A brush with the hawk
All this week we will be turning over the cover of G2 to some of Britain's leading artists. David Hockney kicks off our series with an exclusive self portrait. He tells Andrew Marr why a brush captures reality better than a camera - and then paints him.

Monday January 6, 2003
The Guardian

"Once Hockney starts 'eyeballing' - his word - his face tautens and the stare is like a hawk's.' Andrew Marr, on his experience of being painted by Hockney.
ˇ¤ Images from Hockney's sketchbooks

David Hockney laughs, pulls open a wooden drawer and rummages through scores of identical small black books. He pulls one out, checks the first page for a date, and throws it over. It turns out to be the visual record of a few recent days in London - small, fast sketches recording his journey on the top deck of a number nine bus, then visits to exhibitions, a record of a funeral service at the Brompton Oratory, a couple of hours with the plaster casts in the V&A, a restaurant meal with friends, Hyde Park corner and an Evening Standard headline reflected in a silver bowl he'd just bought. Each one is done with a nylon Japanese watercolour brush. They are the kind of thing you might expect to find in a museum of Manet's effects.

He draws all the time, when he isn't smoking and talking, which he also does a lot. He has a shrewd sense of what his drawing is worth to a greedy world: these notebooks include plenty of sketches across two pages, and are done on both sides, so "they can't tear them up" and mount them for selling one day. Other notebooks are crammed with Norwegian and Icelandic landscapes, friends' faces, cars parked in the street, the statue of Lord Holland in his local park, lovers spotted in the street. They form a personal diary for Hockney's past year in Britain, the longest he has been away from the US since 1978.

How had he found it? "I watched the spring, which I hadn't watched for 22 years - in California you get a spring but it's very subtle. Here, especially because I was sitting for Lucian [Freud] and every morning I was walking up through Holland Park, I watched the light being different every day, and the shapes of the trees were changing, their lines and masses, and I watched it with some fresh excitement." He has spent the year saturating himself in exhibitions, and painting, and drawing, and painting.

We meet in his London studio and home. It is grey outside, but the big, whitewashed rooms are bright in scarlets and pinks and yellows, from the cushions and covers to the Hockney paintings on every wall. He is generous with his time. Once he is relaxed his conversation is rich - spry but also more learned and veering towards that dangerous word, wise. Freud's portrait shows a meaty mass and determination far removed from the bleached art-angel of his early self-images.

On the table is a copy of the magazine ArtReview, which has published a list of the "power 100" movers and shakers in the art world. David Graves, Hockney's assistant, whose face is familiar from years of pictures, tosses it over with a grin. There is only one artist in the top 10, Gerhard Richter, and only seven in the entire list, including Hockney. All the rest are dealers, collectors, trustees or "supremos". Way out in front is the man the magazine calls King Charles Saatchi, the Croesus-collector of Britart, who is opening his own gallery across the river from the Commons in the old GLC building this spring.

Hockney is wry about the lack of makers of images on the list. What, he wonders, is art? Is it anything the collectors decide? Does it any longer have a connection to the craft skills of image-making? Later he says: "You need all kinds of art and all kinds of artists, but there are certain things you can teach people, techniques that need a certain amount of discipline and practice; and to abandon it seems quite strange." Hockney lights a Turkish cigarette and quotes a thought from David Freeburg's book The Power of Images: "When the history of art parts company with the history of images, the power is with images - and art becomes just a small thing."

As for himself, "I just say that I am interested in painting and drawing and picture-making, meaning, including photography." But he thinks the art world has become brittle and fragile, with too much power in the hands of too few.

As one of the world's most popular serious artists, he can afford to say this. Hockney has been a living conundrum to many in the art world. He is defiantly a drawer and painter, yet someone also associated with experiments in photography and computer art. Then, about three years ago, he suddenly turned art historian, with a radical and controversial book Secret Knowledge, which suggested that old masters of western painting had very often used optical devices - in effect, cameras without chemical fixative - to help them achieve their extraordinary effects. Now he is back with a surge of new painting in what the art world regards as the most reactionary, amateur-colonised medium of all, watercolour.

But it connects. It all makes sense. What has Hockney done so far? In brief, he has upended a torrent of images into the world - from his wunderkind Royal College of Art days, with his pop art paintings of Typhoo tea packets, gay love and American landscapes, through his etchings in the spirit of Hogarth, his famous LA swimming pools and beachfronts, his meticulous acrylic and oil portraits, then massive photo-collages, leading him into exuberant retakes on cubist perspective, the paintings of journeys, the extraordinary opera sets, the computer drawings, the fantasy landscapes of his "Very New Paintings" and his more recent flower studies, again recalling late Manet.

