The Great Blue Wave
To paint a picture of waves, you need blue paint. To make thousands of wave prints at a time, as Japanese master printmaker Hokusai did in 1830 of this iconic “Great Wave,” you need inexpensive blue paint.
But blue pigment has always been rare and expensive. Blue artwork was only found in royal Egyptian tombs and the homes of rich Europeans.
All that changed in the 18th century, because of an error by a German paint maker, the ingenuity of Dutch traders and new mass-produced woodblock printing. Now the new urban middle class in Japan could buy a Hokusai print for their own home for the price of a bowl of noodle soup.
This is Week 3 in my reflections on the color blue in art. These weekly devotionals are about “Blue Theology,” my ministry of ocean spirituality and stewardship. I agree with Dante, who said, “Art is the grandchild of God.” I experience the divine in art as well as in texts, and blue seems especially holy. So far I’ve looked at art from 3000 BC Egypt to Vermeer, all dependent on the rare expensive lapis lazuli mineral to make blue pigment.
Today, finally, blue becomes cheap, mass produced and international.
Hokusai’s blue wave comes from a pigment called “Prussian Blue” or “Berlin Blue.” In 1707 German paint maker Johann Diesbach was trying to make some red paint his usual way, mixing potash, blood and lots of cochineal, a red insect. (That’s how I always make red paint.) Something went wrong (read the Wikipedia article if you want to get the chemistry) and instead he made a deep rich blue, which turned out to be really easy and cheap to make. Within decades Dutch traders were selling it throughout the world, and since they were the only foreigners then allowed into isolationist Japan, craftsmen there started making deep rich blue fans and kimonos.
Hokusai started adding blue to his very popular woodblock prints. The Dutch traders took his prints back to Europe, where they influenced especially the Impressionists, calling their new style “Japonisme.”
Theo Van Gogh saw a print of “The Great Wave” in Paris and wrote his brother Vincent that the wave looked like great claws. Vincent agreed, writing back, “When Paul Mantz saw Delacroix’s violent and exalted sketch, ‘Christ’s Boat,’ at the exhibition that we saw in the Champs-Elysees, he turned away from it and cried out, ‘I did not know that one could be so terrifying with blue and green.’
“Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing, but in his case with his lines, his drawing, since in your letter you say these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it. Ah well, if we made the color very correct or the drawing very correct, we still wouldn’t create those emotions.”
But Van Gogh did create emotion with blue. He used Prussian Blue extensively in “Starry Night” and was surely relieved it didn’t cost a lot. Those night sky whorls sure look like waves.
Today’s Gospel of Blue:
-Blue and the ocean belong to everyone and no one. Thanks be to God (and Diesbach) that artists can now easily create blue art. Thanks also to printmakers. Art should be everywhere, not just in museums.
-Thanks to artists like Hokusai and Van Gogh who remind us that nature is large and we are small. (I don’t think I ever really noticed the fishermen in their boats before – I just saw the wave and mountain. Did they get home safely?)
-The world is full of danger and death. We can’t think of Japan without thinking of tsunamis. Our hearts go out to all who have lost their lives or their loved ones to the power of the blue ocean.
-The ocean is for me a metaphor/icon of God – both are always moving, powerful, life giving, beautiful, deep, mysterious. Oceanographers have studied this print and say it is not a tsunami wave, but a “plunging breaker wave.” Scary yes, but I still say thanks for all the plunging in nature.
Come plunge into Blue Theology in Pacific Grove for an ocean service trip or pilgrimage, individual or group. Bluetheology.com. I post these “Tide-ings” every Wednesday here and at .