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Katsushika Hokusai – Japanese Woodblock Printmaking

Katsushika Hokusai Japanese Woodblock Printmaking

Printmaking is a remarkable style of art for kids of all ages. This craft combines creativity, skill – and the excitement of seeing a design come to life. And one of the best ways to learn about artistic techniques like printmaking is by following a skilled practitioner.

In this lesson, Golden Road Arts founder, Barbara Mason, shares her passion for printmaking as she teaches about Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Barbara explains the history of this unique type of artwork and demonstrates how to make beautiful prints of Hokusai’s works.

Discover the Life and Art of Katsushika Hokusai Video

Join Barbara as she explores the life of Hokusai and the evolution of his woodblock printmaking and shows you how to create a print at home.

Materials for Katsushika Hokusai Art Lesson

Be sure to download the lesson plan and the images and color along with Barbara using your preferred medium. As Barabra explains, you can use crayons, markers or watercolors to create your own masterpiece.

Be sure to scroll to the bottom and view the art Barbara created from Hokusai’s works.

Learn About Japanese Woodblock Printing and Katsushika Hokusai

Use the video transcription below to follow along with Barbara as she demonstrates how to create beautiful prints at home.

Hi, this is Barbara Mason. Welcome to Golden Road arts. Today we’re going to talk about two artists that come from Japan. Now we’ve talked about artists from Russia and from Germany and from France and from the United States, some from Italy. But we’ve never talked about anybody from the Far East.  And today we’re going to talk about Japan.

Now Japan until about 1857 I think it was pretty closed. They were an island country, and so they just didn’t trade with anybody else, and they didn’t let anybody really come into their country and it was pretty separate from the rest of the world. And of course, it was before airplanes and before the Internet and before television, and so they were pretty isolated. In 1867, Japan decided that they would exhibit at the Paris Centennial, and so they took a lot of woodblock prints to Paris, and they exhibited them, and they were very well received. People were really excited about the work coming out of Japan because it was very different from the work that was done in Europe.

So, this artist that we’re going to talk about first, his name is Hokusai and Hokusai started drawing when he was about five or six. He just was always an artist his whole life. He became a printmaker, a woodblock printmaker. So, woodblock printmaking in Japan is a little different than we think about artwork here. When we think about artwork here, we think of an artist who gets his canvas or his paper and he makes the work, and then he takes it to a gallery and a gallery sells it.

But in Japan, in 1857, or whenever Hokusai was selling his work, it didn’t work that way. So, what happened was it took four people to make a woodblock print. So, Hokusai, whose name is on the print, he was the one that did the drawing. He did the painting for the print and then there was a man who would do the carving of the blocks and then there was another man who would do the printing of the blocks, and then the fourth person would sell the prints. Printmaking at that time was a little like advertising,

So, we’re going to talk a little bit about Hokusai now. Hokusai, as I said, he was born in 1760, which is really a long time ago. Over 200 years ago, and so you can imagine he was a pretty good artist if 200 years later his work is still pretty famous. So, he did a series of work called 36 views of Mount Fuji and so for Hokusai to do 36 views of Mount Fuji it became a very famous set of prints.  So, what we’re going to do today is one of the things we’re going to talk about is two famous prints of Hokusai’s, and this one is called Red Fuji. And when you see it, you’ll see that it’s pretty red. Actually, it almost kind of looks purple.

So, I’ve printed these off the Internet and I’ve done one with crayons so you can see here. It was kind of hard when I was coloring this, it’s hard to tell really where the clouds are. It’s really easy to get confused. I did this with crayons, and I did this one with markers and you know with markers it’s hard. There aren’t that many colors with markers. And then this one is done with color pencil. So, you can see the difference between these. It’s all the same drawing, but they’re just done with different stuff. And so, when you do this, you can see that it doesn’t matter how you do it, you know, because it’s your work, so your work can be any way you want it to be, and I guess if you wanted to make Red Fuji another color that would be OK because it would be your artwork.

But we’re going to do it red, so this is a pretty famous print – Red Fuji. So how do you think Fuji could look red? What do you think would make it look red? Do you think it would be the sun hitting it? I think probably.  So, it would either be early in the morning or right at sunset it would look red. So, the actual Red Fuji it’s red on the top and then on the bottom, it’s kind of green, and so I will put some green on the bottom.

So, this is paper that’s a little heavier than computer paper – this is cardstock. And so, it would even be better if it was watercolor paper. But I don’t think watercolor paper would go through my printer. Even the cardstock has a problem sometimes. All of us who have printers have irritating times with their printers.

So, we’ve got our Red Fuji here. Pretty red, I guess we could put some purple in it and make it more red, but we’ll just leave it red the way it is. See if we can get our edge here to look a little more smooth, OK. And then we’re going to do the bottom with green. So, these are watercolors, and you can see you have to add a little water to them to get them to soften up. So, we’re just going to do the bottom here with green. So, when you see the real picture of Mount Fuji.

So that’s the reason they did these woodblock prints the way they did. Woodblock printmaking  really started in China. Probably about the year 600. So really a really long time ago.

Now we need blue.

So, Woodblock printmaking started in China and then came to Japan and one of the reasons that they liked it is they could make more than one. So, you couldn’t imagine if you were trying to make an advertisement or you’re trying to have a book that you have to have more than one copy. And so, the woodblock printmaking was a way that they could get more than one copy, and they could do it pretty fast.

When you start to do this, you’ll find that it looks like OK, you think OK, this is the background. And then as you come along you say oh wait, a minute, no, that’s the cloud. So, it’s kind of confusing what’s the cloud and what’s the sky. But anyway, you do, it’ll be fine. So, we’re going to put this on the Internet, and you can print it off and paint it, or color it any way you want.

