Dear Artist,

He says he likes to do it in his car, or in bed, at dawn. He works at it by practicing writing very big and very small, by zooming in on still life subjects and sending flower doodles to his friends before they’re awake. For his efforts, he’s hailed as an early adopter, an agent of the new or inspirer of complaints about a medium incapable of authenticity, though the Brushes app has handily lived in the toolkit of designers and commercial artists since inception.


“Self-portrait, 20 March 2012″
Collection of the artist © David Hockney

At the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, 79-year-old David Hockney’s work of the last ten years hangs like a manufacturing line: eye-level rows of iPhones and iPads, glowing cheerfully with a promise of intimacy and detail. These illusions mimic the aliveness of brush-toil and atmospheric depth but, at nose-length, as swipes of stylus and fingertip, they morph into characterless, posterized wobbles. Some are near-perfect in their slickness — others are animated to show the building progression of a drawing. In spite of this modernity, unveiled are the marks of a master draftsman and composition builder.


“Country Road in East Yorkshire”
iPad drawing by David Hockney
photo by Carolyn McDowall

“But is it painting?” I mumble, dragging my knuckles into an adjoining room hung with oversized inkjet printouts — wall-to-wall grids of blown-up landscapes originally born at iPhone size. “Must I yearn for evidence of analog grit? What’s wrong with digital joy? What am I longing for?” I studied the colour bounce of a deadly phthalo green and magenta and scanned its smoothness for painterly life. “In the end nobody knows how it’s done — how art is made. It can’t be explained. Optical devices are just tools. Understanding a tool doesn’t explain the magic of creation. Nothing can.” (David Hockney)



hockney_ipad-painting2PS: “Any artist will tell you he’s really only interested in the stuff he’s doing now. He will, always. It’s true, and it should be like that.” (David Hockney)

Esoterica: David Hockney was born in 1937 in Bradford, England and studied at Royal College of Art in London, where he forged with fellow students a new movement called “Pop.” After a few visits to California in the early ’60s, he bought a house in Nichols Canyon in Los Angeles and set up what would be, along with homes in England and Malibu, a lifelong studio. Hockney has painted en plein air, portraiture, landscapes and abstraction, made prints, photo collages and designed sets for theatre and opera. He’s also pursued in his art a passion to trace the role of technology in art from the use of a 15th century optical device, called camera lucida, to slide projection, video cameras, LEDs and the now ubiquitous, democratizing iPhone. “I’ve been able to practice the iPad a lot in the last few years… and I’ve really loved mastering it.” (David Hockney)

hockney1162358-1_ogDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist if you didn’t want to share an experience, a thought.” (David Hockney)



  1. As a working fiber artist- no digital technology can replicate / reproduce / re-anything the tactile and textural nature of fiber. Its physical presence in a room can’t be re-created digitally. It’s not flat. It’s why I’ve not bought into digital tech. I think it’s cool- as I think all art mediums are cool- but I can’t afford it and I don’t care to re-frame my own art creation experience to adapt to it. And so even if I’m typing to you all on digital tech- I’m not married to my tech- and I don’t live here 24/7 either. But!
    “What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist if you didn’t want to share an experience, a thought.” (David Hockney) So- the next gallery exhibition.
    “Whenever I think god is watching I sing and dance and do a commercial for myself.” (Edith Ann)
    J. Bruce Wilcox
    The North Gallery @ Spark
    900 Santa Fe Drive- Denver Colorado
    Lydia Brokaw / Mary Mackey in the Main Gallery
    Opening next Thursday- January 12th
    I’m working every Thursday- noon to 5 pm and every Friday from 4 to 9 pm
    All artists on site every Friday night
    January 13: Opening Reception- 6 to 9 pm
    January 20: Collectors Night / Art District on Santa Fe
    January 27: CORE WAC Reception next door
    February 3: First Friday

    • the tools are rather irrelevant – the final “art ” is what counts – did anyone ever ask Rembrandt if he used a size x sable brush ?
      If the artwork speaks to you -nothing else really matters.

