Why David Hockney Should Not Be Taken Seriously by Brian Yoder

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Why David Hockney Should Not Be Taken Seriously

by Brian Yoder

In David Hockney's 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, the author proposes a strange theory. He claims that the Old Masters didn't really know how to draw and paint realistic images by direct observation, memory, or imagination. Instead Hockney claims they used the same method Hockney uses when he wants to create realistic images: using a projector and tracing the image. If the intellectual state of the art world were healthy, this kind of nonsense wouldn't be more than a curiosity. Unfortunately the hucksterism, taste for fashion, and lack of skill in the academic art community have conspired to create a strange gullibility that makes ideas more attractive and "popular" the more obviously absurd they are. In order to dispel this kind of gullibility I have decided to outline the reasons why any thinking person should reject Hockney's theory in this article.

In general, I have two reasons for rejecting Hockney's conclusions. The first is that even on his own terms his arguments don't demonstrate that his conclusions are true. The second is that there is ample counter-evidence against Hockney's claims. Perhaps he counts on most people not being aware of the facts or being too uncomfortable in trusting their own knowledge. Perhaps he is so poorly informed about how real artists do their work that he genuinely has no idea how they do their work. Either way, nobody should take his theory seriously.

What is Hockney saying and how does he attempt to make his "proof"? What are the problems with his analysis?

Hockney claims that the Old Masters couldn't really draw and paint realistic images and that the improvements in image quality over time (particularly in the Renaissance and the 19th century) are attributable to the use of successively improved optical devices such as the "camera obscura" and "camera lucida".

The camera obscura (which means "dark room") is not a photographic device of the kind we are familiar with today. It is a box (or a room) with all light sealed out except for a small pinhole which admits light and this projects an image of what is outside on the opposite side of the box (upside down and backwards of course). As a child you may have played with devices like this called "pinhole cameras".

The principle behind the camera obscura was known at least as far back as 300 BC when Aristotle wrote about seeing crescent-shaped shadows created by spaces between leaves and through holes in a sieve during an eclipse. He also wrote:

Light is passed through a small hole made in a room enclosed by all sides. On the opposite wall to the hole an image will be formed of what is facing the room.

In 1490 Leonardo da Vinci wrote the first "modern" detailed description of one in his notebooks:

Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily, none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the figures, here the colors, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!

The existence of this kind of device was well-known and hardly much of a "secret" thereafter since plenty of published books contained descriptions of how to build one. Below is one of the earliest known published drawings of a camera obscura being used to observe a solar eclipse in Gemma Frisius's De radio astronomico et geometrico liber, 1558.

Fig. from page 208

In addition to these two devices, Hockney also proposed that a similar device (one which to my knowledge has never been named or mentioned in early writings as a drawing aid) using a concave mirror to project an image which can be traced (much like a camera obscura would). Hockney seems to be particularly fascinated with this device (he uses a cheap shaving mirror in his "experiments"), even though there's no evidence that such a mirror existed in the Renaissance era. They just didn't have the technology necessary to make a good quality mirror of the right specifications. In his book he seems to alternate between these three kinds of devices often without being very specific, but that is the least of his problems.

Of course before the 19th century there were no photographic plates to expose inside such a box, so according to Hockney, the Old Masters sat inside their boxes or dark rooms with pinholes in the walls and traced the images they saw there in the dark rather than using the methods of observation, design, proportion, etc. that they claimed to have used.

A camera lucida (which means "light room") is essentially a prism on a stick. It was invented in 1809 by Dr. William Wollaston, and was explicitly intended as an aid to drawing from the start. An artist looks through the prism at his drawing surface and sees both the paper (and his hand and pencil) and a superimposed image of whatever is in front of the prism. This is a photograph of a 19th century camera lucida attached to a drawing table.

Fig. from page 203

This is more difficult to use than the camera obscura since every time the artist moves his eye the images shift a little bit, but the principle in general is the same in both cases. The artist can see the subject superimposed on the drawing surface as he traces over it. Both devices have been known about for a long time and many inquisitive artists have experimented with them to make sketches. That is neither a secret nor anything new. What is new is Hockney's claim that this is the "secret" of how the Old Masters made all of their great paintings and that they didn't have any other way of doing so.

