David Hockney and Drawing (with Digressions, as usual) (by June Underwood)


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, Pearblossom Highway

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].

Further references:

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

David Hockney official website.


5 Responses to “David Hockney and Drawing (with Digressions, as usual) (by June Underwood)”

  1. 1 snicklefritzin43 April 9, 2014 at 11:01 am

    June, Thank you for this well researched piece about an artist about whom I have very little knowledge; for sharing notes on the exhibit you and Terry were able to see in San Francisco. My interest in learning more about David Hockney is keen and three books have been requested from my public library so that I can spend some visual time with his work as well as learn more about him as an artist. Your three part article on your blog was written in a way that pulled me to feeling as though I was there with you as you spent time with his work.

    Much appreciation for this story about David Hockney from your personal experience with his work. This has opened a new door of exploration for me.

    Whenever your voice sings out on Ragged Cloth Café I am invited to make a cuppa and sit and read and learn from your writing, your perspective and understanding of the topic you cover. Perhaps we will again be visited here in the Café by the one who began this grand platform for writing, sharing and learning.


  2. 2 olganorris March 5, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Thanks, June, for the extended riff on Hockney’s drawing. I was smitten by his work and approach to art many years ago, and he consistently evokes a positive excitement in me, making me look again and again, constantly, and to make work. I am a huge fan of his approach and that he basically means by drawing the continuous act of looking and what arrives from the hand as a result – whatever that hand is holding as mark-making tool, be it pencil, brush, buren, photocopier, camera, or ipad. I have recently been enjoying reading about his prints http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hockney-Printmaker-Richard-Lloyd/dp/1857598938/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394021300&sr=1-1&keywords=hockney+printmaker
    As I say, I certainly admire Hockney’s approach to art (drawing), but do not agree with his condemnation of the more widespread use of the camera. There is a legitimacy in purely capturing a frozen moment, as do the best, such as Henri Cartier Bresson. Also, there is validity in the work of those who make art from their imagination, having put their looking through the machine of their mind before transmission through whatever tool to their fingers. In both these cases, looking is equally essential as a starting point – indeed I do believe that the more, the better one looks, the more likely the outcome will have merit. Looking and seeing in real time, coming closer to reality, does not mean that one has to reproduce that reality as one saw it then. One could say that it takes an artist not only to see clearly, but to process that vision to produce something perhaps otherwise unseen or even unseeable to the viewer.
    But Hockney is indeed a giant of an artist: for the fluency both of his work, his excited curious seeking eye and mind, and of his description and explanation of his approach and explorations.

    • 3 junomain March 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      Hi Olga, good points to make. And in Hockney’s favor, he’s pulled back on his 80s rhetoric about the evil camera — he actually says it has done wonderful things (and he points to Bresson and publishes “Picnic on the Banks of the Marne”, 1938 as proof). And he works from imagination as well, although it’s after looking — in fact, I think at least one of the biggest, and most highly stylized, paintings at San Francisco was clearly a “memory” painting.

      I suspect what his next intellectualizing will be an enlarged art theory of “time”, “over time” and “context” — and clearly these latest works are, as he says, about time.

      I started this riff thinking about my own drawing, which you may remember I am neurotic about — always feeling inadequate. But I’ve also gotten rather tired of the repetitious nature of many landscape paintings and figure drawings. In the former, not looking “for real” seems to result in banality (to put it in really black terms, the “painter of light” stopped looking long before he couldn’t see any more). However, a more serious critique of Hockney would be that since “seeing” is a mediated sensation — that is, your brain has to tell you that you are seeing something that means something, then isn’t the camera a decent mediator, giving meaning, particularly as H. admits to its capturing something like 98%. I think his real point is that he’s looking again and seeing with a different mediator (although I’m not sure what that is — whatever it is, I see like that too).

      The second point, about figure drawings is not that people who are in figure drawing classes and workshops and studio sessions aren’t looking. indeed, in my experience, they are looking and looking and looking and looking again. But they seem to think that that is sufficient. They seldom put their figures into any context whatsoever — all undistinguished background with a bit of lights and darks to highlight the figure. Those drawings all look the same to me, and they can neglect meaning and even pointed gesture. Your contours with their “tells” of attitudes and companions, etc. tell us a thousand percent more than the most detailed 10 hour figure drawing in charcoal will, particularly if the figure is that and only that.

      Your point about Hockney’s exciting eye and mind and his description and explanation of what he’s about is indeed what has always excited me. I didn’t even much like his art until I saw this 21st century English landscape work; but I found his mind so rich that even in the 1980s I didn’t care. And of course, that is heresy among visual artists.

      I guess I’d say H’s. work is truly “conceptual” art, however the academics define and illustrate the mode. And in addition, it’s highly visual, unlike a lot of conceptual pieces.

      • 4 olganorris March 6, 2014 at 4:25 am

        I wonder if all who seriously attempt artistic expression feel inadequate about their product? Perhaps we should all accept that like Hockney says all attempts are researches: explorations not only about how things look but also about how we feel about what we are seeing. In any case what we see when we look can only be approximated in what we express, whether visually or verbally – or in music. Maybe we should not try to declare our work to be expressions of what we see, but expressions prompted by what we see and how we feel about that – whether as a Cyclops, or somehow over time.
        I found it fascinating to learn that when Hockney first went to California and encountered the many swimming pools that he spent a great many hours looking at the water in the pools before he started to capture what he saw in the water. (I read this in the Christopher Simon Sykes biography: A Rake’s Progress, which I very much enjoyed.) This fits in with his preference for drawing folks he knows well rather than random strangers, and his love of returning to the same places to see how they have changed. Yesterday I was watching a film by Studio International about the landscape artist Kurt Jackson (it is on the News page of his website http://www.kurtjackson.com/News-Page.html ), and was interested to hear that he much prefers to paint places he knows rather than be like a tourist snapping a view. As I grow more accustomed to my own body of work and how I am preferring to develop, I agree with the need for familiarity – at least as a kind of filter either of input or of output, if not both.
        I so agree with what you say about the life class experience. I signed up for a term, and am finding it frustrating. I get bored so quickly! It is a positive reaction for me, however, because it confirms that what I’m doing is what I want to do. Indeed I had a fascinating chat with one model this week – his experience over many years of both artist himself and model reinforced my instinctive response to the situation in relation to my work. I must return to Rodin to look hard once more at what he did – both in drawing as well as sculpture, and why I love it.
        Snap also about loving the mind but not going much for the work. This is not the case with Hockney as far as I am concerned, but I am hardly ever opposed to hearing or reading what an artist thinks, feels, wants to do, etc. even if I dislike the work. Besides, one does not always have to agree with what has stimulated thought!

  1. 1 New Analysis of Hockney’s Drawings | southeast main Trackback on March 4, 2014 at 4:22 pm
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