David Hockney, Charcoal Drawing for a Closer Grand Canyon, 1998
charcoal, uni-ball pen on 4 sheets of paper, 33 1/2 x120 in. from Hockney website:
David Hockney, at age 76, is returning to basics. He’s drawing. Of course, being David Hockney, he’s also painting, and working with an iPad and videos. I actually believe he only says he’s “returning” to basics. I think he never left.
Over the years, Hockney has thought a lot about the place of drawing in the art world. He has a very broad definition of drawing: he would say that painting is not merely based on drawing, but in his world, it is drawing, albeit with a broad brush. He claims that his photography of the 1980s, where he joined Polaroid photographs without cropping to make “pictures” was drawing, as are his joined iPad drawings and his video explorations done in this century.
Terry Grant and I got to see Hockney’s “A Bigger Exhibition” at San Francisco’s de Young exhibit in January 2014. I was most drawn to Hockney’s painted works; Terry was most fascinated by his digital (iPad) drawings. But because I’ve been thinking about drawing lately and have been experimenting with drawing on a digital tablet, I went back to Hockney to see what he had to say about drawing. Not surprisingly, he has a lot to say about it. I found myself thinking about his drawing theories, his tools, his processes, and the products of all that work.
‘Woldgate After the Rain’ (2013), charcoal drawing of a Yorkshire spring
Caroline Daniel, of the FT magazine reports on the De Young exhibition: one room, she said, will show his charcoal drawings, “The Arrival of Spring in 2013” – a project he nearly abandoned. “Hockney said ‘I was drawing it before it had happened. I realised I was being impatient and you have to wait until there’s something else there for you to see. And there is. There’s always something being added as you go along. I’m very proud of them, actually, very proud. I think it’s one of my great works, this, the 25 drawings.’
Daniel continues, “I am interested in how he picks a particular spot, which so many of us would barely notice. He takes me through the grid. ‘The other one was chosen because I knew there would be a hawthorn there. That top one took three days to draw. Three days! The right-hand side bit took four or five hours to draw – that bit above the road. It took a long time until the last ones. They are drawn quicker because you’ve got the sun out. You want the sun and the sun might go in, it’s not California, the sun might not last, but I knew for the very last one the sun was going to come out. I was there at 6.30 in the morning waiting for it, when the shadows would come across the road.’”
Hockney’s grids, which he composes of separate pieces and then bumps together in quilt-like fashion, are particularly important to his theories of drawing and seeing. Hockney’s current preoccupation with painting, drawing, and digital art are about time and space and how they can be expressed in two-dimensional wall art. Grids, as he puts them together, can combine space and time in a way that single photographs as well as conventional single drawings and paintings cannot.
Because he is thinking about “time”, he says that pictures produced over time — paintings, drawings, collage art, digital drawings, and specialized videos that he grids together — are all “pictures”, “depictions”, i.e. art.
He says, “Any drawing or painting contains time because, you know, it took time to do it.”
David Hockney, painting Winter Timber, about 2009, from NY Times.
Hockney is hard on still camera photography and its by-products; he tends to dismiss it because he believes it has distorted our sense of what we really see. He has said that still photography is “looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops — for a split second. But that’s not what it’s like to live in the world.” (quote from Lawrence Weschler in the Smithsonian Magazine. And in Hockney on Art: Conversations with Paul Joyce, he paraphrases Picasso: “Picasso had said that the only thing to do with a camera was to move it around.”
Yet Hockney is a skilled photographer. He says, [before starting the Joins in the 1980s,] “I had been taking photographs for years, and if I do anything, I do it seriously….it looked as if I was becoming obsessed with verisimilitude, which is not interesting enough…. “
But when, in the 1980s, he used a Polaroid camera for his art, he found the process allowed him to explore space and time in a much more “realistic” manner. And so Hockney has always been interested in technical explorations, new tools, for making art. But he tends to play with the technology in unorthodox ways.
David Hockney, Pear Blossom Highway, 11-18th April, 1986. One of his “Joins”, using innumerable Polaroid photos to collage an picture. Image taken from AIUS.com, where a full description of Hockney’s “joiners” can be found.
Hockney was an early user of the iPhone for drawing, using the Brushes app, and he continues to produce art on his iPad; he also has done videos with multiple cameras mounted on a moving vehicle and presented them as a single sequential image (see this YouTube). These are all “grid” types of work. The de Young museum exhibition has been described as “the adamantly hand-rendered and the wildly technologically amplified” (Lawrence Weschler, the Smithsonian. So Hockney isn’t against mechanical tools, only against our belief that the single shot, fixed perspective camera image is realistic.
