David Hockney: My Yorkshire

Anyone who has browsed the most-read posts on this blog will know that I am a fan of David Hockney’s recent Yorkshire paintings, as seen in the exhibitions at Salt’s Mill last year and, currently, the Royal Academy.  But I have to admit I was a tad disappointed with David Hockney: My Yorkshire Conversations with Marco Livingstone that I have just read, courtesy of the embattled Wirral library service.

The book consists of conversations between Hockney and Marco Livingstone who has written extensively on Hockney and co-curated the current Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture.  It’s a lovely book to look at – produced in A4 landscape format with reproductions of many of the paintings from the RA exhibition on good quality paper, with several of the larger paintings printed across double A4 fold-out spreads.

Where the book disappoints, for me, is in the text.  Livingstone has chosen to transcribe verbatim several conversations he had with Hockney during the period when he was engaged in his painterly exploration of the Yorkshire Wolds, producing the huge paintings of trees and rolling landscapes through the seasons that culminated in the RA exhibition.  Unfortunately, these conversations are not, for the most part, particularly revealing.  Hockney is often rather opaque and contradictory when expressing his well-known views on, for example photography and art; and Livingstone’s prompts often fail to push Hockney to clarify his meaning.  All in all, these conversations are nowhere near as revealing or interesting as those that form the basis of Martin Gayford’s excellent A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.

The issue of Hockney’s attitude to photography keeps recurring in his discussions with Livingstone, particularly with reference to the controversial argument he articulated in The Secret Knowledge, that advances in realism and the accuracy of representation in art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than being primarily due to greater artistic skill. What can be confusing is that, on the one hand Hockney insists on the importance of photographic technology, whilst at the same time speaking of photography being finished and presenting a flat and restricted view of the world.  In this respect he often talks of his return to landscape painting in Yorkshire in the late 1990s, first in watercolours and then in oil paintings, as his ‘photographic detox’; yet, at the same time the recent period of work in Yorkshire has also seen a return to photography with his experiments with nine-camera arrays.

Hockney does, indeed, admit to being contradictory:

Well, I go hot and cold about things.  I’m interested in images.  I’m interested in how images were made in the past.   .. If you’re interested in images, you’re interested in the photograph as well; it’s an image.  So I’ve always been interested in photography, but I’ve always thought it was not that good a way to make pictures.  I see now it’s because the camera isn’t used right, and all my criticism has always been this: it was always the same, ‘Well, use the camera another way’.

Livingstone begins, though, by taking Hockney back to the time when he first became aware of the Wolds:

I would have been 14, I think.  1952. In the summers of 1952 and 1953, when I was at Bradford Grammar School, I worked on a farm between Wetwang and Huggate, stooking corn, as a schoolboy.  I had a bicycle, of course that was the only way you could get around here, and I cycled around, all over…

There were no paintings of the Wolds then: working ‘long, long days’, from 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night; ‘but I was aware that I was in a lovely space. Those fields are still there.  You get wonderful views.  I do react to space, I am very aware of that.’  Later, in the 1980s, his brother went to live in Flamborough, and later still his sister moved to Bridlington, followed by his mother.  When his mother was in her nineties Hockney visited her regularly in Bridlington, and began exploring the Wolds.  Then, in 1996, when Jonathan Silver, his great friend and developer of Salt’s Mill in Saltaire, was dying of cancer, Hockney for the first time stayed over in Yorkshire for six months or more and began painting the Wolds.  He was driving every day from Bridlington to Wetherby to see Jonathan, and every day he was travelling up and down Garrowby Hill.  He made some drawings, and after Jonathan died, back in Los Angeles, he did the wonderful Garrowby Hill painting.

After Hockney returned to settle in Yorkshire, the first paintings he did were watercolours.  He speaks of the discipline of working with watercolours:

Watercolour has to discipline you in the sense that there are certain methods.  For instance, you have to paint from light to dark in watercolour.  In oil painting you can do what you want.  I liked the disciple of it;  the discipline is making you do things.