One interesting fact about these drawing devices is that one of the earliest creators of photography, Fox Talbot, originally became interested in the idea of photography because he found it impossible to make acceptably realistic drawings using a camera lucida or camera obscura. He wrote:

[In] October, 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como in Italy, taking sketches with a camera lucida, or rather, I should say, attempting to make them; but with the smallest possible amount of success...

After various fruitless attempts I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing which unfortunately I did not possess. I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was to take a camera obscura and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of paper in its focus - fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away ...

It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me. .. how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed on the paper!

So it would be more accurate to say that the failure of optical aids to allow the creation of realistic drawings led to the development of photography rather than that the successes of optical aids led to the creation of realistic drawings.

Underlying most of Hockney's points is the claim, either implicit or explicit, that it's impossible to actually paint realistic-looking images by observation, memory, or imagination. Again and again, he asserts that conventional drawing and painting (what he calls "eyeballing it") are too difficult for anyone to do and therefore some alternate explanation is needed to understand how realistic-looking images are made. This claim is particularly strange since the idea that the Old Masters couldn't draw and paint realistic images is one of Hockney's most controversial conclusions. It is also one of his key premises. So he is seriously begging the question here. It is certainly the case that Hockney himself cannot "eyeball" his way into creating a realistic image, but that is hardly proof that Rembrandt , Titian , Ingres , and Bouguereau couldn't. Hockney doesn't present any examples of his "eyeballed" drawings in his book(he can't draw much better than the average high school student can doodle) but he did "demonstrate" some drawings of faces using optical aids and they are uniformly pretty terrible. For example, these are some drawings Hockney made using optical aids of some guards at the National Museum...

Fig. from page 30. David Hockney's drawings of guards at the National Museum, with the assistance of optical aids.

Fig. from page 31. Portrait drawings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, one of the 19th century's outstanding Neo-Classical painters. [See sidebar for higher resolution scans.]

As he makes his argument that the Old Masters couldn't draw and paint realistic images, he continues to attribute his "technique" to them by asserting that not only did they use optical aids for all of their modeling, but that they also used a mosaic effect to create large multi-figure paintings as well. He claims that they did this by using a projector to capture each element of the scene and then putting the parts together like a jigsaw puzzle. This seems to be a pattern for Hockney, identifying any instance of great technique by better artists as merely a more primitive version of what he has been doing for years. I will have more to say about his motivations later on. His determination to "discover" that the Old Masters were exactly like him all along is evident throughout his argument.

The "Great Wall"

Hockney claims that the first observation that sparked his "insight" happened as he examined the paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. He claimed that they were just too perfect to have been painted by "eyeballing it" and he started to wonder if perhaps Ingres had used optical aids to accomplish this, and if so perhaps that was how all of the great artists did their work. It seems relevant to consider that this is how Hockney has always made his "art", by photographing things and pasting the photos together, or tracing optical images from a projector of one kind or another, and that he never learned how to make realistic drawings and paintings any other way. He has primarily made his way in life by associating his crude paintings and photos with pseudo-intellectual controversies like this one.

The book explains that part of Hockney's "method" of identifying when it was that artists started using optical aids was to paste up images from various eras on a wall (which he refers to as his "Great Wall") in chronological order and take note of when the quality of the images changed over time.

Fig. "The Great Wall", from pages 8-11

Not surprisingly, he noticed that image quality has generally improved over time from the middle ages until the beginning of the modernist period. This was particularly true around the Renaissance, and again in the 19th century. No doubt substantial improvements in realism did occur over the centuries, but Hockney was determined to find something more in this progression than a series of improvements in skills, tools, and materials.