The problem with the camera, says Hockney, is that it stops time, whereas our eyes and our perceptions are always moving which means we see over time. And it falsifies vision in its one-eyed focus with accompanying fuzziness, its classic perspective, and its split-second look. Cameras make us think that they capture a visual truth, but they are like any art work; artistic license is at play, and, particularly, are distorted by the tool itself. They abstract an image and call it real. Picasso, on the other hand, is not about abstraction, according to Hockney; he (Picasso) is all about seeing truthfully.
And about drawing: “The feeling of things in space and how to place them in space is a drawing skill” says H. That sounds a bit general, even grandiose, but it places something he conceives of as drawing, even when it’s done entirely through Polaroid photographs or moving videos, at the center of the depicted object.
One aspect of drawing from real life and real-time, says Hockney is that we come closer to reality: in reality “We see everything in focus, everything, but not all at once; that’s the point. We take time.”
So Hockney’s “Joins,” from the 1980s, are camera images but they are immersed in time because the views are done over time, with changing light conditions and by moving the camera itself, just as the artist moves her eye when she draws or paints. A drawing or painting or iPad drawing takes time to do, so it includes time. And when the drawings, paintings, iPad renderings are placed in grids, more time is included.
David Hockney, Mother Bradford, Yorkshire 4th May 1982 composite Polaroid, 56 x 23 1/2 in.
Hockney would claim that working with photos, as he did in his Joins and as he does in his video renditions, is “drawing”. These processes juxtapose multiple images without cropping so that the artist must bring the edges together to compose a single image, just as someone with a pencil and tablet would have to do in drawing a scene on-site. The artist’s task is to remake photos or videos or the real world, using them to make drawings, or paintings in order to produce whole pictures. H. often violates a variety of the principles and elements of design, and in doing so, makes us see anew.
So, Hockney is not concerned with labeling tools as drawing tools — any medium, including the video camera, can be used to “draw”. His iPad exhibits at the de Young show his drawings as they emerge on the iPad, using the app that allows that, and producing a “picture” over time. And the videos at the de Young were made from nine cameras, filming from their mounts on a moving vehicle, then pieced together, on a moving grid that fills the entire wall. Many videos were taken on the vehicle before he got the footage he needed to compose his video painting. (Here’s the YouTube link again, of the winter scene shown at the de Young.) .
When Hockney takes on a project, which may end up (if that is the right phrase) as an oil painting or a moving video with nine “canvases”, he generally starts by looking, then sketching, and painting and filming, then coming back and looking again and sketching again and filming some more.
The oldest saying about drawing I’ve heard is that “drawing will teach you to see”. So drawing from photographs will teach you to see from that false, single static camera focus. You need to learn to draw by looking at the visually confused complicated real world. Moreover you must see it over time. The time might be measured in seconds (if you have a really really excellent visual memory) or, more likely, over hours or even days. But nevertheless, it will be over time.
‘I never do a painting as a work of art,” says Hockney. “All of them are researches. I search constantly and there is a logical sequence in all this research. It’s an experiment in time.”
Hockney has rethought somewhat his love/hate relationship with photography. He admires what it gives us, that 15th century European understanding of single perspective realism. But he feels that that kind of painting/camera image, that window view which keeps us outside the image, has run its course. As artists we should be showing people how humans really see and perceive, how limited the one-eyed paralyzed cyclops view is. And because we have become dependent upon split second photography as depicting what we think of as artistic and visual realism “the loss was the depiction of the passing of time.”
“An art that’s not based on looking inevitably becomes repetitious, whereas one that is based on looking finds the world infinitely interesting, and always finds new ways of looking at ourselves….Without drawing you get very crude result, you need this skill to accomplish things.”
Hockney’s art work, whether we call it painting, drawing, iPad sketches, or videos, is drawn from his need to look and look again. And his explanations and discussions of his looking and looking again are of a piece with the art. One informs and enriches the other. To my eyes, what he is doing is reviving painting, reviving drawing, insisting that the newer technologies are simple extensions of the revivals of looking and seeing and making art from what we actually see. Not from what the camera has taught us to see, but what in fact we see.
[For an overview of the de Young paintings and videos, see my 3-part post, beginning here].
Hockney on ‘Art”, Conversations with Paul Joyce, Little Brown, 1999
Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message, Conversations with David Hockney, Thames & Hudson, 2011
Why David Hockney Has a Love Hate Relationship with Technology, by Lawrence Wechsler, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013
David Hockney, RA, A Bigger Picture , video featuring Hockney talking about his exhibited paintings at the Royal
Academy, London UK, 2012