David Hockney: Drawing From Life

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday September 30, 2020

This interview is extracted from the one he did with curator Sarah Howgate in September 2019 when David Hockney: Drawing from Life was showing at the National portrait Gallery, London. The exhibition opens at The Morgan Library & Museum on Thursday, October 2, and continues through January 17, 2017. Info.  Above: David Hockney. My Parents and Myself, 1976. Copyright David Hockney

The artist and curator began by talking about the artist’s preoccupation with Rembrandt’s drawings.

David Hockney: Photographic portraits are Ok but no one is as good as Rembrandt. Rembrandt shows more in the face than anybody before or since I think. He was a great draughtsman and he could draw any way [he wanted].

Sarah Howgate: Rembrandt’s drawings have influenced your new portraits—you’re even using the same walnut brown colored ink that he used.

DH: I’ve always been influenced by him a bit but even more so recently. I had the six-volume Benesch catalogues that illustrate the drawings but in the new Taschen books the images are bigger and more detailed. And this is the reason I started copying Rembrandt…because you can see all Rembrandt’s marks…Of course my drawing [here, of a horse] isn’t an exact copy of a Rembrandt. Some of the animals he drew from memory—his visual memory must have been fantastic, like Picasso’s.

Left: David Hockney. Gregory, 1978. Copyright David Hockney

SH: Do you think artists had a better visual memory before photography?

DH: Yes, well I’ve got a pretty good visual memory but Rembrandt must have had a fantastic one….Look at that man reaching into his pocket, you can see he’s reaching deep down. There’s humour in that drawing—it’s all very human, isn’t it? Every artist needs to use the hand, the eye and the heart, two won’t do. In Rembrandt you get all three every time…..on masters drawing like Rembrandt did. Everything, even the smallest sketch involves the human heart….

SH: …I’ve noticed that in your recent sketchbooks you’ve drawn on every page, front and back, and worked right to the edge of the paper.

DH: Paper wasn’t very large when Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo were working and so they had to use every bit of it. There [are] all kinds of different drawings on the same page. Most artists now when they use a sketchbook don’t draw on the back of the page and I wanted to because I see the sketchbook as one work. 

I’ve drawn two sketchbooks this year [the first one in Normandy]. Then I started a sketchbook which I took everywhere and drew. Then, when I came back to France, there [was] a gap of about eight days and then I started again on one here. I actually filled it, the whole thing, every page.

SH: What do you think about including your Los Angeles and Normandy sketchbooks in the exhibition because they’re a form of self-portrait?

DH: Well, it’s the same for every artist, isn’t it? Their work has got to be about themselves, their interpretation of the world, and what they’re looking at. I’m well aware that most people don’t look closely at things. Maybe they’ve got something else to do….

SH: I’ve read that your mother was a good sitter.

DH: Yes, she was. My Father wasn’t, he couldn’t sit still for that long and he’d always pick up a book, so in the end I had him reading a book in the painting,…

SH: [Lucien] Freud would often start in the centre of the face and spiral out. Where do you usually begin a portrait?

DH: I usually start with the eyes and the nose. They’re the things that give us our individuality—I mean I know the whole body does as well but every face is different, like every tree.

Right: David Hockney, Self-Portrait, 26th September, 1983. Copyright David Hockney

SH: And you’ve spoken before about how people are mysterious to you. Do you think the people you’ve known for a very long time like Celia [Birtwell,textile/fashion designer], Gregory [Evans, curator], and Maurice [Payne, master printer] are still mysterious?

DH: Yes, we are mysterious beings. The cause of death is birth, isn’t it? That’s a Buddhist idea. I’ll tell you what’s very profound, a remark by Edvard Munch on photography: “Photography cannot compete with painting, because it cannot deal with heaven or hell. It’s always the here and now.” I thought that was a very good observation.

Note: The book that accompanies the exhibition, David Hockney: Drawing from Life features Hockney’s drawings from the 1950s to the present day, and focuses on his depictions of himself and a small group of sitters close to him. Featuring 150 beautifully reproduced works from public and private collections across the world, this publication traces the trajectory of Hockney’s drawing practice by examining how he has revisited these...figures throughout his career. Highlights include a series of new portraits, colored pencil drawings created in Paris in the early 1970s, composite Polaroid portraits from the 1980s and a selection of drawings from an intense period of self-scrutiny during the 1980s when the artist created a self-portrait every day for two months. Info

David Hockney (born 1937) is considered one of the most celebrated British contemporary artists. Hockney studied at the Bradford School of Art and the Royal College of Art with R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier. Graduating with a gold medal, he became a leading figure in pop art. His work encompasses drawing, painting, printmaking, photography and stage design.

David Hockney: Drawing from Life opens at The Morgan Library & Museum on Thursday, October 2, and continues through January 17, 2017. Info The Museum is hosting a regular schedule of online events from Gallery Tours to Sketching from Life for the duration of the exhibition. Info

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