David Hockney is among the most influential British artists of the 20th century. His unique style, unusual perspective and vibrant use of colour contribute to an instantly recognisable visual style that has made him a household name in the art world. Hockney’s muses are too a quintessential element of his work, with swimming pools, chairs and friends featuring as regular motifs in his timeless oeuvre. In this article, we explore these inspirations as we delve into some of his most famous works.
Working across a range of formats as a painter, draftsman, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer, the work of David Hockney has taken on many different applications. Born in Yorkshire in 1937, the past six decades have seen his art exhibited in iconic galleries around the world. Hockney’s signature style is characterised by a minimalistic use of resources, preoccupation with light and a Pop-art influenced mundane realism has made him one of the most popular artists of our time.
While unmistakably a pop artist, Hockney's style draws on a broad array of classical influences from Baroque to Cubism. Known for his admiration for the Old Masters, Hockney is deliberate in his flouting of artistic conventions and rules, playing with proportion, linear perspective, and colour theory across his 60-year body of work.
After first coming to the fore in 1961 while still a student at the Royal College of Art, he went on to produce some of the best-known paintings of the 1960s including Play Within A Play, Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices and American Collectors. While known for capturing a vast array of scenes and subjects, some of his most impactful works are seen to be his portraits of the late 1960s, an idea that the complex social relationships underpinning American Collectors can attest to.
In the 1970s, Hockney began working with photography more extensively. By the mid-1970s his artistic output was dominated by projects involving photography and lithographs as opposed to painting, where he also worked on set and costume design alongside his friend and muse, Celia Birtwell.
Hockney returned to painting in the late 1980s, focusing on seascapes, florals, and portraits of those closest to him. In 1986, he became a pioneer of the printed format when he began mixing technology into his art by making homemade prints on a photocopier. The merger of art and technology became a continuing fascination for Hockney; in 1990, he used employed laser fax machines and laser printers in his process and by 2009, his paintings were made using the Brushes app on iPhones and iPads. A show of 100 of these paintings was exhibited at the Royal Museum of Ontario in 2011.
Throughout his career, Hockney has broken taboos and been recognised for his role in reviving and reshaping the practice of painting. Like other Pop artists, Hockney was a proponent of a figurative painting style that referenced commercial images seen by everyday people. However, clear Cubist influences are what set him apart from others in the Pop movement. In Cubist tradition, Hockney combines several scenes to create a composite view, choosing awkward spaces like split-level homes in California where depicting depth is challenging.
His paintings convey an understanding of conventions while acknowledging that orthodoxies are meant to be questioned, and that opposites can coexist. Underpinning this is a philosophy of tolerance that transcends art, carving out Hockney’s take on the social and political world. In the context of a ‘macho’ creative mainstream that dismissed vibrant colour, Hockney's bright greens, purples, pinks, and yellows were—and remain—statements on diversion from the norm through personal and creative freedom.
Hockney was an icon of gay liberation in 1960s California, where his open love affairs and defence of the LGBTQ+ community made him a controversial figure. In 1988, Hockney also threatened to cancel a retrospective of his work being held at London’s Tate gallery in protest of anti-homosexual legislation being proposed in Britain at the time.
Another feature of Hockney’s work that separates him from other Pop artists is his use of subject matter. Routinely, Hockney depicts the domestic realm: everyday scenes from his own life and those of friends. Evolving over his career, his muses have spanned an eclectic mix of people and places that document an impressive 60 years at the forefront of modern art.
Hockney has always found inspiration in the natural world. From the sweeping landscapes of his native Yorkshire to the bright, bold colours of the Californian panorama, Hockney's work captures the beauty and complexity of the natural world in a way that is both familiar and utterly unique.
Throughout his career, Hockney has experimented with different mediums and techniques, always pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of modern art. His love of nature is evident in many of his most famous works, and has prompted comparison to iconic painters such as Vincent Van Gogh.
Hockney's landscapes are vibrant and bold, capturing the essence of the natural world in a way that is both vivid and abstract. His use of colour is particularly striking, with bright, bold hues that evoke the natural beauty of the world around us. Hockney experiments with perspective in paintings such as Garrowby Hill and The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, producing vast landscapes that seem to go on forever.
