Voted ‘Britain’s Most Influential Artist of All Time’ in a 2011 poll, David Hockney remains one of Britain’s most popular and well-respected artists. Having worked as a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, photographer, videographer and stage designer, Hockney’s versatility has aided his popularity, making his paintings and limited edition prints some of the most sought-after in the art market.
Born in 1937 in Bradford, Yorkshire, Hockney went on to study at the Bradford School of Art and later at the Royal College of Art in London, even winning the Royal College of Art gold medal in 1962 for his draughtsmanship and innovation in painting. After art school and during a time when artists were flocking to New York to practice Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, Hockney went to Los Angeles to practice his figurative painting. He would go on to pursue his fascination with swimming pools, having painted one of his most famous paintings, A Bigger Splash in a subject that would become iconic.
Figurative painting during this period was considered old news, yet Hockney still managed to exist ahead of his time. His works challenge traditional approaches to art while simultaneously broadening his repertoire, continually incorporating new styles and techniques. This includes the elaborate stage sets he designed during the 1970s and the photo collages he produced in the 1980s which he calls ‘joiners.’ Perhaps the most controversial of his works has been the hundreds of portraits, still life and landscapes such as, Winter Timber, painted on his iPhone and iPad through the app ‘Brushes.’ Iconic of Hockney’s work is his electric use of colour, reminiscent of the colour contrasts of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard.
David Hockney describes his enthusiasm for colour as the product of Bradford, stating that his childhood was very black in a city covered in soot. Even photography at the time was black and white, preventing him from believing that the colours used by Vincent Van Gogh was anything but exaggeration. His later move to California as well as his dapper and colourful wardrobe comes as no surprise, later even calling Los Angeles “the promised land.” From his home in the Hollywood Hills, Hockney embraces the vibrant colour around him, particularly seen in Garden with Blue Terrace, which accurately depicts the cobalt blue, flamingo pink, lemon yellow and jungle green colours of his home.
His use of colour is paired with his perennial love for technology and methods for artmaking. Hockney was one of the first artists to make extensive use of acrylic paint, a medium particularly useful for him when painting large areas of colour as it is fast drying. But perhaps more remarkable is his use of technology to challenge traditional treatments of artwork. In 1989 Hockney famously transported artworks to the São Paulo Biennial by faxing them from his studio in Los Angeles.
This method of artwork transportation is pushed further in his iPad and iPhone works. He begun in 2008 by painting flowers every morning, stating that he would “send them to my friends, so they get fresh flowers every morning.” But that was not his only reason for turning to the iPad. A lover of the outdoors, the iPad allowed Hockney to simplify the process of drawing and painting en plein air. Such process was even used for the stained-glass windows erected in honour of Queen Elizabeth II for Westminster Abbey which he designed on an iPad. This new body of work inevitably prompted scepticism from critics, but it nonetheless rose to international acclaim. In 2011 his Fresh-Flowers exhibition opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto featuring more than one hundred of his drawings on twenty-five iPads and twenty iPods; and in 2012 Hockney enjoyed a vast retrospective (David Hockney: A Bigger Picture) at The Royal Academy. For the Vienna State Opera 2012-2013, he designed – on his iPad – a large-scale picture as part of the exhibition series Safety Curtain.
Hockney drew influence from across art history. In ancient Egyptian works, he is attracted to the flat manner of representation and the careful arrangement of people. In the Old Masters he is captivated by the balanced compositions and the bright use of colour by artists like Titian. But it is photography that has a unique influence on his approach to the canvas, seeing photography as a tool for depicting reality. Photographs allow him to remember the details of a scene to which he adds additional information to bring it to life. Of his most famous fusions of photography and painting is Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), that which sold in 2018 for £70 million and became the most expensive work by a living artist. Painted in 1972, the portrait was inspired by two unrelated photographs Hockney saw on his studio floor: a photo of a swimming pool from a villa outside Saint-Tropez and one of his former lovers, Peter Schlesinger, in London’s Kensington Gardens. This painting is particularly important as it unites his most important themes from the 60s and 70s – swimming pools and double portraits – into a single painting.
Later in his life Hockney adopted a new favourite topic: landscapes of a personal nature. These include sunny California, Yorkshire and Normandy. In 2018 Hockney established a new home in Normandy, moving away from his beloved Los Angeles for a unique reason: the French freedom to smoke anywhere he may please. In France, Hockney would depict the landscape seen from his home, including La Grande Cour. This drawing captures the arrival of spring at his home in a form reminiscent of an installation, drawing influence from Chinese scrolls and the Bayeux Tapestry as it wraps around the gallery walls.
Throughout his career Hockney continues to change and evolve, yet what remains consistent is that his work on the subject matters of swimming pools, his parents, friends, boyfriends, bedrooms, landscapes and his beloved dachshunds establish a body of work that is exceptionally autobiographical and personal.