Soon, though, he was painting in oils and excited about the possibilities of painting compared to photography.  He became deeply aware that we ‘see with memory’:

None of us see the same thing.  No matter what we are looking at.  When I am looking at anything now, it’s now.  Memory is also now.  When I am looking at you, I have memories of you before.  Someone who has never seen you before doesn’t, so they see something different.  That’s what I’m saying.  That’s true of everything.  The landscape, where you are.  I became rather fascinated with this, especially when you are watching seasons change; the same trees change.  Because you have the memory of last winter, but you are seeing more this winter. ‘I didn’t notice that last winter’.  The first winter, I didn’t notice how all the branches were reaching for the light, especially in December, that’s when they stand up the straightest.  You don’t notice that until you’ve been around a while or looked at them.  This was also linking it with memory.

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Hockney tells Livingstone how he went about painting the trees near Thixendale (a sequence of three observed at each season).  The paintings were based on observation, rather than photographs:

We took some photographs, but they were all flat to me, and I am painting spatial feelings.  With those trees, the first time I decided it was a subject was August 2006.  I thought I’d do them in August, because they looked so majestic to me.  I realized they were about 200 years old each.  There were a lot of things about them. … Once you spend the winters here, you realize that every tree is different.  Every single one.  The branches, the forces in it, they are marvellously different. […]

They are like faces , they are.  Especially in the winter.  They are not skeletons, either.  They are very, very living; a skeleton isn’t.  So you come to see that a tree, after all, is the largest plant form we know.  It’s also a kind of physical manifestation of the life force, and we can see and feel that. … Van Gogh was thrilled by that, the infinity of nature, the never-ending variety.

William Carlos Williams was on the same wavelength:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
‘Winter Trees

Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

The Thixendale Trees – all four paintings – were done entirely in the studio.  Hockney says,  ‘I wanted to use memory, you see.  I had done a lot of hard looking.  I was beginning to get a vocabulary’.  And the paintings got bigger:

What was thrilling was painting from nature on what were quite big canvases – but remember there were six.  It’s unusual to paint on that scale direct from nature.

Later, of course, they got bigger still.

In the second of the two conversations which make up the book, Hockney talks at length about the ideas that lay behind the films he has created using an array of nine video cameras attached to a moving vehicle.  The films form part of the RA exhibition and create the sensation of being in nature and travelling through it.

When I went back to the camera, I didn’t go back to using it like Vermeer, like everybody else does, but I’ve used it as a collage. That’s why I went back to photography.  My critique is more that it doesn’t showyou enough, and that’s why I was bored with it.  So I took it up again to demonstrate that if you use a camera a different way, you can open it up. … A single camera isn’t very good at showing a landscape.  But nine cameras are.

Hockney 'drawing' with images from nine cameras

Towards the end of their conversation, Hockney and Livingstone discuss the new computer technologies that the artist has been using in the last few years – iPhone, iPad and printing directly from drawings created on the computer using Photoshop.  Some of these Photoshop images are reproduced in the book, and, personally, I think they are dreadful.  Onto a background painted by Hockney on the iPad are superimposed what look like superior clip art images of trees.  Nevertheless, Hockney is enthusiastic about the advantages of using a computer for both speed and precision.  He can magnify a small area of the painting temporarily so that he can work on it in detail.

For Hockney, the iPad has taken over as his sketchbook ‘totally’:

Why go back to a sketchbook?  This is terrific. … The iPad is affecting the way I’m painting, because I’m drawing bolder and bolder on it.  My mark-making is becoming bolder and bolder.

For me, the best of the iPad images reproduced in the book is this one, Untitled 12 August 2010:

In one exchange, Marco Livingstone suggests what Hockney’s recent flurry of work might signify:

With all these investigations into forms of picture-making using new technology, you have also managed during the past two years to continue using the very old technology to which you have always been devoted, that of oil painting.  Most of these pictures, including an immense painting on 15 canvases of felled logs, Winter Timber 2009, and a series of hawthorn blossom canvases, were made  in the large warehouse studio rather than from the motif. You call that sudden period of manic flowering in the spring ‘action week’, all the more exciting for its brevity and for your knowledge that a single downpour will bring down most of that delicate blossom. Is that feeling of the brevity of life – and the cycle of birth, death and renewal – particularly poignant to you as you get older? Is it an urgent desire to embrace the vitality of life that you wish to communicate in these pictures?

