Towards the end of his life, acclaimed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) went by the name Gakyo Rojin Manji, meaning Old Man Crazy to Paint.
With challenging health issues (not the least of which was partial paralysis from being struck by lightening during his 50s) combined with a lifetime of poverty, he nevertheless painted obsessively into his old age; on his deathbed he was said to have pleaded for ten more years…five more years…more time to become a real painter! He simply was never satisfied with his own accomplishments.
In his life he is believed to have created over 30,000 works of art, an incomparable feat when you consider the life’s work of other lesser artists. But the Old Man Crazy to Paint had set a very HIGH bar for himself: he believed he could do more, do better. That surely is the ‘crazy’ part. His body of work is truly amazing in both volume and quality. Only recently I discovered this website dedicated to his work.
Among the paintings, sketchbooks, and other published books of lessons at that site is one that reflects the Old Man’s playful artistic nature; it is comprised of nothing but single-stroke compositions. That’s right, he painted page after page of nothing but human figures, animals, flowers and entire landscapes employing a SINGLE carefully loaded and manipulated brush stroke.
Consider the challenge
For years math and drawing puzzles have circulated in university classes and textbooks (and now via social media) to challenge creative minds with drawing games designed to foster ‘out of the box’ thinking. (Often they involve connecting dots with minimal lines or finding shapes,) That’s basically what Hokusai did for himself–he spent countless hours studying how to paint different subjects keeping his brush moving in a continuous line and only adding a few details or washes to augment the composition. Here are a few examples from his book.
The task forces you to decompose subjects, break them into their most basic shapes. You need to consider primarily the lines that comprise the drawing. And you also must see where those lines can be connected or redirected into other parts of the drawing. Then there is the additional challenge of loading a brush sufficiently to go the distance, not to mention control the moisture in the brush as it traverses its long journey to the completion of a single-stroke composition. Whew, one can get tired simply considering the challenge! (Yes, he does add a few details occasionally to flesh out a sketch.)
Three subjects in Hokusai’s book grabbed my immediate attention as examples to try: cranes, turtles and figures. The turtles seemed to be the easiest and luckily a subject I know well. (I also used a turtle motif to do continuous line quilting on a blanket for a grandson just a few years ago–very similar thinking involved.) Adding the light washes Hokusai used enhanced my first little painting quite nicely. These I can do.
I next tackled his cranes. I painted almost a whole roll of practice paper, trying all the different poses Hokusai obviously had fun devising. I had difficulty positioning legs, getting thick and thin lines as desired, placing eyes relative to the beak as they should be…I tried pre-planning the body shapes using indigo ink and then over painting with the dark ink. I changed brushes. I came back to the table later after a break and tried again. The birds eluded me. This was NOT an easy task! The Old Man’s task was driving me crazy.
I painted several single-stroke cranes together and added the light washes Hokusai used to punch up the composition; managing the thick and thin lines needs a lot more practice!
Painting human figures using a ‘continuous line’ approach worked better for me. As with the cranes, a few extra details were necessary to enhance the small paintings. I also liked the addition of washes for the clothing.
I intend to get back to the cranes and will definitely do more figure painting in this manner. Now back to the website with the treasure trove of his sketch books!