Waves, Ripple, Splash

The recent series Wave, Ripple, Splash is the coloured representation of the work of Mori Yūzan. The black ink drawings of the traditional Japanese artist recently entered the public domain in form of three volumes of illustrations, titled Hamonshū (Hamonshū v. 1, 2, 3, by Mori Yūzan; Yamada Geisōdō, Kyōto-shi, Meiji 36 [1903]).

Not much is known about the guy, apart from that he was from Kyoto and died in 1917. While Mori Yūzan was not a renowned artist during his lifetime, his artwork speaks for itself: the wide range of the motives and patterns represents expressive studies of waves as they swell, crash, and swirl. At his time, his drawings would have been a go-to guide for traditional Japanese craftsmen to adorn whatever original works they were creating, for example swords, religious objects, lacquerware, ceramics, and whatever else was in need of decorating it with wave designs.

Have a look and if you’ve ever attempted to draw the ocean, I bet you’ll find yourself impressed by the wide range of line drawings that represent the various forms of waves.  

Yūzan’s artwork is classified as being in the Nihonga style (Nihonga – 日本画, Japanese-style painting). It’s distinction from Yōga (洋画, Western-style oil painting) was coined during the Meji period (1868-1912), an era of rapid Westernization in Japan.

Traditionally, artworks in the Nihonga style were created in accordance with Japanese artistic conventions, techniques and materials, based on traditions over a thousand years old. In general, sumi ink (made from soot mixed with a glue from fishbone or animal hide), mineral pigments, white gofun (powedered calcium carbonate made from cured oyster, clam or scallop shells), animal or vegetable colouring materials were applied on washi (Japanese paper), eginu (silk), wood or plaster, using nikawa, an animal glue, as the adhesive. Minerals, shells, corals and even semi-precious stones like malachite, azurite and cinnabar were used as pigments to create colourful inks. Gold leaf and other metals were also often incorporated in paintings.

As artists would regularly make their own materials from scratch it goes without saying that considerable time and determination would have been needed to master the necessary techniques. For example, raw materials were powdered into 16 graduations from fine to sandy grain textures before being mixed with nikawa as binder.

Frankly, if I had to go through all these steps before I could even start painting I’d never had picked up a paintbrush in my life.

Japanese culture continues to celebrate traditional craft and the beauty of natural elements well into the 21st century, in fact, all things Japanese are a big trend at the moment. One could definitely argue that the Nihonga style suits the Japanese aesthetic sense and spiritual qualities. However, the lines between Nihonga and Yōga are now often blurred; there is such a thing as Contemporary Nihonga and artists often adopt realistic Western painting techniques while using Nihonga materials, for example perspective and shading, making it impossible to make a distinct separation.

Yūzan’s wave and ripple designs may well remind you of The Great Wave by the exceptional Hokusai. The famous Japanese artist died long before Yūzan (1760-1849), but since Hokusai was famous it’s entirely possible Yūzan was inspired by the great master’s work. Hokusai began drawing as a young child and continued working and improving his style until his death. His career was long and prosperous. He produced over 30.000 paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, and images for picture books. The man was innovative in his compositions and exceptional in his drawing techniques and is considered an absolute legend. He took on something like thirty different names, which was a common practice of Japanese artists of his time, but Hokusai reigns supreme in the number of pseudonyms. Good thing about the name change thing is that they often correlate with changes in his artistic production and style, ergo helping us breaking his long and productive life into periods. The Smithsonian has many of his works in their digital archive. The variety is mindboggling, honestly. There are drawings of buildings, machinery, landscapes, faces, clothing, expressions, bodies in detailed self-defense positions, animals, interiors, plants. You’ll get the gist of why the guy is famous pretty quickly once you look at those.

The Great Wave belongs to his work Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The series is considered his masterpiece, and was created from 1830, when Hokusai was around seventy years old. Seriously, the guy was obsessed with his work, in a good way. His last words are reported to have been: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

The Great Wave is one of the most reproduced and most instantly recognized artworks in the world. It has made it on TShirts and posters, into memes and comics. It will also grace the Japanese 1,000 yen banknote, to be issued in 2024.

Back to good old Mori Yūzan: I like the waves. Find them soothing. Stumbled across the books on My Modern Met and was hooked. But I do like colour. So I made his inky lines home décor worthy. I hope. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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