Then in 1999 he was intrigued by some miraculous little pencil drawings of tourists in Rome by Ingres, in the National Gallery's Ingres exhibition. This triggered something in him, a long-held suspicion. Had Ingres used optical help? Hockney began to pursue the use of mirrors and lenses by artists from the 1430s right up to the 19th century. As a practising artist, he began to notice what most professional art historians seemed not to have done - the curiously large number of left-handed people in European art, the strange distortions of torsos, the narrow, harshly-lit field of view in early realist still lives, the shadows on crinkled paper that are highlit by cameras, not the human eye, and much else that is easily explained only once one accepts that old masters like van Eyck, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Velazquez and Hals were using lenses to get their effects. Put it another way: they were using photography, just without the chemistry which enabled the image to survive.

To test the idea, Hockney had a camera lucida made for himself - a small, portable lens that can be used to produce an upside-down image of, say, a face, allowing the artist to note down the key proportions. This is what he thought Ingres had done. It took some practice, and the drawing then had to be completed in his own style, freehand, or "eyeballed", as he likes to say. But he produced more than 200 camera lucida-effected drawings, including of the security staff of the National Gallery, and published all his evidence in Secret Knowledge.

Artists, he believed, had kept most of this quiet because "they played down the craft; they wanted status". Status needs mystery. Why had no one spotted this? "Art historians are not involved in image-making, so they can't read marks." Once chemical photography took over, photos and films became our accepted western idea of reality, colonising the rest of the world. Artists responded by trying to find alternatives; hence impressionism, cubism, abstract art and today's conceptual art. But "there is a hunger for images... the desire to depict is very deep and ancient." And today a photography-dominated system of pictures - and Hockney means our whole culture, from the bus-stop ads, to news pictures and Hollywood films - has become dull. "Television makes everywhere look the same." Only real image-makers can free us again.

"It's too boring, that's the point. It's not real enough... No wonder people are bored - they can't see how rich [the world] is, how beautiful it is." He has concluded after many trials that computers, faxes and all the glossy gear of the digital age are simply not sophisticated enough. Printing ink is not paint, and lacks its subtle gradations. Nor can any machine reproduce the complex and delicate movements of "elbow, wrist, body-weight and those pressures" produced by freehand drawing. As for photographs, they have lost trust, now we all know they can be so easily digitally altered; and they are a less-good picture of reality anyway. He had been looking at Montagne Sainte-Victoire, repeatedly painted by C¨¦zanne: the mountain looked more like C¨¦zanne's, nearer and richer, than it looked like photographs of it.

So what does this mean for his own art? "Secret Knowledge purged me. It purged all the photography that had taken 20 years." It now seems that his wholesale rewriting of art history has become a kind of weapon in a bigger war, his fight for the future of drawing and painting, both against the kind of reactionary realist painters you see advertised in the back of The Spectator and against the modern academy. To boil the argument down brutally, you have to stop thinking about "art" and start thinking about images - their freshness, their power.

Hockney's range of references and his enthusiasm as he elaborates his vision of the interrelated history of lenses, photography and art, are impossible to reproduce faithfully. As he smokes and talks, we move from St Augustine and the Second Commandment, to Picasso's skilful photography in the early 1900s, to van Eyck's blurring of green and red lines, to Napoleon, Danish art, Raeburn and collections of Octavius Hill photographs in Edinburgh. But it seems to me that his underlying point is that images are power, and that society, never mind artists, forgets this at its peril. Today, power has moved instead to the television and film empires, the digital manipulators of imagery. "Mr Berlusconi today actually has made his billions from mirrors and lenses. There's a continuum which you can see." Just as western art was a way of seeing which colonised mankind's imagination, so television, he says, "is the western way of seeing the world and it dominates the world today".

So he has returned to drawing and painting. More controversially, to that version of drawing and painting that has been derided for a century as the refuge of the weekend painter, the timid stippler: watercolours. Last year, Hockney went to Norway and Iceland to search for the long, colour-saturated twilights that you never see in California. "I have gone back to painting - with marks - nothing optical. When I travelled this summer I wouldn't look through cameras - it makes you look in a certain way, to keep framing things." And certainly the new landscapes on show this month are wholly unphotographic, first in scale but also in the simple, intense colour-schemes, and the insistence on clearly marked, brushed surfaces.

The same goes for the full-length watercolour portraits he began in the summer and is continuing, some singles, many doubles and now a few triples too. Doing series of portraits has become something of a recent Hockney theme. He did a quickly-painted set of small oils in 1988-9 ("Almost none of the sitters liked them - I suppose they're not very flattering"); the photographic series of 1990, done in California with a digital video stills camera and a Xerox machine, the oil heads of 1996-7 which formed part of his first Annely Juda show in London, and the camera lucida drawings of 1999-2000.

But the watercolour portraits mark another fresh start, not just because of the absence of optics. As Hockney points out, there is no tradition of large watercolour portraiture, probably because of the technical difficulties. This I was about to see for myself. After a couple of earlier conversations, Hockney had asked whether I might sit for him. He wanted all the hours of daylight a bleak London winter day would allow. In the event, we talked for too long and he was clearly a little irritated at himself for the waste of precious light.