It’s not just landscapes that inspire Hockney. He has also found inspiration in the flora and fauna of the natural world. In his flower paintings, Hockney captures the beauty and delicacy of flowers in still life. Typically pictured in a domestic setting, Hockney fuses the natural world with details from the interior of a home, denoting both his fascination with nature and everyday life.
Hockney's love of nature is not just evident in his art, but also in his life. He spends much of his time outdoors, cycling and walking through the countryside. This deep connection to the natural world is reflected in his work, which is infused with a sense of wonder and awe. As Hockney himself once said, “Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus”. In his work, Hockney reminds us of the power and majesty of the natural world, and our place within it.
Swimming pools have long been a source of inspiration for David Hockney's art. From his early paintings in the 1960s to his more recent iPad drawings, Hockney’s work has engaged heavily with the shapes, colours, and textures of swimming pools, turning them into a recurring motif throughout his career.
For Hockney, swimming pools represent a sense of leisure, luxury, and indulgence. They are a symbol of the California lifestyle that emblematises the place he has lived and worked for much of his life—but they are also much more than that. On a technical level, they are a canvas for Hockney's experimentation with colour, composition, and perspective. Between 1964 and 1971, Hockney made numerous paintings of swimming pools known as the Californian Pool Paintings, each of them documenting a different solution to representing momentary changes in the water’s surface.
The most famous of these is A Bigger Splash (1967), where Hockney captures the moment just after a diver has jumped into a swimming pool, creating a splash that disrupts the calm surface of the water. The painting is a masterpiece of composition, with the splash taking centre stage and contrasting with the rigid geometric order of the background.
Of his interest in painting swimming pools, Hockney explains: “I loved the idea of painting this thing that lasts for two seconds; it takes me two weeks to paint this event that lasts for two seconds. Everyone knows a splash can’t be frozen in time, so when you see it like that in a painting it’s even more striking than in a photograph.”
In Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), Hockney continues his study of depth and the water’s surface. Originally conceived due to the chance juxtaposition of two photos on the artist’s studio floor, Hockney worked on the painting for 18 hours a day for 4 weeks before the planned opening of a New York exhibition. The painting shows a man standing at the edge of a pool, looking down at the reflection of another figure swimming in the water. The composition is striking in its use of colour and composition, drawing attention to very different ways of capturing the male figure.
The motif that punctuated Hockney’s art throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s has become the hallmark of his artistic career. Through his use of colour, composition, and perspective, he has transformed the swimming pool into an iconic subject of modern art.
Although a seemingly mundane subject for art, David Hockney has proven that chairs can be a source of inspiration and technical prowess. Hockney's fascination with chairs began in the 1960s, when he started to experiment with perspective and how it can be manipulated to create a sense of depth and space in his art.
In Hockney's early works, chairs were often depicted from unusual angles, such as from above or below or with distorted proportions. These unconventional perspectives challenged the viewer's perceptions and invited them to see an everyday object in a new way.
One of Hockney's most famous chair paintings is the aptly named The Chair. An ode to Hockney’s influences in Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, the painting is known for its exploration of perspective that runs through his depictions of chairs. In The Chair, Hockney swiftly departs from a traditional single-point perspective to depict each side of the chair to situate the viewer within the plane of the picture, consciously connecting several vantage points.
The chair also has a role to play in Hockney’s signature double portraits. Typically, Hockney depicts one or both subjects sitting, presenting another canvas for the motif of the chair. In My Parents, his mother and father sit in their living room, with their chairs depicted from a slightly distorted perspective. Here, the backs of the chairs are elongated to create a sense of depth and space.
In his later works, Hockney continued to play with perspective and chairs, using them as a way to explore the relationship between the viewer, the object, and the space they occupy. In his iPad drawings, for example, he created digital collages of chairs from different angles and perspectives, creating a sense of movement and dynamism.
David Hockney is not only known for his depictions of landscapes and people, but also for his love of dogs. His affinity for dogs is evident in his art, where he frequently includes dogs as subjects in his paintings and drawings.
