Recent posts on David Hockney

Defending David Hockney – Unseeing What the Camera Taught Us

I had some discussions about the theory of David Hockney that I wrote about in two recent posts – and it gives me the impression many people have a misconception about what makes realistic painting so tough. Not just people that are not painting, but even experienced artists fall for them.

They think that Hockney’s idea of primitive cameras can be dismissed, because other reasons explain the great development in realistic representation in art. For example it is said that the equipment got better over time. While true, that does affect some quality – but not representation of things like perspective and facial expressions.

Van Gogh - 'Pont de Langlois' (1888) - tiltshift

Van Gogh - 'Pont de Langlois' (1888) - tiltshift
A stunning example of how effects we learned from cameras can enhance art. (Redone from this awesome idea.)

Van Gogh - 'Prisoners Exercising' (1890) - Detail tiltshift

Van Gogh - 'Prisoners Exercising' (1890) - Detail tiltshift

The most common idea is the romantic view of the natural talented artist. Just some guy born with an extreme talent, that can just do things like no one before. I think this has something like magic – which makes it a likable idea.
What this ignores though is the hard work it takes to paint realistic – not only moving the brush, but seeing the world in this different way needed. If it was just to a simple inborn talent, then surely in the thousands of years before modern times someone would have managed to do what we do today.

Just take colors as an example: Every beginner thinks shadows are gray. It takes years of learning and teaching to start seeing the real colors. Shadows have all kinds of shades from refracted light – like blue when it’s in the outside. Refracted light is a perfect example: It is surprising to many people – the first time I learned about it it was like a revelation. But it turns out – its everywhere, and enhances pictures massively. …So why did I not notice it on my own?

This can be extended to so many effects that I think we only know because the camera taught us. Just think about facial expressions: How could painters possibly have missed them? Yet all the way until the end of medieval times, faces looked dull and emotionless.

Saint Jordi fresco in San Zeno (13th century)

Saint Jordi fresco in San Zeno (13th century)
I have no hard evidence, but somehow I just don't buy that artists before the 15th century aimed to portray emotional detachment in all their art.

And I think it’s only Hockney’s idea that convincingly explains the sudden change in the 15th century.
Does that take away a bit of the skills we thought the masters like Caravaggio, Velasquez and Hals had? Yes actually, for me it does. It brings them down to a level I can relate to again: Hard working artists, that just used every trick in the book. No magic… well just a little bit maybe.

Another argument that comes often is that artists today would not need to use photos or cameras. I think that’s completely false: Not only do even the most skilled painters of our time heavily rely on photo reference or projections (just read James Gurney for example). But additionally you can’t ignore all the things we learned simply by studying photos.

But I want to give the question a 180 degree twist: Why do we think right now, that our eyes see like a camera? We just accept the camera image, and assume that an artist just has to get as close as possible to that, to make something realistic.

The difference should give us pause: If we were before the camera not able to notice that we see the world that way, then why are we now so sure that this is how it works? It might as well work a completely different way – that we are still not able to become aware of and put on canvas.

I think the cubists had the right idea – but didn’t quite succeed. But if all I assumed before is true, then we can expect it to be tough. It took hundreds of years, and cameras to make us aware of some things we didn’t see before – it might need another technology to help us again.
But most of all it is a battle in our minds: It’s time to break free from the camera – try to see with our own eyes and brain again.

David Hockney - 'Chair' (1985) - photo collage

David Hockney - 'Chair' (1985) - photo collage
Although this picture is incorrect in so may aspects, it does look surprisingly right. I think David Hockney (inspired by Cubists I guess) is onto something here.

David Hockney - 'Mother I' (1985) - photo collage

David Hockney - 'Mother I' (1985) - photo collage

More Blindness to the Obvious

In one of my latest posts I tried to make a list of things no artist painted before we had help of optical devices, based on David Hockney’s findings. I want to extend the list – and find explanations of what is going on.

When I was at the current exhibition of Txell’s awesomely funny furniture (heh, good pretense to link it), I found in her bookshelf design a book about Japanese art history. And it struck me how similar it was to the medieval European art. All items from the list of pre-optics art perfectly apply: Perspective errors and size issues, focus, missing reflections and fabric patterns that don’t wrap around shapes.