To which Hockney responds:

Yes, there is a desire to embrace the vitality of life and yes, it becomes more poignant as I get older.  It does for everybody, doesn’t it?  When people are in their twenties, they think they’re immortal, don’t they? When I was 23, after a year at the Royal College of Art, I received a letter from the National Insurance saying that unless I put more stamps on, ‘This could mean four and sixpence less in the pension’. The old-age pension. Well, I was 23: ‘Fuck your fucking pension! … And I thought, Fuck off. I didn’t care. I mean, four and sixpence less, this is in 45 years’ time! What are they going on about?’  Well, you think you’re immortal when you’re 23. You think you’ll never be 63, and I certainly wouldn’t have worried about four and sixpence less. […]

Well, you ponder your own mortality. But when I signed the lease for this huge studio two years ago, the moment I’d signed it I felt 20 years younger. I’d taken it on for five years, renewable to ten. I started planning, and I’m going to tell you, it gives you a lot of energy. I’d recommend it to anybody. I wouldn’t recommend retirement. Retirement isn’t a thing you even think about as an artist, anyway. Anybody who is spending their life doing what they like, any creative artist, continues till they fall over.

I’ll raise a glass to that!


A friend borrowed this book from Wallasey library which, according to the borrowing slip, is managed by Wirral Council’s Department of Regeneration.  Seems something very much of our times about that – books and reading seen only in terms of economic development.  I’m sure Hockney would snort.

Hockney’s Bigger Message: hand, eye and heart

David Hockney and Martin Gayford

I’ve been reading A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney in advance of going to see Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition next week.  The book, which is lavishly illustrated consists of conversations between Hockney and his art historian friend Martin Gayford, and it is one of the best books on art that I have read.

Martin Gayford has compiled a record of a decade’s worth of conversations with Hockney, thoughts and ideas that have been exchanged ‘by a variety of media old and and new: telephone, email, text, sitting face to face talking in studios, drawing rooms, kitchens and cars’.  So, like the washes that make up a watercolour, the text is an accumulation of layers, arranged by Gayford but the thoughts being entirely Hockney’s.

The conversations, elegantly and plainly written by Gayford, range widely over Hockney’s career and obsessions, as well as broader questions of art and representation. Gayford prompts Hockney to talk about his move from California to Bridlington, the preparations for the exhibition at the Royal Academy, his views on the differences between painting and photography, the importance of drawing, and his ongoing love affair with the new technology of the iPhone and iPad.

During encounters at Hockney’s Bridlington studio and out at favourite locations in the Yorkshire Wolds, Hockney explains how, for the last decade,  he has been drawn to painting the landscapes, trees and hedgerows of this rarely visited part of the country:

I’ve always loved this part of the world, and I’ve known it for a long time. In my early teenage years I worked on a farm here … it was  a place where you  could  get a job  in  the holidays.  So I came and stooked corn in the early 1950s. I cycled around, and I discovered it was rather beautiful.  Most people don’t realize that, because even  if you  drive to Bridlington from West Yorkshire you think it consists of just a few fields. The Wolds are rolling chalk hills. No one ever comes off the main road. If you do, you’re the only car around. You almost never see another one, just occasional agricultural vehicles. I can take out large canvases, never meet anyone. Once in a while a farmer comes to talk and look. The whole of East Yorkshire is fairly deserted. Except for Hull, there’s no big city. Beverley is the county town; Bridlington is on the road to nowhere, meaning you’ve got to aim to come here. So I can paint here totally
undisturbed.  I enjoy this little bit of England very much.

David Hockney painting The Road to Thwing, Late Spring.

The two friends meditate on the problems and paradoxes of representing a three-dimensional world on a flat surface, whether by drawing, painting or using a camera.  All artists must reflect on these issues, but Hockney has always expressed his thoughts publicly, whether on film or in books such as Secret Knowledge (2000) in which he put forward the thesis that European painters had used images made by lenses, mirrors and cameras for at least three centuries before the invention of the daguerreotype and the birth of modern photography in 1839.

The pair reflect on drawing, with Hockney averring that drawing makes you ‘see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still’, and explore Hockney’s turn to watercolours when, in 2003, he exhibited a series of watercolour portraits – a challenging project because the medium doesn’t allow for more than two or three layers of washes or the repeated revision that is usual with portraiture:

I used watercolour because I wanted a flow from my hand, partly because of what I had learned of the Chinese attitude to painting.  They say you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye.  I thought that was very, very good.