And one of the things that you’ll find in a lot of the Japanese printmaking woodblocks, is they have a little inset in it and the blocks were made out of cherry wood, which is very, very hard – mountain cherry. They don’t have all that much mountain cherry left. So, it’s getting harder and harder to get the wood. But it’s very strong wood and it holds a carved line very well. But you see in the corner here there’s this little square thing, that has some writing on it. Now, writing in Japan is different than it is here. Their language is a picture language, so they’ll have a picture of something and how language works is everybody has to agree that a certain image means a certain thing. So, in our culture, with English, we agree that our alphabet that the A means A and B means B, and that it has a certain sound, and so in Japan it’s the same . The language is very like little pictures and it kind of runs together and each one of those little those little pictures has a certain sound. So, as they put the pictures together, they make different words. And in Japan instead of reading when we read, we read left to right. And we read from the top to the bottom. And in Japan they read from right to left, and they also read from the top to the bottom. But where we read across, they read down. So, they read down the line of the characters and then they go to the top and read down the next line of characters. So, their language is pretty different than ours. But it’s amazing how it can mean the same thing. It’s just different.

OK, so there’s our watercolor of Mount Fuji – of the Red Fuji. It looks pretty cool. Now the other image that Hokusai made very, very famous was The Great Wave. Now everybody in the world knows The Great Wave. It’s probably the most famous Japanese piece of artwork that ever came out of Japan. So, I have done the same thing with this one. I’ve colored this one with markers and pencils. And this one I colored with some pastels, and so you can see when I did with the pastels, then I just took my finger and I rubbed it because pastels are very soft, and you can rub them so you can see that it looks quite different. So, this is the crayon, these are the markers, and these are the pastels. So, we’re going to also do this one in watercolor.

So, Hokusai was a pretty prolific artist. He had a lot of students and one of the things that that these famous artists did in Japan that they would change their name when they got to a point in their career where they thought they’d made a big jump and they had gone on to do something better than maybe then they knew how to do. They could say, OK, I’m really good at what I’m doing now, so I’m going to get a new name and Hokusai was very much like that. In his lifetime he had 30 different names, not his last name, but his first name. So, can you imagine having 30 names? How confusing that would be? I mean, you know, I guess it isn’t. It wasn’t confusing at that time in Japan, but I would find it pretty confusing to have 30 different names.

So, one of the things that you have to look for in this image that you might not see is you have to look for the boats. So, there’s little boats in here and with little boats there’s people in the boats. So, this is a pretty ferocious violent wave. You can imagine what it would be like to be in those boats. How scary it would be to have the boat going up in the air and then crashing down and going up in the air and crashing down again and all these huge waves would be pretty frightening. And this is actually one of the pictures for the mount for the Mount Fuji set and of the 36 views of Mount Fuji. And you can see back here in the background – back here in the background little tiny is Mount Fuji. But this is a really important part of this piece of work.

Now we’re going to do the boat. Let’s see, we’ll do the boat brown so you can see it. So, here’s one boat. Here’s the other part of that boat. It’s a really long boat. And then there’s another boat over here. Just trying to come along that wave. And then we’ll do the people in the boat so you can see them. It’s kind of hard to see these little people and we’re going to make them red so you can see them. So, when you look at this picture, when we put it on the Internet and you look at the real picture that Hokusai did, you can look for the people.

That was a pretty dark blue, wasn’t it, whoa. Maybe a little bit too much blue. But you know it’s your own work, so you can do it any way you want.

Sometimes when you’re working with watercolor, you can take a paper towel and you can blot some of the blue away or some of any color away actually. So, can you imagine how frightening it would be to be in this little boat here? And to have this gigantic wave? This gigantic wave coming at you, it would be pretty frightening.  So, there we’ve got our amazing Giant Wave picture.  So, we’ll just let that

And then one of the things I wanted to show you was that Hokusai had a lot of students. And so, he decided that he would make these little books – they’re called the Hokusai sketchbooks, and he actually did these

So again, Japan starts in the back of the book, not the beginning of the book. So, you can see here it says Hokusai. And it’s written – this book is written in English, but there is some Japanese in it – so you can see what it looks like, but it starts from the back of the book and comes forward, so it’s just opposite the way we do it.

But you can see he has all of these different animals. These are little mice and here is a like a giant elephant, with people crawling all over it, cleaning the elephant. And here’s some kind of a creature that maybe this is a Mastodon. I don’t know. It doesn’t even look real, but you can as you come through this book you can see all these amazing animals and Hokusai did these sketches to help his students.

He thought that if his students had pictures of what things should look like as you drew them that it would help them. And so, you can see here he did all these horses and they’re all looking, moving a little differently, and their legs are a little different and so the idea of these books was that it was supposed to help his students learn how to do these drawings.

But what happened when he printed these books, or did these books to begin with, is everybody liked them so much and so they became very popular and these books have been printed thousands of times, and there’s three of them.

One is Animals in nature, one is Pictures of people that lived in Edo, which is now Tokyo. But that was the original name was Edo, and so these are the people. And then this book – this third one – is Flights of Fancy. So, these are all kinds of crazy things. Dragons and warriors and just anything you can imagine is in these books and and here’s some Japanese writing, and so you would read this writing – you would start at the top and you would go to the bottom and then you go to the top of the next line and go to the bottom. Go to the top and go to the bottom. And if you look really close, you can see that.

Each one of these little marks looks like a little picture, and so if everybody agrees what the pictures mean, then you have language. So that’s the Hokusai sketchbooks.

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