  2. Karen Robinson on

    I love Hockney’s work, even though it is so not how I want to work myself. I love the colour and vibrancy and fluidity and joy of it. Always, it is what he is trying to say that matters to me – the medium he uses doesn’t really matter to me, or even much change my response. Having said that, I would find an exhibition of only digital work a bit tiresome. His Bigger Message paintings – the huge trees at Warter and so on – are fabulous and I love these above all. He is also awesome with charcoal. Oh to be so versatile..

    • Vida Newington on

      I have followed David Hockney’s work since the sixties when as a student I was blown away by his honesty a real Yorkshire lad” What you see is what you get”. I first learned about homosexuality from his work and by reading books written by his friend Christopher Isherwood and began to understand that diversity is acceptable. Seeing his work for the first time in a Bond street gallery and looking at the fresh sensitive approach inspired me to continue in art education. I have always loved his work and his constant curiosity to embrace all that’s new including technology. I come from the area of East Yorkshire that he came from and am amazed at the tremendous value in his later years he has placed on the scenery there. Believe me before him nobody ever looked twice at East Yorkshire but only the beloved Yorkshire Dales and North Moors area. If you ever get a chance to visit Saltaire Yorkshire he has given back to his home community by purchasing floors in an old mill on the ground floor is the most enormous Art bookstore you will ever see. It’s gorgeous massive antique tables covered in volumes. In the centre of many of the tables and around the room are massive vases filled with fresh lilies shipped in weekly from Holland. Scattered around are various artworks from some of his opera sets etc. It is a magical place. On the higher floors there’s a restaurant named after his dog “Salts” and an ever changing exhibition floor of his artwork. To me he has guided me towards my own older age and helped me value the beauty there is not just here on the West coast but everywhere and the need to adapt to change and stay curious for life.

    • Hockney lost it years ago. Get real and seriously look at his latest work. It really is very badly painted and boring in the extreme. I don’t consider myself a fine artist and neither do I wish to be but surely there is more worthwhile work out there to discuss than this.

  3. How tempted are we to look at anyones work and think how we can get to that particular level, or do that particular thing, stroke, etc.? We can admire others work and in the beginning try to work like them after trying to figure out what it was they were doing. But we can’t. No more can we sit at the drums and play like Mingus, can we paint like someone else, and be happy. Tools are very specific. No tool is limitless. They all have a unique language. We can learn how to speak with a thumbtack, but it best be our words. Thanks, Sara.

  4. Winter, and once again I find myself stumbling forward after looking downward and backward a bit too long. Those moments of contraction and uncertainty can give me a much needed boost of creative sharpness if I notice them, and send them back where they came from. Always guides are waiting for my acknowledgment so they can give their encouragement and those necessary boosts of an eternal viewpoint. (Now is your beginning.) By consciously dusting off dreams and living them in my mind, I once again take control. I hear the gentle silent whispers. “Look up! Create!”

    • David Hockney’s Art tells the truth about the times we live in – ‘a visual story’ that speaks to me in a very convincing way, because it’s told with somebody of almost 80 years of experience on this earth. I think I will need to write a post about his art at my blog http://www.bigarttheory.com, as his art is both engaging and inspiring.

  5. Certainly food for thought. I have been to see some of the most famous art in the world and am in awe of what those Masters created. Certainly if you had wealth you could at least have your portrait done to leave your image or likeness left to say you existed. Now with photography, having a portrait painted to record your exhistance is no longer necessary. The Night Watch by Rembrandt, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, those speak volumes of history, and certainly talent. Cell phones on a wall or three stripes on a canvas which the painter (sorry I can’t call him an artist) got a million dollars for, is not what I recognize as art. I painted a Lowland Gorilla whose eyes look back at me and it brings me satisfaction to know I created that piece and that it will exist when I am gone. Do we create art for financial gain or self expression? We can certainly buy a reproduction of any of those famous paintings to hang in our own homes. I don’t ever think digital art will take over and replace an original painting but who knows, the world is changing so quickly and what was once the norm is no longer. Just my musings. Tina

  6. I love computers. Make my living using digital photography. Composition I learned through visual art and painting on canvas. We live in some spectacular times…where you can combine passion, talent and experience and thrive. Did Neanderthals wonder if the marks in a cave were art? Was there a debate?

