting, and the brilliant Prussian Blue; the new ideas Hokusai brought to Japanese image making and his fantastically inventive approaches meant he had such a profound effect on art history.


Renaming, rebranding

After Hokusai’s death Japan opened its doors to the outside world and Hokusai’s beautiful work flooded to the west. These now iconic images made their way west, not as high art prints but on trade objects; screens, vases, fans, and plates. This popular design style was known as ‘Japonisme’. Each manifestation of the multiplication of an icon far from diminishing its power rather serves to increase its fame; printing your images across fashion and homeware pieces will only serve to empower the piece. Hokusai made his imagery and it was reproduced across a line of products. He had his own brand too. In fact, over the course of his life time Hokusai renamed, rebranded, himself over 30 times. Hokusai, the most popular of his signatures means ‘North Studio’, at 61 he took on the name ‘Litsu’ which means ‘a fresh beginning’ and his last self-chosen name translates as ‘old man crazy to paint.' Hokusai embraced change and rolled with the punches.


A life saving commission

Hokusai’s most famous print series ’36 views of Mount Fuji’ may well have saved his life. The poor, struggling artist received the commission at exactly the right time and the money allowed him to keep creating, he even had to self-medicate following a stroke because he couldn’t afford a doctor, whilst his grandson ran up large amounts of debt and his wife passed away. This great series of bold colours and broad, eye-catching compositions depicts all aspects, and angles of Japanese life, and Mount Fuji. We see two colourways of the same print side by side, the paler the artists choice of colour; the more vibrant, ‘Fine Wind, Clear Morning’ is now the more famous. It turns out even a great artist can’t always know which work will be most popular amongst his audience. All these prints, though small in size, have had a massive impact on artists since; from Monet to Van Gogh. The bold, almost graphic design is as strong as the timeless, universal narrative expressing the awesome power of nature, the permeance of the mountain and the fleeting transience of human life.


Getting older, getting better

These great works come in the first half of the exhibition, Hokusai’s early work is barley shown, but surmised in the chunks of text scattered throughout the gallery. There’s good reason for this, when he took on the name Litsu he believed this was a new beginning for him, he believed his work would be reborn at the age 61. In the final third of his life he produced an endless stream of increasingly beautiful images as he strived towards perfection. He honed his practice daily and believe each year that passed would improve his work. At 100 years-old he believed he would reach his peak. This drive and commitment to his work was truly inspiring and offers solace in times of frustration when creating.


Lessons learnt

Feeling like a student again I left the British Museum with many lessons well learnt. Inspired to fully commit to my work, to draw upon all aspects of life for inspiration and to see continuous change as a potential for opportunity. His works now appears on all manner of home and fashion items from trays to scarves. Whether you are building your own fashion brand, trying to sell your art online or wondering how to improve your creative practice, look to Hokusai for answers.

Originally written for contrado.co.uk/blog