Hishikawa Moronobu - 'Autumn at Asakusa Temple' (17th century)

Hishikawa Moronobu – ‘Autumn at Asakusa Temple’ (17th century)
Unfortunately it is very hard to find pre-17th century Japanese art that shows outdoors. Research is very time consuming, I will do more later.

Hishikawa Moronobu - 'Spring Picknick (unofficial_Title)' (17th century)

Hishikawa Moronobu – ‘Spring Picknick (unofficial_Title)’ (17th century)

Limbourg Brothers - 'Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - February' (ca. 1410)

Limbourg Brothers – ‘Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – February’ (ca. 1410)
This painting by the Limbourg brothers shows no shadows – although it is set in bright day.
Their ‘June’ painting would make my point much better, but then you wouldn’t have those hilarious looking people warming their genitals at the fire.

Also two items I had not in the list yet:

  • There is no visible sunlight.
  • There are no shadows.

Japanese artists were not influenced by the European tradition back then, so they didn’t do it to conform or just because they were used to it (I’ll have to verify though if I’m 100% correct with this). We see the same in Indian, Chinese and Arabian art. It seems like that it was just the intuitive thing to do.

Now it looks very odd to us. We are used to see photos and movies – we think that’s how the world looks like. How could they have NOT seen sunlight? But really – I cannot find any medieval painting from Japan or from Europe that shows it. No shadow to be found. If you know any exception – please let me know.

I argue: They just did not see it. Only the camera taught us. And for sunlight there is an explanation: We are not able to see the strong contrast that sunlight creates. Our eyes don’t work like a camera – they don’t have one setting for light sensitivity. But rather each cell does compare its value to the value of the next cell. So what we see is contrast rather than brightness.

A good proof is that when you go outside of your room, you don’t notice much of a brightness change. But actually – it might be ten thousand times brighter in the sunlight than in a normal lit room.

Here is a video by Eric Mazur, where he explains the luminance problem (If you read my older posts, you might remember him on another topic). The full lecture is a bit of a different topic, but if you’re interested in optics and how humans react it, it’s worth watching.

Edit Note: YouTube took the video down. But you can find the lecture here. Go to the 8 minute mark.

So it is clear that we cannot see absolute brightness of an object – we need a camera to help. And it is one of the hardest parts in painting to get it on the canvas, since the canvas is no light source, you only have a tiny part of the spectrum to try to convey a real life scene. The optics back then already did a big part of the job: by painting from the reflection off a wall, you already have a “cropped” value spectrum.
By now we artists learned this – and the how and why of it. So we don’t always need photos or projects. But I am sure that they have been necessary to figure out the principles behind it.

More tricky is the question about the missing shadows. I am not sure why artists ignored them, but I think the video above has some hints when talking about optical illusions. As this is getting long again, I’ll leave it to a next installment. Trying to at least bring up guesses what could be going on – why it’s interesting for artists today. If you have any opinions or ideas about, I would be interested to hear them.

David Hockney – and what artists did not see

Caravaggio - The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)

Caravaggio - The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)

It’s nice to see old paintings and pictures of art history and be amazed at what they painted. But often I’m baffled about what people did not paint. Sunlight is one example.

Did they not see it? 1400 is the time where many things changed in art. Caravaggio is most famous for introducing dramatic lights and shadows. And for the first time painters managed to draw things in perspective.

David Hockney’s made some startling discoveries about this topic – he suggests that mirrors and lenses came up during that time, enabling artists to paint things like never before.

When I wrote about his book recently, Fufu pointed out that there is a documentary by him on youtube (thanks):

So he suggests there are visual features of our world, that art only managed to portray with the some kind of camera or optical help. I tried to note down a list of these:

Jan van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

Jan van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

  • Perspective constructions (One and two point perspectives)
  • Objects closer to the viewer are bigger
  • Metal objects have reflections (older painters either failed or never attempted to paint reflections)
  • Out of focus areas (in distance or areas not in center)
  • Directions people look at (I’m still puzzled why earth would you get that wrong)
  • Fabrics and the patterns on them wrap around shapes – despite being always seen straight on

While find his findings convincing – I don’t agree with all conclusions. Let’s take the perspective: He explains that the chandelier in Van Eyck’s painting cannot be painted with two eyes – because you have two perspectives of your two eyes. The same goes for reflections on it.