    The one thing that is certain is all things change. Nothing stands still or lasts forever. One big super Nova near our planet and even technology is gone. The ability to adapt in these fast moving times has powerful value. Kudos to David Hockney.

    • Angelika you are right on, forward thinking and not living in the past. Moving forward is very difficult for a purist who has lived their life perfecting a craft. Craft is not the end of the journey, but only a part of it. I wish that I knew what art is, but I am not sure. I just try to get my thoughts and feelings on paper and satisfy myself in some way. Medium means nothing to me and I have worked in them all. I have embraced the medium of digital and don’t ask that it duplicates or takes the place of oil. It is an awesome medium and should be embraced for what it can do for the creative person. Go for it and enjoy. Don’t make roadblocks for your art.

  7. Helen Suzanne on

    Personally I don’t like it. There I’ve said it! For some reason everyone feels compelled to be nice about this form of art. It gives me a poorly captured amateurish feel this ipad thing, who ever does it (this is not digital art in general, just the ipad stuff with it’s limited poor quality effort at giving us digital brushwork). Working in this medium his responses are no longer any different from anyone else who captures a sketch on the ipad. It’s the very nature of the medium that makes it this way. It’s smooth calculations of colour distribution wipe away any chance of user influence of the subtleties available in other mediums, making a bland ipad statement not an individual artist statement. Gone are the myriad of variables which the artist controls to make something unique with their own personal stamp. It may be directed by an artist but it’s not produced by an artist. It’s as if we’ve skipped the exhibition of real live art and gone straight to the magazine reproduction. A facsimile of an idea.

    • While I would agree in part with many of your points, Helen, the times they are a changin’ even for digital art. Take a look at Rebelle and Expresii, programmes designed to emulate watercolour and Chinese brush and ink methods, respectively. Simply amazing programmes that allow the user to flood a wash of different colours onto the paper, tilt it, watch it run, mingle and mix. Then add wet-into-wet or wet-into dry paints…. It simply is no longer a slapped-down one flat pixellated colour that artists use….

      • Artrage is another programme that allows total expression of creative juices, where brushes can be created, and paint blended and mixed. I can lose myself on the screen just as I can at a canvas, and then travel through to my high quality printer to produce limited edition prints. Getting the works colour matched and onto quality art paper requires further knowledge of the process. It takes a lot of practice and ability to produce a beautiful piece of work; it’s just different …. and can be as intimidating as any other untried method.

  8. I loved it. The joy of creating is palpable. Art does not need to be stuffy, and yes, this is art. The iPad is a tool you can carry wherever you go- and you can still make messy, tactile work in the studio. More tools, more joy!

  9. I have found my iPad and drawing app to be a marvelous tool! I mostly make fabric art, and use the iPad for preliminary sketches, color tryouts, what-ifs… at different points in construction of a fabric work, I take a photo, pull it into the app and consider changes or next steps by quickly drawing in a different background, cropping the image, adding or subtracting pieces and parts, then squinting and adjusting until I have a feel for what might work before ripping into the original work. My digital efforts have become another sketchbook. I saw the David Hockney exhibit in San Francisco two years ago and loved the quick digital work. It isn’t painting or an imitation of painting—it is what it is and that is all. And shared work is always a gift.