As I see it, this observation proves nothing about the use of optical aids at all. The fact that a great deal of scientific and engineering knowledge developed in those eras is very well known. This advancement included both specifically image-making knowledge (about perspective, geometry, etc.) and also more practical knowledge about things like pigments, lighting, and metallurgy, as well as physical wellbeing, sanitation, and political and intellectual freedom. All of these improvements helped the artists and everyone else do their work better. Looking at any sphere of human activity in the West from food preparation to clothing to transportation to warfare we can see similar jumps in quality at about the same times as Hockney claims to have discovered the "proof" that artists started tracing images from a camera obscura. He doesn't try to explain this (he doesn't even mention the fact). He just dismisses without analysis the possibility that there could be any other explanation on the grounds that "eyeballing it" is impossible and that a "better" explanation is necessary.

Hockney Takes All Evidence as Evidence of his Theory

Another line of argument Hockney uses is to identify cases of "distortion" in paintings and drawings and claim that it must have arisen from the use of optical aids. Whether this is a matter of lines that aren't straight, lines that are too straight, fuzziness around the edges or bits that are too sharp, or changes in proportion from one part of the painting to another, he invariably ascribes this as evidence of the use of optical aids. What is odd about this is that no matter what evidence may appear, this approach always justifies the conclusion that optical aids were used. Accurate shapes are taken as proof of the use of optical aids and departures from perfection also prove the use of optical aids. I wonder what Hockney might imagine evidence of his theory being false might look like. He doesn't really address that question in his "proofs". With Hockney, all roads lead to the same conclusion.

Hockney Didn't Demonstrate Painting, Only Drawing

In his "experiments", Hockney didn't actually go through the process he claims that the Old Masters did... going from a model, to a drawing, to a finished painting. This is probably because he knows that the process would either yield some kind of "paint by numbers" feel to the finished work (rather than the finely layered effects we see in actual paintings by the masters), or that it would be practically impossible to do if the painting were made directly using optical aids. First, these aids rely on the substrate on which images are projected being white. Once a layer of darker paint is applied, it becomes difficult to see the image. This would have been particularly difficult in eras with less than perfect optics and glass, and before the availability of bright artificial light sources. Worse yet, it becomes very difficult to see colors and their relationships when the projection is done on a multi-colored screen (as any half-painted paper or canvas would be). If the original sketch were made and then covered by a layer of paint, the artist would have to constantly be re-projecting the image back onto the partially painted canvas in order to get the next level of detail incorporated into the painting. That would't have worked very well, especially for dark-colored paintings and for subjects illuminated by dim light sources.

At a New York University conference discussing Hockney's theories, he was asked why the book did not show any paintings generated by this method. His reply was that he had tried painting within his camera obscura, but had abandoned the effort "within ten minutes" because it was far too impractical! This might give most people pause, but not Hockney. He just restricts his experimental drawings to pencil on white paper and fails to explain how the Old Masters might have gone from pencil sketches to finished paintings or to explain how such a process might have worked. Aside from the fact that this constitutes a serious lack of proof of Hockney's arguments, it also points to a problem with his explanation of motivation. While Hockney claims that the use of optical tools is the only possible explanation for the quality of the paintings we see from history, he also claims that even if it were possible to "eyeball it", optical devices would be such tremendous time-savers that they would have to have been used as a matter of mere expediency. That makes it doubly strange that he can't seem to manage to paint even one decent realistic painting using the methods he ascribes to the Old Masters, and both he and numerous others have described the process as so tedious that they abandon it almost immediately.

Co-Founder of ARC, ARC Webmaster for several years, Host of the Art Renewal Audio podcast, Founder of the GoodArt discussion group that brought the original ARC founders and board of advisors together. Brian is a tireless advocate for skill, quality, technique, meaning, and innovation in art and has been writing and speaking on the subject for many years. He is the moderator of the Pasadena Socrates Café, a live philosophy discussion group and the Ideas that Shaped History live discussion group both of which meet in his home town of Pasadena, California (for more information on these search for them on Meetup.com).

He studied Computer Science and Mathematics at Central Michigan University, and is currently the Chief Software Architect at Moffatt and Nichol. He has previously held senior technical positions at Peter Norton Computing/Symantec, US Networx, EarthLink, uWink, OpenSoft, Scalable Network Technologies, CyberDefender, and Brian Yoder Consulting, where he has worked on virus and malware detection, networking, gaming, animation, printing, simulation, mathematical, and military security projects.