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Artist David Hockney Says The Drive To Create Pictures 'Is Deep Within Us'

Oct 13, 2016
Originally published on October 13, 2016 8:08 am

Artist David Hockney is obsessed with looking. He looks and looks; and then, in his works, he makes us see what he sees.

The artist says looking and showing are as old as time. "I think the first person to draw an animal on a wall would have perhaps been watched by someone. And then, when he'd got the animal down, the person would've grunted or something, and said, 'I've seen something like that.' "

At nearly 80 years old, Hockney is busier than ever: He's the subject of a new documentary; he has a big retrospective in the works at Tate Britain; and he has a new book, A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen.

Hockney believes making pictures is part of human DNA. "Very young people pick up a crayon and start to draw, don't they? Very, very young people," he says. " ... I think the idea of making pictures is deep within us."

Today, swap crayons for smart phones and everyone's making pictures. They may not be artistic, but technically they're aces. "You can't take a bad picture, really," Hockney says. "You can't take an underexposed picture; you can't even take an out of focus picture now. My father's pictures were — he used to take a lot of photographs and they were always a bit out of focus and underexposed. Always. And he died just before the automatic camera came in and the automatic focus. And he'd have been in his element then."

Picking Favorites

Hockney's A History of Pictures is chock-full of images — a few photos, but mostly reproductions of paintings he's loved looking at over the years. His favorite is a quick pen and ink drawing Rembrandt made in 1656. (You can see it here.) It shows a mother, a father and a sister teaching a little child to walk. The jot of a curve makes a shoulder; a flick of the brush shows the father squatting, encouraging the child. Hockney thinks it's a virtuoso piece.

"You see the tenderness of the drawing, I think. But you also see ... the marks that made the drawing as well," he says. "I mean, you can look at the mother and see the little ragged dress she has on, but then you see the marks that were made to do this and how few there are."

The drawing is minimal and universal. "Any person anywhere in the world has seen something like this and experienced it," Hockney says.

In addition to Rembrandt, Hockney is crazy for Pablo Picasso (his hero) and Caravaggio. He credits the late 16th-century Italian painter with inventing Hollywood lighting. For example, Caravaggio's 1599 painting Judith Beheading Holofernes: "I mean, this is lighting that's not natural," he says. No sun could shine so brightly on Judith's breast and then disappear to make such dark velvety shadows right behind her. Only movies can illuminate like that.

"I Do Get A Deep Pleasure From Looking"

Light, and where it comes from, is every painter's preoccupation. And for Hockney, light on water is a particular fascination. "Say a swimming pool: The water is transparent. How do you paint transparency?" he asks. "It's always a nice problem to me. ... Water in a swimming pool is transparent and it has reflections and things. That's what [it's] all about — reflections."

Hockney is known for bright, flat paintings of Los Angeles and vivid English landscapes. His best-known painting — 1967's A Bigger Splash — shows a California swimming pool the moment after someone has jumped in. (You can see it here.) A tan diving board angles in from the bottom right and a lively white splash rises up from the aquamarine water.

"I spent longer on the splash than on any other thing in the painting," Hockney says. "I spent about a week painting it because it's painted with small brushes. ... I mean I didn't want to just take a brush and splash it like that. I wanted to paint it slowly, and I thought, Then it contradicts the splash, really."

So many of Hockney's works are joyful. They feature sundrenched California scenes, British woodlands brimming with fuchsia and neon-green trees, the Grand Canyon in vivid oranges. (When he showed the canyon pieces in London, he put big mirrors in the gallery corners to add dimension to the paintings.)

Hockney says the first thing he looks at in anyone's painting is the surface, "the paint itself and so on. And then you might then see a figure; then you might see something else. But I think, first of all, you see the surface." It's a painter's way of looking. Someone else might look first at the pear, the face, the horse — but not Hockney.

That artist believes painting can change the world. In the midst of all our miseries, he says, art lets us see the world as beautiful, thrilling and mysterious. "I do get a deep pleasure from looking," he says. "I mean, I can look at a little puddle on a road in Yorkshire and just have the rain falling on it and think it's marvelous. ... I see the world as very beautiful."

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David Hockney is one of the most important contemporary painters. He turns 80 next year, and he's busier than ever. He's known for bright paintings of Los Angeles, and he stars in a new documentary, will have a big London retrospective and has a new book. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked the artist about his lifelong obsession - looking.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: David Hockney is a major looker. He looks and looks, and then, in his work, makes us see what he sees. To Hockney, looking and showing are as old as time. Some caveman picked up a rock and drew an animal on the wall.

