Kamisaka Sekka, from A world of things c1909, original drawing, single page of 18 sheets, ink and colour on paper, 32 × 46.5 cm each, Unsōdō, Kyoto

Japan is a country of islands with abundant water resources so it is little wonder that patterns using flowing water and waves are common in Japanese art and design. The very stylised and simplified blue ocean wave (seikaiha) pattern of concentric overlapping circles has been in use for well over 1000 years.

Focus works

Kamisaka Sekka created The sea route, a book of designs for weaving and dyeing that all take up the theme of waves (this page displayed 25 July – 26 August). His inspiration came from his long sea voyage to Europe in 1901-02. His patterns borrow and combine traditional Japanese wave patterns found in crests, stencils and sword fittings and Islamic mosaic patterns, paisley designs, rococo-like arabesque compositions, the undulating lines of art nouveau and the geometric forms of British Arts and Crafts.

Sekka’s woodblock print of a moon behind waves is from a three-volume book called A world of things or Momoyogusa, which is generally recognised as marking the pinnacle of his design career. It presented images from the established Rinpa repertoire in a new way. There is a copy of this book in the Art Gallery of NSW collection.

Sekka also sketched designs of flowing water in brush and ink which form the outline for porcelain entrée dishes as well as their surface decoration. This set of five dishes was created in the 1920s by artisans from a family of potters who had been active in Kyoto since the mid 18th century. The dishes are still produced today by the Kiyomizu Rokubei workshop, now overseen by the eighth-generation master.

K-6: activities

  • Experiment with different sized paintbrushes and paint, both thick and watered down, to create your own wave patterns. How few lines can you use to still give the effect of water? Splash, flick and stipple the paint to create the effect of foam and the crashing white wave tips. Develop your ideas to create a large painting that combines different ways of applying paint.
  • Research waves and the ocean and how different types of waves are created. What causes a tsunami or tidal wave? What impact do tsunamis have on Japan and how has Japanese society adapted to the threat?

7-12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • Research the significance of water in Japanese culture. Locate artworks by Japanese artists based on water or waves. How is this theme expressed in their art? Consider their materials and techniques as well as subject matter.
  • Observe water from a tap or in a creek, river or ocean. Create a series of ink drawings or ceramic dishes (hand-coiled or pinched) responding to your observations.

Kamisaka Sekka (design), Kiyomizu Rokubei IV and Kiyomizu Rokubei V (ceramics) Entrée dishes in the shape of a stream 1920, porcelain with underglaze blue enamel; stoneware with overglaze russet, silver and blue enamel, 3.6 × 10.8 × 16.6 cm each, private collection, Kyoto