David Hockney - from Old Master techniques to the iPad

November 2018 saw David Hockney as the Artist to hold the record at auction for the most expensive painting by a living artist.

November 2018 saw David Hockney as the Artist to hold the record at auction for the most expensive painting by a living artist. Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was sold for £70 million at Christie’s auction. Hockney has a keen eye for detail and this is ever present within his practice which has spanned from the emergence of pop art to the present day. Whilst also embracing technologies throughout the decades to evolve his craft. So, how did a young boy from Bradford become the prolific David Hockney we know of today? 

Hockney’s early works throughout the 1960’s earned him a place as one of the fronteers within the pop art movement. Inspired by the sun kissed spaces of California, Hockney created paintings with a flat perspective with depictions of water and reflections. These elements within imagery became known as “Hockneyisms”.

Even though Hockney was well known and viewed as a successful artist, the summer of 1999 saw him frustrated with his own practice in his perceived limitations to The Old Masters. 

At this point in Hockney’s career he had successfully used technologies to launch his practice forward, through enabling the use of a colour photocopier in the 1980’s. Where he created his hand made prints series. Later, pairing this with a Quantel Paintbox to create collage and using fax machines to communicate and send works to galleries. But there was still something not yet found for Hockney.

This became the driving force in his attendance of Ingrès show at The National Gallery in London. The accuracy within Ingrès’ drawings of passers-by in Rome had Hockney’s attention. Was this as a result of pure unattainable talent that cannot be remade today? Or was it in fact faint pencil marks and impressions on Ingrès studies? And, if so, what would that mean for the artist going forward and for how we view the old masters today?

If the old masters had used these techniques to create images that show precision, surely we can do that too? Hockney went on to try it himself with tools like mirrors and camera lucida to bring light on what he had seen. And, what he found was that it was in fact easier to create a successful likeness as he had seen when visiting Ingrès’ work. Hockney then progressed onto more works from Caravaggio to van Eyck in order to see how intricate details were made possible by these tools. Now, this becomes not only a new way to envision the art world as we know it. But it also illustrates that using technology to create art may have been happening for some time!

Hockney wrote a book on his findings In Secret Knowledge Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters he enlists experts in the fields of art history and science to answer his questions. What tools were being used; what that means for art history. The book was well received overall. However, critics argued that Hockney showed too few examples of possible markings and that it did not definitively prove the use of optics. It’s argued the quality of optics used is not to the standard that it is today. And, that there are realist artists creating accurate works that have not used these aids. 

Eight years after his findings within Secret Knowledge Hockney started using an iPhone. Little did he know that this would further advance his practice and create discussion around the future of the art world itself. Hockney started by sending friends digital paintings on his new phone before upgrading to an iPad in 2010. Although aware of the pros and cons surrounding the digital medium, Hockney commented to the Guardian, “The iPad is like an endless piece of paper that perfectly fitted the feeling that I had that painting should be big.” 

Hockney’s desire to evolve within his practice is what singles him out from the rest. His embrace of technology and curiosity of past technologies elevates his long-standing career as not only an artist but as a researcher too. And, with no plans of stopping anytime soon, we look forward to more of Hockney’s iconic digital works and where he takes it from here.