David Hockney: Drawing from Life
- Investigate the portraits of David Hockney and consider what they reveal about his style and artistic practice.
- Explore some of the techniques and media that David Hockney uses and their impact on his portraits.
- Analyse Hockney's use of colour, and his approach to line and space, across his portraits.
- Consider how Hockney's approach to portraiture might influence your own artwork.
Who is David Hockney?
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by David Hockney, 1954
Collage on newsprint
Bradford District Museums and Galleries, CBMDC © David Hockney. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt
David Hockney (born 1937) is one of the most celebrated and well-known British artists. He came to fame as one of the leading artists involved in the Pop art A movement that emerged in America and Britain in the 1950s that challenged artistic traditions by using imagery from popular consumer culture to create new artworks. movement in the 1960s.
Hockney is particularly known as a painter and as one of the master drafters of our times. He widely champions drawing, which has underpinned his work throughout his life. His drawing is inspired by both the Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. , such as Rembrandt, and ‘modern Masters’ like Picasso.
He is known for experimenting in a range of media and techniques. These include printmaking, photography and stage design, as well as painting and drawing. He has also been creating artworks using iPads since they first came out in 2010, working with developers to create custom-made apps.
He is well-known for creating portraits of people he loves, making portraits of the same people again and again. These portraits include his parents and a close group of friends, showing their changing appearance and relationship with him.
Over the past six decades, Hockney’s inventive visual language has taken many different stylistic turns, from the early pen and Ink Coloured liquid used for writing, drawing and printing. , and coloured pencil drawings to his more recent experiments with Watercolour Paints that you mix with water, not oil, and use for painting pictures. and digital technology.
David Hockney – portraits
Hockney’s portraits provide insights into his intense observations of the people he has met over many years. These begin with his early Self-portrait A painting, photograph or other form of art work where the artist represents themselves. and studies of his parents created while he was still a student.
Hockney went to the Royal College of Art in 1959, where drawing was still compulsory. He threw himself into the life classes and his natural aptitude was noted by tutors and fellow students. He has continued his practice of drawing throughout his life, using a wide range of techniques and materials.
Hockney usually works with a small circle of sitters and has captured changing appearances and relationships over the years. These include people close to him, whose portraits he has made numerous times over several decades such as his mother, Laura Hockney; his friend, textile designer Celia Birtwell; the curator, Gregory Evans; and master printer, Maurice Payne.
Throughout his career Hockney has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the camera. He began using photography in 1967 when he bought his first 35mm camera and used it as an aide-mémoire for his painting. In the 1970s, he began assembling individual photographs into small compositions.
While working on photo collages in the early 80s, Hockney was also painting and drawing. He created a group of playfully neo-Cubist portraits, which explore multiple viewpoints and distortion as a direct consequence of his renewed enthusiasm for the work of Picasso.
- Look at Hockney’s photographic collages. What do you think this technique adds to the portrait?
Artists often find that they have affinities with other artists – they may have similar artistic concerns or be attracted to the same shapes, colours or subject matter. Hockney is inspired by Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. such as Rembrandt and Ingres, as well as ‘modern masters’ including Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh. He visited Picasso’s Tate exhibition in 1960, and after Picasso died in 1973, he produced this etching called The Student – Homage to Picasso, together with other works relating to Picasso.
Hockney’s decision to turn to etching was a practical one. Students at the Royal College of Art, where he was studying, had to buy their own materials. He was an enthusiastic painter but the materials were expensive. He had quickly run out of money, and so took advantage of the college’s free etching and printmaking materials.
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- In ‘The Student – Homage to Picasso’ Hockney declares his passion and admiration for the artist.
Find an artist that you can relate to and think about why you admire their work.
- Think about the most recognisable way that you could suggest your chosen artist in a picture. For example, Henri Matisse with vibrant pattern and colour, Barbara Hepworth with her large-scale outdoor sculptures, Yinka Shonibare with brightly coloured Dutch wax print fabric.
Explore your ideas in your sketchbook.
- Find examples of Van Gogh’s drawn portraits and compare them with Hockney’s drawing of ‘Mother, Bradford, 19 Feb 1979’ looking particularly at the patterning and lines.
What are the similarities and differences?
- Make a drawing that includes you and your art hero.