DAVID HOCKNEY: And then when they'd got the animal down, the person would have grunted or something and said, (grunting) I've seen something like that.

STAMBERG: Is making pictures, do you think, part of the DNA of being human?

HOCKNEY: Yes, yes. Very young people pick up a crayon and start to draw - don't they? - very, very young people. I think the idea of making pictures is deep within us.

STAMBERG: Today, trading crayons for smartphones, everybody's making pictures. OK. Maybe they're not that artistic, but technically, they're aces.

HOCKNEY: You can't take a bad picture really. You can't take an underexposed picture. You can't even take an out-of-focus picture now. I mean...

STAMBERG: (Laughter) Right.

HOCKNEY: (Laughter) My father's pictures were - he used to take a lot of photographs, and they were always a bit out of focus and underexposed. He died just before the automatic camera came in and the automatic focus.

STAMBERG: Oh, no.

HOCKNEY: He'd have been in his element then.

STAMBERG: (Laughter).

HOCKNEY: Yes, he would.

STAMBERG: Hockney's "History Of Pictures" book is chock full of images, a few photos, but mostly reproductions of paintings he's loved looking at over the years. His favorite is a quick pen-and-ink drawing Rembrandt made in 1656, a family - mother, father, sister - hovering over a little child, teaching it to walk. Just a few strokes - the jot of a curve makes a shoulder; the flick of the brush shows the father squatting, encouraging the child. Hockney thinks it's a virtuoso piece.

HOCKNEY: You see the tenderness of the drawing. But you also see the marks that made the drawing. You can look at the mother and see the little ragged dress she has on. But then you see the marks that were made to do this and how few there are and things like that.

STAMBERG: So minimal, but universal.

HOCKNEY: Yeah. Any person anywhere in the world has seen something like this and experienced it - haven't they?

STAMBERG: He's crazy for Rembrandt, of course, and Picasso, his hero, and the late 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio.

HOCKNEY: Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.

STAMBERG: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness. There's a woman. She's cutting a guy's head off, "Judith Beheading Holofernes," 1599. And look at - why do you call it Hollywood lighting?

HOCKNEY: Well, it is Hollywood lighting. I mean, this is lighting that's not natural.

STAMBERG: No sun could shine so brightly on Judith's breast and then disappear to make such dark, velvety shadows right behind her. It's dramatic, unreal. Only movies can illuminate like that. Light and where it comes from is every painter's preoccupation. For David Hockney, light on water has particular fascination.

What is it with you and water, David Hockney?

HOCKNEY: Well, water offers an interesting graphic problem, it seems to me. Say, a swimming pool, the water is transparent. How do you paint transparency? It has reflections and things.

STAMBERG: "A Bigger Splash," his best-known painting from 1967, shows a Californian swimming pool, tan diving board angling in from the bottom right, and rising from the aquamarine water, a lively, white splash. Someone just dove in.

HOCKNEY: I spent longer on the splash than on any other thing in the painting. I spent about a week painting it because it's painted with small brushes. I mean, I didn't want to just take a brush and splash it like that. I wanted to paint it slowly. And I thought then it contradicts the splash really.

STAMBERG: Yes. Oh...

HOCKNEY: Yeah.

STAMBERG: Because it took you so long to what, in life, took a second.

HOCKNEY: Yes, yes.

STAMBERG: Hockney once put big mirrors in the corners of a gallery hung with his sunset orange views of the Grand Canyon. Reflecting the pictures made them more dimensional. Da Vinci told artists to look at all their work through mirrors. In reverse, the mistakes pop out.

When you go in a museum or a gallery, what's the first thing you look at in a painting?

HOCKNEY: You look at the surface.

STAMBERG: What do you mean look at the surface? Do you mean the veneer that's on it, or what the brush stroke looks like or...

HOCKNEY: The paint - the paint itself. And then you might then see a figure. But I think, first of all, you see the surface.

STAMBERG: That is really a painter's answer. You or I would look first at the pear, the face, the horse. We're not Hockney. David Hockney believes painting can change the world. In the midst of all our miseries, he says, art lets us see the world as beautiful, thrilling, mysterious.

HOCKNEY: Well, I do see it that way. Yes, I do because I enjoy looking. I do. I mean, I do get a deep pleasure from looking. I can look at a little puddle on a road in Yorkshire and just of the rain falling on it and think it's marvelous. I see the world as very beautiful. Yes, I do.

STAMBERG: David Hockney's new book, done with Martin Gayford, is "A History Of Pictures."

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.