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David Hockney's "Secret Knowledge"

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  • David Hockney's "Secret Knowledge"

    I just got a new book yesterday called "Secret Knowledge" by the artist David Hockney. I've only read through the first third, but basically, Hockney spent two years researching the last 500 years of Western painting. His hypothesis is that many of the great painters used optical devices, mirrors & prisms to "trace" the likenesses of their subjects. Vermeer, Ingres et al used these to achieve the incredible likenesses in their portraits. Hockney goes about recreating the way they may have done it and has outside optics experts analyze different paintings to tell-tale evidence that these were used. In several instances, the incredible oriental rugs and patterned fabric is very well done, but the perspective shifts half-way through indicating that the artist shifted the lense or prism to bring the other portion into focus, but the exact perspective shifted as well. I highly recommend this book to you and can paraphrase more if you're interested (and as I read on.)
    The debate over what is art, what is "cheating" etc. is opened up by this to a degree. Did Vermeer or Ingres "cheat" by not doing all their drawing free-hand? Hockney emphasizes that a human hand is still making the marks or brush strokes and that even using these devices is not all that easy, but this does dispel the notion that these artists were somehow able to achieve amazing perspective and ornate fabric without some "help."
    Are we "cheating" by manipulating photographs rather than sketching everything freehand?

    What do you think?

  • #2
    To the best of my knowledge, artists have been using the camera obscura to trace images since it was invented during the renaissance.

    So, my opinion is the art is in the Art, not in the technique used.
    Learn by teaching
    Take responsibility for learning


    • #3
      Are we "cheating" by manipulating photographs rather than sketching everything freehand?
      Speaking for myself if I could, I might be tempted to engage in the detailed process end-to-end (including the freehand sketching). I certainly admire those with those skills and the patience to exercise them.

      To me this is a hobby, a recreation if you will, and not to be taken too seriously compared to, say, cancer research or a cure for HIV. I engage in this so-called "art form" because it challenges what abilities I have and sometimes I actually generate results that are pleasing to others. Along the way I've learned a lot about Photoshop and as a result I'm able on occasion to offer assistance to others -- and sometimes it's actually correct.

      While I acknowledge that there are well thought out positions either way regarding whether or not this is "art" or the means of achieving it are ethical and/or qualifiy as artistic, quite frankly I'm from the whatever floats your boat school of thought and don't give it much pause. Perhaps all that "free love" during the 60's is taking its toll.

      Regardless of my point of view, John, I'm glad you started this thread (very interesting historical info) and posed the questions. Sometimes it's good for ol' geezers like me to take stock of our positions in life.

      Right now, I think I'll position myself for a cold Budweiser.



      - - - - - - - - -
      After posting this I reread my reply. I hope it doesn't come across as being dismissive. Not the intent at all. Just my .02 from the peanut gallery.


      • #4

        Thank you for the responses so far. As I've read a bit more in the book and am continuing to reflect, it's interesting to see how Hockney has analyzed some art masterpieces and has shown how they probably took smaller "tracings" and composited this together (due to the limitations of the lenses) to make a larger "painting" full of meaning and visual richness in some cases. Hockney is famous for his polaroid collages as well which is an interesting comparison to make.

        I tend to think that "art" crosses all boundaries and that it is too simplistic to dismiss one approach as "cheating" and some other as "art." It's quite possible to sketch something freehand which is mundane and not moving while a touched up photo is profound. It's also possible to have excellent technical prowess with a pencil or brush but not to have much to say. I tend to have a lot I want to express but don't have the skill with a brush, but I find manipulating colors and images on the computer really fulfilling and easier to work with.

        Hockney seems to really acknowledge the power of the computer and he addresses the interaction of technology with the "freehand" brush. He has a timeline showing how the rise of the prisms & mirrors aided technical accuracy. This, and eventually photography, created a backlash in the nineteenth century whereby the impressionists and cubists sought to consciously avoid this "technical" accuracy and wanted to show that perception extends beyond the "snapshot" of reality through a photograph.

        Hockney makes some interesting observations that we now have the power to manipulate imagery in a way that transcends both the traditional "brush" versus "photograph" debate in ways we have yet to fully explore. I like his approach and feel a certain freedom that I don't have to follow one approach or another in the creation or appreciaton of art.


        • #5
          My step father trained at the same school of art in London as David Hockney. Harry (step father) is an amazing artist who currently is into water colours. He's 89 this year. He would love to get into the computer aided side of design if he had the time, but he spends most of his day painting still life and landscapes.

          Since he is classically trained as an artist, his ability with the stylus and tablet surpasses most people. Though he only tried it out briefly, I think he sees it as an expansion of his abilities. He's supportive of computer generated art. He said he wishes he had a computer during his years as a graphic designer. Harry groans when he thinks about how much time it took to put down letraset or hand impress the type on an advertisement.

          I am in awe of Harry's abilities and wish I had a tenth of his artistic eye.


          • #6
            An interesting article on Vermeer's possible use of a camera obscura - Vermeer's Camera

            My opinion is pretty simple- As long as an artist knows when to deviate from the photographic image for the sake of color, composition, etc... it's art. If you simply seek to imitate nature in exacting detail, it might still be "art" but probably not very interesting. So, starting with a photo is not "cheating" by any means. It just gives a good starting point. I can draw realistically very well, but it got pretty boring after a while and just became a chore. So, anything that helps an artist remove the mundane labor and get to the fun part is ok in my book!


            • #7
              I, too, am from the *whatever floats your boat* school. Art in itself is nothing without people to percieve it. How you arrive at your image/sculpture/music is unimportant. Acheiving communication is.
              There is no cheating. If we had to wait until we found a new way of doing somethng, I fear we would miss out on alot of beautiful things. Is using an old technique, learned form a master cheating ? I think not.
              CG is just another way to get there. It`s all about self expression. anything you need to do to get there ( short of stealing it) is cool with me.
              And of course, I enjoy the learning process. Finding new ways to achieve an certain effect/mood/emotion is a good thing.
              It`s a shame I waited until I was 40 to feel this way. I lost alot of learning time in there.
              So, in short, my take is : Don`t avoid a technique because a
              * serious * artist may distain you for it. If it relays your message, do it.


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