Exploring the self
In 1983, when David Hockney was in his mid-forties, he turned to an intense period of self-examination. This was partly in response to approaching middle age, increasing isolation due to his deafness, and the untimely deaths of many friends, some to AIDS-related illnesses.
Every day for six weeks he set himself the challenge of drawing an honest Self-portrait A painting, photograph or other form of art work where the artist represents themselves. , just as he found himself on that particular day, using Charcoal A black material made by burning wood slowly in an oven with little air. . These drawings, including the two shown here, reveal a vulnerable and private side to Hockney that is very different to the bleached hair and owl glasses image of his youth.
One of the most interesting areas in portraiture is self-representation. Artists can show themselves in the context that they choose, whether this is their home, their studio or another location. Props and other figures can be added to this environment.
There is also the choice of media. What is exciting about Hockney is the way he likes to use different media. He is not afraid of pushing the boundaries of his art and discovering new processes that reflect his evolving moods, interests and skills.
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In 2012, Hockney created a series of brightly-coloured Self-portrait A painting, photograph or other form of art work where the artist represents themselves. using his iPad like a sketchbook.
Over a period of twenty days Hockney made a digital Self-portrait A painting, photograph or other form of art work where the artist represents themselves. each day, as he had done with the Charcoal A black material made by burning wood slowly in an oven with little air. portraits of 1983.
These self-portraits with varied facial expressions, are based on character types inspired by Rembrandt’s early self-portrait prints.
- Compare Hockney’s self-portraits. What similarities and differences can you see?
What might they reveal about him and his artistic practice?
- Taking Hockney’s lead, create a self-portrait a day for one week. Use different materials to create these.
- How does this daily drawing practice impact your art?
- Which media do you prefer to use?
- What time of day works best for your portraits?
- Vary the speed of your drawings. Create some fast drawings using pencil or charcoal, then use coloured pencils to create portraits over the period of a few hours.
Which method works best for you?
The artist and relationships
David Hockney is well-known for creating portraits of people he loves. He has created portraits of the same people again and again, particularly his parents and a close group of friends, using different materials and techniques, and showing their changing appearance and relationship with him.
Hockney understands that portraiture is the result of a collaboration between artist and Sitter The person in a portrait. ; often the best portraits come about with sitters known to the artist. Hockney’s relationships with those most involved with his art are documented in his portraits. These include his master printer Maurice Payne and curator Gregory Evans. They have been both the material for his work as an artist and have been crucial in the development of his career.
- What are your first impressions of these portraits? What stories of love and friendship do they tell?
- Choose a drawing of one of Hockney’s friends. Describe the relationship that Hockney has or had with the sitter.
- Give three reasons why you chose this artwork.
- Which friend or family member would you choose to create a portrait of? How would you try to express your relationship?
David Hockney – my parents
Hockney grew up in an unconventional working-class family in Bradford, West Yorkshire. His parents were an important early influence and they supported him in his decision to become an artist. Hockney remained close to them throughout their lives, and they were recurring subjects in his work.
His father, Kenneth Hockney, worked as a clerk, but was an amateur artist and anti-smoking campaigner, who was well-known for his strong political views. His mother, Laura Hockney, often sat for David. She was a strict vegetarian, teetotaller and committed Methodist who lived for 98 years.
David Hockney’s early Bradford drawings capture the world around him. He has always used his sketchbooks as a visual diary, and the pages are filled with scenes of his family.
My Parents and Myself represents some of the themes explored by Hockney – working from life, intimate relationships and the influence of other artists. While selecting the works for Drawing from Life in Hockney’s Los Angeles studio, the artist rediscovered the painting, believing that after abandoning it, the work had been destroyed. The masking tape was originally used to hang a piece of paper over the central panel as Hockney re-worked the surrounding area.
Drawing another generation
- Find a photograph of an elderly relative or find someone much older than you who is prepared to sit for you.
- Plan your portrait. Think about or discuss with your sitter the type of objects you could include in your portrait that would give a viewer an idea of their likes and dislikes e.g. books, a TV, a plant, a meal, a holiday, a pet.
- Analyse photographs and paintings that show family groups. Notice the positioning of the figures.
- Make some preparatory drawings of any objects you have chosen to include or any other specific details.
- Now position your sitter. Consider how their pose might reflect their relationship to you.