Hockney began drawing dogs in 1987 when he adopted his first pair of dachshunds. What began as a drawing exercise in his immediate surroundings soon became a series of affectionate portraits entitled Dog Days. The 45 paintings from this series tend to show Hockney’s adored Stanley and Boodgie, where he sought to capture them in natural poses around the house.
The series also touches on the warmth and affection we get from our pets in times of sadness. Dog Days was inspired by the death of the artist's close friend Henry Geldzahler, a dark time for the artist. “I wanted desperately to paint something loving” Hockney has written. “I felt such a loss of love I wanted to deal with it in some way… They're like little people to me. The subject wasn't dogs but my love of the little creatures.”
A recognisable name featuring regularly in Hockney’s work is Celia Birtwell, a British textile designer who rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s for her distinctive prints and patterns. Hockney and Birtwell first met in the early 1960s as art students, a meeting that led to a lifelong friendship and a number of collaborative projects. While Hockney’s muses were often male friends and lovers, his personal and artistic connection with Birtwell is well documented. Hockney was drawn to her bold and colourful prints, which he saw as a natural fit for his own vibrant paintings.
One of the most famous collaborations between Hockney and Birtwell is the series of portraits he created of her in the 1970s. In these paintings, Hockney captures Birtwell's striking features and distinctive style, often using bold colours and graphic patterns in the background.
Another notable collaboration between the two was the creation of the wardrobe for Hockney's set design work on the opera, 'The Rake's Progress'. Birtwell designed the costumes, which were inspired by the 18th-century setting of the opera and featured her signature prints.
Birtwell also features in one of Hockney’s most famous double portraits, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. This depicts Birtwell with her husband, fashion designer Ossie Clark, in their London apartment. Hockney was a close friend of the couple and was their best man at their wedding in 1969. The painting adheres to Hockney’s experimental approach to perspective, situating the viewer in the eye line of both subjects. The painting beckons the viewer into an intimate setting as we become the apex of the couple’s stare.
Reflecting on the painting that became a touchstone of Hockney’s oeuvre, Birtwell has said: “I’ll always be known in a kind of trilogy, with Ossie and David. But you don’t see yourself like that, and I’ve always been cautious not to let my own talent be discarded. […] I’ve always explained to David that I had to stay independent, and possibly that’s kept the relationship rather healthy. Because I love David dearly, but you have to be independent to be in with him. He’d always be sympathetic [to your problems] but David’s work is who he is.”
Throughout his long and prolific career, Hockney has consistently innovated though his use of format, mediums and materials. From Polaroids to photocopiers, iPads to iPhones, Hockney has embraced technology as a tool for creating art and pushing the boundaries of traditional art forms.
One of Hockney's most famous works created using technology is his series of iPad drawings. Hockney began experimenting with the iPad in 2009, and quickly discovered the possibilities it offered for creating a new kind of art. Using the app Brushes to create intricate drawings of landscapes, flowers, and portraits, Hockney’s iPad drawings maintain the characteristic vibrant colors and bold lines of his work.
Hockney has also used technology to create photomontages, which are large-scale images made up of multiple photographs. These works, such as Pearblossom Highway from 1986, are created by taking hundreds of individual photographs and stitching them together to create a single, seamless image.
More recently, Hockney’s Lightroom exhibition brought some of the motifs and muses from his six-decades career to life. Collaborating with 59 Studios, the exhibit featured six ‘chapters’ which that led the viewer through his thoughts, his practice, and his view of the world itself.
Hockney’s technique, innovation and subversion have made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, and his impact on the art world continues to endure. His unique style, which blends modern and traditional techniques, has inspired and captivated countless collectors and artists around the world.
Hockney has found inspiration in a wide variety of sources, from the natural beauty of the world around him to the people and pets in his life. His use of bold colors, unusual perspectives, and techniques has helped to redefine the boundaries of traditional art forms and demarcate new horizons of modern practice.
For collectors and enthusiasts looking to add a piece of Hockney's art to their collection, there is a wide range of options available. From his iconic swimming pool paintings to his photomontages and iPad drawings, Hockney's works continue to be popular among collectors and art lovers alike.
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