Does that mean no one ever in history thought of closing one eye? Are one eyed people the best painters? Not very convincing. And is it impossible to paint because of the little difference in viewpoint?
Rather I would say it’s the brain that screws us up. We’re just not like a camera – and we cannot just be aware of the image landing on our retina. We know from science about vision that in our mind we rotate things. We tend to see things straight on and up-right in our mind.

Artists are today able to do it from their head. But keep in mind: No one does it “just like that”. It takes years of education. Much of it is spend on hammering out the things you would do intuitively. And much of the knowledge we use is based on what we see from cameras. Gosh, huuuge topic. I’ll go into more details in the next days.

David Hockney in Lucian Freud's Studio

I planned to put here David Hockney's own artwork called 'Chair' - but when looking I found this - of him in Lucian Freud's Studio. So screw it, this is too awesome to not show. Painters are badass!

Tidbits from Dresden – Part One

I’m back from a trip to Germany – visiting Dresden, Berlin and then Dresden again. I want to use this posting and the next to share some little discoveries and my upcoming plans.

Dresden from the Albertinum  window.

Dresden from the museum's window. Credits to my mother for pointing out this beautiful view.

It was only ten days, and somehow I always quench as much in as little time as possible. I’m surprised sometimes how much I manage – I read read more books than usually in half a year. I visit lots of museums, discover a lot of new places and interesting people – and that makes me draw more.
The inspiration is great, but the rushing is no good. I don’t really have time to sit down and paint and I miss out on meeting people because I have to rush off again.

So the lesson learned is clear: Travel more, but take more time for it.

One Museum I visited was the newly opened Albertinum – containing the “National Public Art Collection”. They’ve got a nice line of paintings ans sculptures – going from the late middle ages to modern nowadays art. I truly have the impression art got better and better over time. As good as Rembrandt was, he doesn’t technically compare to most of his followers. The height of technical quality came around 1900, with Adolph Menzel, Leibl, Repin, Sargent and many others.

Gustav Klimt, 1902, 'Beech Grove' (or Beech Forest), oil on canvas

Gustav Klimt, 1902, 'Beech Grove' (or Beech Forest), oil on canvas

They were succeeded by a lot more experimental artists. I especially liked the Gustav Klimt painting “Beech grove”. Picasso is for me the turning point – after that I just can’t understand it anymore. The last paintings, showing contemporary art, were the blurred photos of Gerhard Richter and some paintings like “Gray”… which is a gray canvas. They actually make me feel very uncomfortable. Maybe there are good concepts behind it – to me it’s not good paintings.

It is odd though: Are the clear style episodes one sees in museums maybe not true to what artists did? Nowadays there are so many different styles, even closely resembling older art movements. There are technically superb artists, but somehow in the museums you only find a very specific selection – lacking anything but abstract conceptual art. A real shame.

Maybe it was the same throughout history – and those art directions we learn from books and museums are not truly movements. At least not movements of artists but rather of museum directors and book writers? I wonder what diversity we just missed out on.

What made up for my disgruntlement (whow, that word is in the dictionary) was a special discovery in the museums art shop.

David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters“. He analyzes paintings goal to show that artists throughout history used lenses, mirrors or things like the camera obscura.
So he filled the book with massive amounts of huge beautiful prints of paintings – analyzing the style perspective and techniques. Comparing often how styles of artists developed or how their underpaintings looked. An art history book with lots of pictures? You can’t imagine how rare that is.

A real catch – on sale for 19 instead of 50 Euro. If you’re in Dresden – go and get it!

So much for part one from Dresden – more coming soon. But now I’m now off to another Red hair day in Breda.

David Hockney 'Secret Knowlegde of the Masters' - a page A little preview of the prints.

David Hockney 'Secret Knowlegde of the Masters' - another page The book goes quite into the details.