Cresting the wave
was always his way - noted for it - painting
the dragons of his day -
of three-sheet-see-through usugami* fluttering
in winds that whispered of a truth
unsayable by humankind. It caught the ear
of tides beyond his ken
had laid the tracing papers on the beach
off which in past times dragons had been known to pass
or fish from rocks.
His brush became a choreographer's, notating dance,
yet still continued as an instrument
of calligraphic grace.
The merest thought
that dragons might be out there,
fired him up
and filled his head with images -
a plein air painter with no thought
or of form.
The ichiji Shita-e,*
sheet one - the under sheet: sheet music
for a fugue not yet performed -
the veins and arteries,
firebox, flues and dampers,
and muscle, sinews,
thirty vital organs, claws
and tongues of fire
straight from his brush.
On this was laid the oversheet,
to take on board the dragon's scales
from brushes charged with Prussian Blue
(the latest hue) and sensual jade.
Above the under- and the over-sheet,
the layout sheet, the final sheet, the Shita-e* -
to which, by tracing through,
the sketches were transferred,
then fastened to a board of cherry wood.
Job done: replenishing
the jar to clean the brushes,
brush tip - hardly
having broken surface tension
before a cloud of jade and Prussian blue
extruding from the hairs,
reformed itself - a perfect replica
a perfect dragon,
bone from bone of that which he had visualised
in veins and arteries,
brains, firebox, flues and dampers,
muscles, sinews, all
those vital organs,
claws and tongues of fire
Then Hokusai, with great care, carrying
the jar with living, breathing, spitting thing
down to the water's edge
watched it swim
and grow with every stroke.
Back at the block of cherry wood he found
the dragon faded to the tint and texture of its ground -
except the claws, except the tongues of living fire,
more vivid than he'd thought.
Later it was said
that over the horizon
the dragon lashed its tail against a wave.
Riposte was swift: the sea
tore out the trees
and avalanched across the land.
So much went missing...
so many and so much...
The tracing papers for a start:
layout and individual parts.
Weeks later, with the shita-e* still be missing,
but the cherrywood block found;
a something magical had happened:
the wave had gouged the block
with its own signature;
cut deep and crisp into its cherry pattern,
the portrait of a wave.
The dragon's claws and tongues of fire
remained as spray and spume flakes
cresting the great wave.
Usugami is a transparent paper that will take paint and inks. Its special characteristic is that it remains completely clear and transparent through several thicknesses. This allows sketches and preparatory drawings etc to be laid on top of each other. These are known as Ichiji Shita-e and by superimposing them the artist can build up the desired layout, before tracing it on to the Shita-e, the final design. Hokusai very definitely used this method - there are sheets still extant - though maybe not for The Great Wave off Kanagawa. He used them for complicated compositions involving many figures.( Sorry I couldn't give the names in the original language.)