    • I started using my ipad as a sketchbook when travelling in India a few years ago and it has gone on several trips. I haven’t found the way or the interest to print the images although I share some electronically and have been asked to do so and I have included some in my photo albums of travels. They are part of the memory and record. I also use the ipad as a problem-solving tool. I often take a photo in the studio of painting in process, load it in app and can work on it in other venues, resting in the evening, lying in bed, a few minutes here and there, often finding an idea to take back to the studio. It is a different medium which takes some learning but can do a lot.

  10. Does David Hockney sell these works. What do the purchasers get – a digital file. What rights do they acquire – to make an infinite number of hard copies or just display it on their own iPad. It becomes such a complicated thing, not like buying a piece of canvas with paint arranged on it.

  11. Thank you for posting this about David Hockney. He is one of my favorite contemporary artists. He is so creative and is able to experiment with many ideas and mediums. One of the most creative people of our time.
    Diane Clapp Bartz

  12. Thank you Sara. Perfect timing. I’m going down next week to see this exhibition. I’ve always loved David Hockney since I was given a calendar of his (mostly) swimming pool works in the 1980s. I think of him often during my daily swim!

  13. Elizabeth Gallant on

    I saw an exhibit at the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain in 2012. There was a nice blend of his paint and paper work with his digital work and it gave me a better appreciation of the digital. Would I want his digital art? Probably not, but I did enjoy the exhibit.

  14. Thank you so much Sara for your post; it inspired me to go and see his exhibition – which I just have. I loved it and I loved the queries it opened up in me: about what constitutes art, the place of digital etc – everything others have said on this post. There were some clear insights that jumped out to me from my viewing of his work, as follows:

    – His portraits are flat (these are acrylic, not digital), which I saw as a problem, but then in a speech Hockney made in the exhibition, he comments that you have to acknowledge ‘flat’ and that ‘flat’ always exists; interesting.
    – Many of the subjects of his painting are in the centre of painting – which I’ve been taught to avoid doing; yet they worked; again, interesting.
    – I loved his vibrant use of colours and how he, for example, managed to get reflections with non logical colour
    – ipad and iPhone drawings illustrate well the advantage of acrylic/oil painting of being able to put paint on top of paint. You can’t do that with watercolor (my medium) except in dry wash, you can’t cover what’s underneath. I knew this but the time lapse videos demonstrated this very well.
    – He reminded me about the important relationship between space and time
    – I surmised – with surprise actually – that nothing’s ‘wrong’ when producing art, it’s all expression, regardless of the medium, process or practice (to me anyway)
    – There was only one African American person featured in the portraits
    – He reminded me my hardest lesson: never be frightened of taking risks! I came back and did a Hockney-inspired self portrait; put it on my Facebook page and promptly took it off! So I haven’t learned that one yet!!!!
    – He paints everything around him, still life observational drawings, nothing’s ‘too boring’
    – He said that he was always thinking ‘a little bit ahead’
    – He revers: Rembrandt, Picasso, Goya, Van Gough, and comments on them all being excellent draughtsman
    – He feels artists need to learn drawing, it teaches people to look.

    I was INSPIRED by visiting his exhibition, I felt – and feel – more alive; it gave me pleasure. Isn’t that what art is meant to achieve?

    I hope to hold what I’ve learned and experiment more myself. Thank you again Sara :-)

  15. I just got back from Australia and saw the Hockney show at the NGV on New Years Day – astonishing! Having been taught by Hockney in the sixties for a short time at UCI, I’ve followed his long career with interest, and the IPad work is definitely his best. He is a teacher most importantly, and his remarks about drawing and depiction were really well said on the headphone remarks and on the videos. Personally, I prefer his IPad & IPhone work to his acrylics, mainly because the medium of acrylics has limitations. This was made obvious by the companion show at the Ian Potter (also the NGV) of an Australian artist called John Olsen, who buttery, painterly oils of “This Beaut Country” were delicious. Oil painting will always win my heart – plus I don’t have Hockney’s remarkable work ethic to master the technology of the IPad!

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