- Use your preparatory drawings to organise a composition, look at Hockney’s portrait of his parents for clues. Decide if you will make your portrait square or rectangular.
- Create a mixed media drawing using some of the tools Hockney uses such as charcoal, crayon, coloured pencil, pen and ink. How does the media affect the way the sitter is portrayed?
Hockney met Gregory Evans in London through the Los Angeles art dealer, Nick Wilder. They began an intimate relationship in Paris, where they both lived, in 1974. Gregory was Hockney’s lover, assistant, studio manager and curator, and a consistent model for fifty years. Hockney’s portraits of him reflect the closeness of their relationship.
- How does Gregory’s pose and expression show their relationship? Does he look relaxed or formal?
- Inspired by Hockney’s drawings of Gregory, create your own portrait of a friend or relative.
Choose someone you feel comfortable with and invite your sitter to experiment with pose and gesture to show your close relationship.
Try having a conversation while you are drawing them and see if this alters the portrait making.
Textile designer, Celia Birtwell, has been David Hockney’s close friend since the 1960s. They found they had much in common with their northern roots and shared sense of humour, and together they were at the artistic heart of London. Hockney has always been fascinated by the changing nature of Celia’s face, and she remains to this day, one of his favourite models.
She is often referred to as Hockney’s ‘ Muse A person that gives an artist ideas and the desire to create things. ’, but their relationship is much more than that. They have always admired each other’s work and her sittings for him have been collaborations, as well as an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company.
In his portraits of Celia, Hockney always paid close attention to her distinctive and romantic fabric designs and some of Celia’s own work is inspired by Hockney. In Celia, Carennac, August 1971 Celia is portrayed wearing a brightly coloured vintage dressing gown. The boldness of the textile print in this portrait contrasts with her face, clothes and her hands.
Hockney continued to make portraits of Celia Birtwell over the next fifty years, most recently in November 2019 when she visited the artist at his home in Normandy, France.
- Choose someone to sit for you with whom you have a special relationship or friendship.
- Take five digital photographs of your sitter that concentrate on the following: pose, expression, appropriate location, clothing, scale.
- Use the photographs to help you make a drawing that reflects aspects of your favourite Hockney portrait. Try to make your work show the relationship that you have with your special sitter.
The Normandy portraits
In the spring of 2019 David Hockney moved to Normandy, an area of northern France which has inspired many painters, most notably the Impressionism A style in painting developed in France in the late 1800s that uses colour to show the effects of light, and to suggest atmosphere rather than showing exact details. , Claude Monet.
In 2021, as Hockney emerged from the quarantine imposed on him by Covid, he began to invite people into his studio again. After a year spent recording the landscape around his home using an iPad, Hockney returned to painting portraits.
These paintings, all made from life, form a series created between 2021 and 2022. Starting out with portraits of his partner, JP, a subject whose face he knows well, the artist went on to make Self-portrait A painting, photograph or other form of art work where the artist represents themselves. and to portray friends and visitors to his home. He painted familiar and unfamiliar faces from Celia Birtwell’s family to his studio assistant, his chiropodist and his gardener.
The sitters chose how they dressed and the way they sat for the two-to-three sittings required. He applied slow drying acrylic paint quickly and directly onto the canvas without under-drawing.
- Study these portraits. Compare them to Hockney’s earlier portraits. How has his style developed? How has it stayed the same?
- Look back at your responses about Hockney’s ‘style’. How might you change or add to them now that you have explored his portraits further?
- Are you able to identify any more recurring imagery in his portraits? What purpose do they serve?
- Look at the different media, materials and techniques that Hockney has used in his portraits. Which do you think has the greatest visual impact? Which is most effective at creating a personal portrait?
- How does Hockney approach line and space in his portraits? Analyse these elements across different portraits.
- How has Hockney used colour in his portraits? How does this affect the mood or atmosphere?
- What do you think Hockney’s portraits tell us about him as an artist and his relationship with his sitters? Look closely at the sitter’s pose and expression and imagine a conversation between the artist and sitter.
- Now you have looked at Hockney’s work in more depth, how would you describe Hockney’s approach to portraiture?
- Choose a portrait you connect to. Describe why.
- How might Hockney’s portraits influence your own artwork?