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How did Hokusai create The Great Wave?

Japanese artist Takuji Hamanaka takes us inside his Brooklyn studio to explain why he adopted a centuries-old technique to create contemporary woodblock prints

‘When I started printmaking in Tokyo, Hokusai was one of the artists who was unavoidable,’ says Japanese printmaker Takuji Hamanaka, discussing the enduring influence of the artist who created one of Japan’s most iconic artworks, The Great Wave, to be offered at Christie’s on 25 April.

Although two centuries separate Hamanaka from Hokusai, the contemporary artist’s printmaking has been shaped by the same techniques employed by his predecessor. Working in his Brooklyn studio, he begins by pasting an image drawn on fine paper onto wood. Hours of meticulous carving follow — a ‘therapeutic process’ that, Hamanaka admits, requires the patience of ‘a certain type of person’. 

Known as ukiyo-e, this technique flourished from the 17th century in Japan. ‘It was a very casual form of expression back then, made to be printed in large numbers and distributed to the masses,’ explains Hamanaka. In the 1800s, ukiyo-e  reached its peak, with masters such as Hokusai developing increasingly intricate prints. Their influence reached as far as Europe, where elements of Japanese style became visible in works by artists ranging from Van Gogh to Degas.

‘Hokusai has influenced many people,’ continues Hamanaka, who remembers being fascinated by the artist’s prints as a young child. While The Great Wave  is Hokusai’s most iconic work, Hamanaka references the exceptional range of subjects Hokusai depicted throughout his career — occasionally sketching or painting, but always returning to ukiyo-e.

‘Although the subject of my prints is entirely different to those of Hokusai’s, I come from the same tradition, and still see the possibilities of it,’ says Hamanaka. Working in a country that Hokusai never visited, Hamanaka’s pattern-based art is nevertheless rooted in Japanese practice. ‘There’s a specific beauty that can only be conveyed through this technique,’ he explains.