David Hockney: Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Hockney and Gayford chew over what significance different media have for the artist and the way we see – from the wall of the Lascaux cave to an iPad. The observations from both men range over numerous other artists – from Van Gogh to  Vermeer, Caravaggio to Picasso – with shrewd insights into the contrasting social and physical landscapes of California, where Hockney spent many years, and Yorkshire, the birthplace to which he has returned. Hockney vividly recalls  individuals he has encountered along the way – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Billy Wilder – making this an entertaining read.

Although he has experimented with photographic collage techniques in the past, Hockney feels restricted by photography, asserting that it has made us all see in a rather boring similar way:

We think that the photograph is the ultimate reality,but it isn’t because the camera sees geometrically.  We don’t.  We see partly geometrically but also psychologically.  If I glance at the picture of Brahms on the wall over there, the moment I do he becomes larger than the door.  So measuring the world in a geometrical way is not that true.

David Hockney in front of Bigger Trees Near Warter (click to enlarge)

This leads on to a discussion about why he has taken to painting bigger and bigger pictures such as Bigger Trees Near Warter, ‘perhaps’, says Gayford, ‘ the largest pure landscape painting in art history, certainly the the most sizable ever painted entirely out of doors’.  For Hockney, the size of these recent paintings is crucial:  ‘a photograph couldn’t show you space in this way.  … I think in the final picture you have a sense of being there.

A still from the 18-screen video May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM.

That sense of being there is something that he is striving for in his latest deployment of new technology – the 18-screen, multi-image, wide-angle, high-definition films of hedgerows, foliage and trees which he describes as ‘drawing in space and time’, and which are a dramatic element in the new exhibition.

Hockney loves gadgets, and he loves to paint, and, as these conversations reveal, he loves trees:

Trees are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see.  No two trees are the same, like us. We’re all a little bit different inside, and look a little bit different outside. You notice that more in the winter than in the summer. They are not that easy to draw, especially with foliage on them.  If you are not there at the right time, it is difficult to  see the shapes and volumes in them. At midday, you can’t do that.

For Hockney, trees are long-lived, for a while they become old friends and then they outlive us (though not always).

Yes, the trees become friends. One road I like particularly has trees that must have been planted two hundred years ago. I’ve always liked trees, but being here you look really hard at them. You notice things. The ash trees are always the last to come out.

Hockney and Gayford discuss other artists who shared the same passion; they talk about Constable, who had a favourite ash tree that he passed every day on Hampstead Heath, and his 1821 Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, an intense study of the details of bark; and they refer to Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, a book that both men admire. Gayford writes that trees are ‘like human figures in the landscape, vegetable giants, some elegant, some heroic, some sinister … but they are also remarkable feats of natural engineering, capable of holding up a tonne of leaves in summer against the forces of gravity and wind’.

John Constable: Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree c.1821

The move back to Yorkshire made Hockney intensely aware of the changing seasons, another central theme of his recent work, particularly the paintings of the place he has called ‘The Tunnel’, a nondescript track leading off the road that is flanked on both sides by trees and bushes that arch over the track.  He has painted this place in every month of the year.  This is Hockney thrilled at the onset of spring in East Yorkshire:

Every time we get the spring I get thrilled like that. Here we’ve noticed – and it takes you two or three years to notice – there’s a moment when spring is full. We call it ‘nature’s erection’. Every single plant, bud and flower seems to be standing up straight.  Then gravity starts to pull the vegetation down. It was the second year I noticed that; the third, you notice even more. At the height of the summer, the trees become a mass of foliage, and the branches are pulled down by the weight. When it falls off they’ll start going up again.  This is  the  sort of thing you  notice if you  are looking carefully. The fascination just grew for me here. This was a big theme, and one I could confidently do: the infinite variety of nature.

Through these conversations we learn a great deal about art, and gain a real sense of Hockney’s boundless enthusiasm and energy – hugely productive, painting outdoors nearly every day, and engaging delightedly with the latest technology. Towards the end of the book he remarks:

I am greedy for an exciting life. I want it to be exciting all the time and I get it, actually… I can find excitement, I admit, in raindrops falling on a puddle and a lot of people wouldn’t.

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