David Hockney may be pretty isolated here in Yorkshire, some four hours by train from London, but that’s the way he likes it. Ensconced near the quiet rural landscape he’s immortalized in paintings and watercolors, he has more time not only to draw but to experiment with new ways of making art.
“We think we’re way ahead here,” he confides. “We need this little remote place to be observant about the medium.”
The art-making medium he’s using most often these days is the iPad, brother to the iPhone, which he took up earlier. Whether he’s lying in bed or driving through snow-covered woods, his ever-ready iPhone and iPad are instant drawing pads, always by his side. The electronic duo keeps him in touch with not only his craft but a small group of friends and colleagues who regularly receive his colorful missives of landscapes, flowers, cap or ashtray.
He is 73, his trademark blond hair now gray, but few people are as curious and willing to try new things as David Hockney. At his enormous studio on what he calls “the Pico Boulevard of Bridlington,” Hockney is still painting the colorful canvases that made him famous. But as he simultaneously draws on luminous electronic surfaces and experiments with multiscreen video projections, he is assembling people and resources to take him and his art into the future.
Where better to do so than the seaside resort of Bridlington, long home to the Hockney family and just 60 miles from where he was born? “Bridlington is a tiny, sleepy, tranquil place of only about 30,000 people,” says Hockney. “It’s a great place to work. You don’t have anything else to think about, and it’s awkward to get to from London.”
Those who make the journey arrive at a tiny train station just five minutes from his house. Hockney himself is out front, smiling and welcoming, swathed in corduroys, paint-splattered designer suit jacket, yellow cashmere scarf and cap against the winter cold. The seat warmers are already on in the silver Lexus out front, and he is talking excitedly about his projects even before he’s out of the parking lot.
First stop is his ultra-modern studio — at 10,000 square feet, many times larger than his Hollywood studio. The studio is so big that Hockney, his staff and sometimes his visitors travel around the space in wheelchairs to have a seat handy to ponder a painting, print or museum exhibition model. Even temporary walls hung with art are on wheels.
He was originally just looking for storage space, Hockney says, but he couldn’t resist the fabulous light and 17-foot-high ceilings. “I signed a five-year lease on this place, with a five-year renewal,” Hockney laughs. “I’ll be in my 80s then! But when I signed it, I felt 20 years younger.”
The studio is so full of Hockney artworks, all of them created within the last year, that the eye isn’t sure where to look first. On one wall are huge Hockney variations on Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount” made to the exact dimensions of the original painting housed at New York’s Frick Collection. A few feet away is a similarly large 20-part canvas, 12 feet high and 20 feet wide, of nearby Woldgate Woods in full spring flowering, plus iPad drawings of Yosemite, reproduced and enlarged by Hockney’s assistant, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima.
“What fascinates me is not just technology but the technology of picture-making,” says Hockney. “I spend more time painting, of course, but I treat the iPad as a serious tool. The iPad is influencing the paintings now with its boldness and speed.”
One discovery feeds the next. From photography he moved onto photo collages and experiments with office copy machines — cameras of another kind. His fax art allowed him to send exhibition artworks over telephone lines much as he recently e-mailed an exhibition worth of iPhone and iPad drawings to an art gallery at Paris’ Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent (where “David Hockney: Fleurs Fraîches” is on view until Jan. 30.) “Who would have thought the telephone could bring back drawing?” Hockney asks in the Paris show’s catalog.
Hockney’s iPhone art began in 2008. A rotating group of about 30 friends, curators, dealers and writers regularly receive his e-mailed artworks, and the artist even urged his friends first to get iPhones, then iPads to archive the continuing e-mails. According to Gonçalves de Lima, Hockney has already sent out nearly 400 e-mail drawings on his iPhone and 300 more on his iPad.
“I had to get an iPad so I could receive the drawings on the same platform he used to make them,” observes Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Barron, who has already curated three major Hockney shows for the museum, printed out about 20 iPad drawings for her office walls and often uses them as screensavers.
“The still lives have an intensity and attention to detail which I find astonishing to have been done on an iPad,” she says. “I also think he’s able to capture light in a way that is remarkable.”
He shows no sign of slowing down. Many take a few hours to draw and polish, yet he is equally eager to draw one on the spot at a friend’s home or for a studio visitor. His custom suit jackets have long been made with large inside pockets for his sketchbooks, and, he demonstrates, the iPads fit the pockets perfectly.
At home, in his upstairs bedroom, Hockney leaves the purple curtains open, and he likes to lie in bed drawing on his iPad the sunrise, sea, rain, snow or whatever else he might see.
“It’s so quick,” Hockney says. “You see something, turn it on and it’s ready. If I had a sketch book in my pocket and a little box of watercolors, I’d have to get a bit of water, or if I had a sketch book and a box of pencils, I’d need to get the pencils. With the iPad, you just start drawing. “
Let him demonstrate. He earlier mastered the Brushes application on his iPhone, and now he’s done the same with the iPad. Using the Brushes app, he changes colors and brush thickness with strokes of his stylus, a new tool he uses more often than his fingers these days. Drawing quickly to illustrate his new medium, he points out how he changes, moves and mixes colors. “It took awhile to get good at it,” he says, smiling. “I’m very good now.”
Hockney these days draws mainly on the iPad, which has many advantages over the smaller iPhone. The iPad also allows him to play the drawing back. The Brushes app permits animation of the drawings to show the actual process of the drawing’s formation, a feature that seems to fascinate not just whomever Hockney shows it to but also it seems Hockney himself. Last October, one of Hockney’s iPad drawings graced the cover of the New Yorker, while an animated version of that cover helped launch the magazine’s inaugural table format.
Interest in the Paris exhibition has been so keen that cultural historian and author Charlie Scheips expects it will soon travel, first to a “major Scandinavian museum” next spring and later to other places in Europe and North America. “David likes to look forward, not backward,” observes Scheips, a former Hockney assistant. “He has this amazing knack to see a potential in something and make it Hockney-esque.”
Hockney has also begun making high-definition video projections. Since spring, the veteran draftsman and set designer has traversed the countryside directing three assistants in a jeep specially equipped with nine small high-definition cameras. They’ve already captured summer, fall and winter with the cameras and will in a few months finish spring footage begun last year.
After a brief tour of the actual countryside, Hockney heads home to present his version. There, the artist has attached nine video screens and set up a few chairs for viewing in the small room that used to be his studio. The jeep travels at about 8 mph, he says, and the 80-minute films run in real time. He is already experimenting with 18-screen video projections and says he may later add music, such as the slow movements of Haydn string quartets.
The projections are both another way of drawing and another way to assemble collages, he explains. “Cameras are no longer so big as they used to be, and it dawned on me that you could put a few together to open things out. When you go back to one camera after seeing it our way, you think like me that it’s all too pokey. This way is about as close to being there as you can get.”
Both his video sequences and iPad images are expected to join recent paintings, drawings and photographs in a 2012 Hockney exhibition slated for London’s Royal Academy of Arts and, perhaps, for LACMA.
“LACMA is exploring the possibilities with David Hockney of showing his multiscreen projections and iPad drawings,” says curator Barron. “The museum has also been in discussions with the Royal Academy about the possibility of their exhibition traveling to LACMA.”
Los Angeles audiences for his work should please Hockney, who regularly visits his Hollywood Hills home and has referred to himself as an “English Los Angeleno.”
“In my old age, I’ll be in L.A.,” says Hockney. “I’m just finishing my middle period now, at 73. I’ll be beginning the late period soon.”