Towards the end of my second year of art studies, one of my teachers introduced me to an inspirational quote by Katsushika Hokusai – a Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter, and printmaker of the Edo period.

“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist,  from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty or more, I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”  

― Hokusai Katsushika

This quote led me to do some more research on the artist and although my knowledge about Japanese art and artist was fairly limited I immediately recognized his work The Great Wave off Kanagawa. It is one of his most iconic prints, which secured his fame both in Japan and internationally.

 

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1829–1833, color woodblock, 25.7 × 37.8 cm

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1829–1833, color woodblock, 25.7 × 37.8 cm

 

Hokusai is also the author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. The simple yet powerful style in his works made me curious about his life and his personality. Every story about him dazzled me. His childhood name was Tokitarō and even though changing name was a common practice in Japan during that time, he changed his moniker thirty times exceeding any other major contemporaries of his. He adopted “Hokusai” (North Studio) in his forties when he left his teaching job and set out on his own. Hokusai was a wanderer as he despised cleaning. He simply moved out when the place became unbearable to live. He painted everything imaginable from real to fictional: figures, animals, nature, dragons, illustrated board games, cut-out dioramas.

Japanese artists were incredible draftsmen and craftsmen and had an exquisite understanding of line but in his work, I personally rediscovered everything I love about drawing. From the way he used elegant yet simple, beautiful lines to describe form to his diverse and delicate colour palette. For example, in the print Ejiri, Suruga Province, he renders Mount Fuji with a single line. He produced an astounding 30,000 works in his lifetime but he was also a born performer. At a Tokyo Festival in 1804, he created a portrait of Buddhist monk said to be 180 meters long just using a broom and buckets of inks.  He also influenced many western artists of the nineteenth century like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, probably shaping the course of the Impressionist movement.

 

Ejiri in Suruga Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830–32, woodblock print, 25.4 x 37.1 cm

Ejiri in Suruga Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830–32, woodblock print, 25.4 x 37.1 cm

 

Constantly seeking to create better works, he would burst out: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” He died on May 10, 1849. His tombstone bears his final name, Gakyo Rojin Manji, which translates to “Old Man Mad about Painting.”

The beautiful quote above by the artist gave me a glimpse into the journey of an artist, as being an eternal student always striving to improve your knowledge to create something interesting, and that the road to mastery is not a short sprint but a long marathon. At the Barcelona Academy of Art, we try to expose the student to the spirit of this idea but also to the fact that it’s not only about being a good draftsman, what is important is to create something new and meaningful.

Ayuesh Agarwal