In his working studio, the walls are covered with earlier portraits, against a neutral back drop. Large skylight windows allow a stream of what granular light London in December permits. There's a scattering of chairs and a large easel. One of the first technical problems is that watercolour paper can buckle, particularly large sheets, so Hockney decided to paint using several of the largest paper pads he could find arranged in a rectangle.

He sat me down, stared, grunted and mixed four glass pots of water and paint. It evaporates a little overnight, he explained, so needs to be refreshed. He took up a large brush and spent perhaps 10 minutes simply testing the tone of his blue and pink washes. Then he took one of the pads from the easel, set it flat on a table, and began to work. The problem is that watercolour drips, or runs, so is best done flat; yet one naturally draws with the paper semi-vertical. So Hockney made his fast drawing lines at the easel, capturing the body in a remarkably short time, and then worked on his washes with the paper flat.

I found it disconcerting. The portrait was done quickly. Even so, it took perhaps five hours of concentrated looking. When in ordinary life does anyone stare at us for that kind of time? And this was no ordinary looking. Once Hockney starts "eyeballing" - his word - his face tautens and the stare is like a hawk's. With his left eye closed much of the time, the right eye flicks up for perhaps two seconds' staring, then down at the paper for two seconds' brushwork - and this goes on without stopping for a couple of hours. He seems very young-looking, almost predatory. After a while, I found myself thinking about my face not as a surface but as a crawling maze of little muscles and gravitational pulls. I felt as if I was being stripped. Odd noises filled the silence - the scratching of a wildly over-excited collie dog at the door, the dripping of a tap, carpentry sounds from a nearby house. Hockney occasionally lit another cigarette, or stubbed one out on the floor, with his claret-coloured slippers.

Yet it was not quite peaceful: there was tension in the air. Hockney had already explained that whereas in oil or acrylic painting, the dark areas are painted in first, and he builds up to the lighter ones, finishing with a white highlight or two, in watercolour everything is reversed. Because the paper itself is the lightest tone, he must start with the highlights, then the brightest areas of the face, only putting on the deeper washes later. Also, of course, there is no overpainting to disguise mistakes: every mark he makes remains visible in the finished painting. One slip, one mistake of tone, and the whole thing can be ruined. So it is like painting backwards. It is a highwire act.

Nor is this about trying to achieve an optical illusion. Every one of these portraits is a psychological essay too, and the double portraits are telling about the relationship between the sitters. For the record, though mine was hardly an act of visual flattery, I thought it psychologically brilliant; I felt myself "caught" as I had not seen myself before. In general, Hockney says, it will take sitters a long time to realise just how good the portraits of them really are. He asked me if I liked mine, before quickly and matter-of-factly adding that he thought it was good, and that was what mattered.

One of his sitters was Lucian Freud. He gave Hockney only a few hours and was a difficult subject, losing attention and twisting about. His portrait of Hockney by contrast took some hundred hours of sitting - Hockney says he wouldn't have done it for anyone else, but admires the result. "Second-rate painters make paintings that look like photographs. But photographs are not a scrutiny at all. What Lucian did was to make an intense scrutiny through time, layered through different expressions, which of course no photograph can do." Visual memory becomes hugely important, because every face moves.

Later this year, Hockney goes back to California, though he wants to spend more time in Britain, perhaps the springs and summers. He likes it here again, though not because of the political climate. He is suspicious of the war against Iraq, and of the practicality of a wider Europe. He took part in a summer Countryside Alliance rally not because he's an enthusiast for fox-hunting but on libertarian grounds. He marched under a placard reading "End Bossiness Now" but decided it was a little too peremptory, not quite British, so changed the slogan on subsequent badges, to "End Bossiness Soon."

Because of his partial deafness, Hockney watches television rarely and looks at its images rather than its messages. He had been much struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture, or rather his face, seeing the Primate at the TV podium as "standing like a Netherlandish portrait" but with his face moving through time, rather than held by memory. In general, he is a hard looker and sees what most of us miss: Cherie Booth's eyes, for instance, he says, show white all round the pupil, a condition called "sanpaku", quite rare, denoting some ailment of mind or body. Princess Diana had it too, Hockney says: "The cartoonists notice it, but the commentators don't." (He is, for the record, a big fan of Steve Bell.)

The art elite tend to see Hockney as a bit safe, a bit comfortable. He strikes me as neither of the above, but as a radical individualist, with a good pint of Bradford awkwardness still in his blood. Above all, he is now the self-appointed leader of the rebellion against our photographic age, "the way", quite literally, "nobody sees the world." As our conversation ended, he said he was particularly fond of a Chinese saying, that "art requires three things: the hand, the eye and the heart." He pauses, and laughs again: "That's good, isn't it? Two won't do."

ˇ¤ David Hockney Painting on Paper will be on show at Annely Juda fine art in London from January 17 to March 1. And from January 16, five new double portraits go on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

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