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Analysis of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai is a famous woodcut print that is commonly referred to as The Great Wave. Hokusai Katsushika was one of the greatest Japanese printmakers of the 19th century. The print, The Great Wave, is a part of a 36-piece series of the views of Japan’s most famous mountain; Mount Fuji. Hokusai’s series was very popular and sold rather quickly. Due to its popularity, Hokusai decided to extend the series to 46 pieces. The original piece was created around 1830 and was published in 1832 by Nishimuraya Yohachi. Within this paper, I will be discussing the analysis of this print while connecting my findings to the elements and principles of design.

The lines within this print are dynamic and static. Dynamic lines are lines that flow smoothly, they are appealing to the viewer’s eyes and our eyes automatically follow these lines. The dynamic lines within this print are the curved lines leading up to the wave. Another dynamic line would be the shape of the boats, they are curved as well. Our eyes like this smooth, curved line, which leads us to the top of the wave. The top of the wave has static lines, they are choppy and jagged. Another category of line is visual and implied; Visual lines are the lines we can plainly see, a visual line would be the plain line of the boats against the water. We know the line is the edge of the boat, we can see this line because the ocean contrasts with this line. Even if the boat was by itself, we could still see this line. The implied lines are lines that are not visually there, but our mind knows that there is essentially a line there. An example would be in the sky of the print, the values create a hazed line going from darkest to lightest.

Shape is another element of design, shapes can be either organic or geometric. Organic shapes are natural, a prime example would be nature. The shape of the waves are organic, the artist added his own style of how the wave looks, but the organic shape of the wave we can still identify. Another organic shape would be Mount Fuji in the background. Geometric shapes are shapes that we can classify such as triangles, circles, and squares. We could classify elements of this print as geometric shapes, like the mountain being a triangle or the wave being a crescent. An example of a geometric and organic shape would be a snowflake. The snowflake is a form of nature so it is natural and organic, but it creates very intricate geometric shapes within its design. Shapes can also be two-dimensional or three-dimensional; this is a woodcut print, so it will be two-dimensional.

Direction and movement play a large role within this print. The movement is the main subject of this picture: the wave. There are two types of movement: literal and compositional. Literal movement is movement that we can see or imply. A good example of this would be a car, we see a picture of a car and we know it implies movement. The same principles apply for a wave, we know a wave moves so when we see the wave in this print, we can imply movement. Compositional movement is movement that is implied within the lines of a work, how our eyes move throughout the composition of the print. An example would be the curved line of the wave, our eyes automatically follow this line because it aesthetically pleasing.

Size and perception also play a big role within this print. The main object of perception is Mount Fuji in the background of the print. The mountain is not actually that small, since the wave is closer to us and the mountain is further from us, the mountain will look smaller in comparison to the wave. You can tell the wave is large due to the contrast in size between the wave and the boats with people in them. The people look relatively small compared to the wave, so we can see that the wave is very large because of comparison. If we only saw the wave and nothing else in the picture, we could not infer if the wave is a tsunami or a small wave coming onto shore.

Since this painting is a woodcut print, it is two-dimensional, therefore it would not have any literal texture to it. It might, due to the wood it is printed on, but the artist did not put any literal texture onto the print. Although, there is implied texture that we can see within the painting; the lines, values, and shadows can create an implied texture. An example within the print would be the tips of the wave, Hokusai uses shadows and rigid lines to create texture of the waves turning into mist. The bottom of the wave is a smooth line, creating the texture of slick water being sucked up to the top of the giant wave.

There are many values within this print, but only constitute a handful of colors: Blue, brown, black, white, and gray. Blue is the main color within this print, there are many values of the color blue used. The deepest part of the waves are the darkest blue, while the parts of the waves closest to the surface are lightest blue or white. The sky has a gradient, which is going from the lightest color to the darkest color or vice versa; the sky is creating a gradient, from the bottom up, of black to a very light gray, then to a white-yellow. The colors chosen by Hokusai can also interpret feelings and emotions. The habitual feeling when seeing the color blue is sadness. Sadness and despair would be fitting emotions for this work, due to the giant wave about to crash upon the men in their boats. Blue can also emit a feeling of elegance. The composition of the print and how the lines of the wave flow can be considered a form of elegance.

The next group of design I will be talking about are the principles of design: Balance, gradation, repetition, contrast, harmony, dominance, and unity. I spoke of gradation within my last paragraphs, so let’s start with balance. There are two types of balance: Symmetrical and asymmetrical. The balance within this picture is not symmetrical, but more asymmetrical. The print, if folded in half, would not mirror each other, therefore it is asymmetrical. You could say that this print has somewhat of a radial symmetry, the focal point being Mount Fuji. The curve of the giant wave creates a radial affect, drawing your eyes to the focal point.

When you think of waves, you think of them constantly on an ebb and flow movement, back and forth, repeating the same motion. Repetition is seen throughout this picture, an example being the tips of the waves; all those detailed claw-like ripples about to crash down on the men in their boats; they all look very identical. The men in the boats are also repetitive, they all look exactly the same and are wearing the same garments. The water itself has the same repetitive pattern throughout, the stripes of darkest blue and a medium-shade blue.

The next principle of design is contrast. Contrast can be created in various ways, such as size, color, and texture. This print does not have much texture, but the contrast between the deep sea-blue waves against the lightness of the sky causes a color contrast. There is also a slight contrast between the tops of the waves and the bottoms of the waves. The tops of the waves, closest to the sky, are stark white; the waves closer to the bottom are a deep blue. A size contrast within this print would be the contrast of the wave and the men in their boats. Also, the giant wave in contrast to Mount Fuji in the background.

I believe that harmony and unity are very similar categories of design. The most fundamental use of unity and harmony are using patterns. Also used to create harmony and unity are colors and forms. Unity and harmony also exist as a concept, such as this print; when you think of the ocean, the next thing you might think of is boats or sailing. The idea of the men in the boats sailing through the open ocean harmonize with each other, it is a concept. The colors are also part of the prints’ unity. The colors are all cool-toned; there are no reds or bright yellows used in this print. All the different values of blue Hokusai used also create unity within the print, especially since the waves are the majority its composition.

Lastly is dominance, which is very relevant to this print. As I said, the waves are what dominate the print. Its dark colors also dominate the picture. While the mountain in the background is the focal point of the print, it pools into the anatomy of the waves, since it is very similar in color. A tsunami is of dominant nature, this might be why the artist chose an angle to have the majority of the print covered by the massive wave.

Taking a first look at this piece of art, I would not have thought that it would contain all the elements and principles of design. With critical thinking and close observation, I believe that any work of art can include all elements and principles of design. I also believe that you can find these elements and principles within everyday objects, not just art. These elements and principles are what contract some of today’s best ideas, for example, popular advertisements or the design of a building. Being well-educated on these design elements and principles have made me think more critically about art and I am confident that I can now analyze any artwork and reveal underlying themes left by the artist.

Works Cited

Getlein, Mark. Living With Art. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2013. Print. ”The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.” Artelino.com. Artelino, Apr. 2013. Web. 17 Mar.2014. Jirousek, Charlotte. “Introduction to the Elements of Design.” Char.txa.cornell.edu. CornellEducaton, 1995. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. Jirousek, Charlotte. “Introduction to the Principles of Design.” Char.txa.cornell.edu. CornellEducaton, 1995. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

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