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Painting: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” Essay


The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ is a classic composition depicting a natural scene. It is a woodblock print depicting a gigantic furious wave. The picture shows three boats heading straight into a high wave. In the far distant center of the painting, is a mountain, still and motionless, in contrast to the dynamic furious sea wave. The rising wave is about to fall over the three boats and the people in them.

Line: The wave actually appears to be moving – rising and falling in a motion. The use of line provides a feel of motion. The use of linear movement in the image depicts the waves as a dynamic force of nature. The magnitude of the wave has been emphasized with the use of similar repetitive lines. The edges of the waves also have curved similar looking repetitive lines, and offer a state of motion to the wave. The use of curved and linear creates the image of chaos. Chaos is also illustrated by the small helpless figures of men in the boats, who are about to be hit by the huge wave.

Shape – The wave is curvilinear while the mountain in the back ground is triangular. Harmony in the composition is achieved through informal symmetry. Variety and contrast in shape make the wave appear prominent. The shape and size of the wave create the imagery of force in the ocean. Prominent use of large curved lines makes the wave appear gigantic. The wave also appears prominent due to the contrast of the small mountain in the far backdrop. The boats and the men in them also appear minuscule, making the wave look colossal. The image is fore-grounded with a giant roaring wave and back-grounded with a distant still mountain, both symbolizing power and strength in two distinct ways.

Irregularity of shape creates the look and feel of a real angry high wave in the ocean, with the ability to destroy anything that comes in its path. The use of similar curves at the edges of the wave depicts motion. The titanic curvilinear wave has been contrasted with the linear mountain in the background, far and small. Only some sections of the boats are visible, depicting that the boats have been merged into the furious waves.

Color – The wave has been realistically colored with appropriate tints. The massiveness of a huge forceful wave comes alive though the use of linear shading and diverse saturation. Tones of blue and white provide a natural shaded look to the composition. Diverse saturation adds intensity and power to the scene. Small, white shaped froth bubbles provide dynamism to the wave giving it force and vigor. Several shades of blue – dark, light and pastel provide liveliness to the image. The densely saturated white contrasts with deep shades of blue generating enormity and force. The pastel colored sky appears calm and unlikely for such an oceanic scene. In the backdrop, the tiny mountain is a shade of blue with bright a white peak.

Pastel yellow shaded boats do not stand out in the wave; rather merge into it, exhibiting the strength of the wave to dissolve them or toss them over. Miniature small figures of men in boats represent the helpless men caught in nature’s fury.

Principles of Design

The image is a well unified coherent composition. It clearly reflects the intended message of a forceful oceanic wave. The use of repetitive patterns and linear expression is apparent in the composition. The use of contrasting colors, repetitive and contrasting shapes and designs adds variety. There is unity of color shades, lines, shapes and design. Variety is offered through shades of color and size – a small mountain in the distant. The tiny human figures on the boat contrast with the huge waves, highlighting their magnitude and nature’s fury. The waves are dynamic while the mountain is still, forming a coherent and compelling natural composition. The image is asymmetrically balanced.

The frontal waves are accentuated while the mountain in the far distance is subjugated. Subordination of the still steady mountain in the far distance helps emphasize the rapid forceful motion of the waves. Emphasis is also achieved by the enormous size of the waves and subordination of small boats and humans in them.

The wave, huge in scale, is in the frontal plane. It is contrasted with the still motionless sturdy mountain in the background which appearing much smaller in proportion to the waves.

Movement of the waves is depicted by repetitive linear presentation of the waves. The use of line gives the impression that the waves are in action. There is a sense of forceful rhythmic dynamism in the ocean as the waves appear to be rising and falling, in a state of constant flux and motion. On the other hand, the mountain is steady and immovable. The emphasis of the image is on the powerful strong wave in the frontal plane. The composition includes all the elements and principles of design. It is compelling one and complete is all aspects of imagery.

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IvyPanda. (2020, May 21). Painting: "The Great Wave off Kanagawa". Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/painting-the-great-wave-off-kanagawa/

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"Painting: "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"." IvyPanda, 21 May 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/painting-the-great-wave-off-kanagawa/.

1. IvyPanda. "Painting: "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"." May 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/painting-the-great-wave-off-kanagawa/.


IvyPanda. "Painting: "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"." May 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/painting-the-great-wave-off-kanagawa/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Painting: "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"." May 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/painting-the-great-wave-off-kanagawa/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Painting: "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"'. 21 May.

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