These days I can usually tell where David Hockney is, what kind of weather he’s getting and maybe even how he’s feeling. Not from words, mind you, but from pictures that regularly show up in my inbox, drawings the artist has created on his iPad using an app called Brushes. Last September, when the images were of fir trees, steep slopes and mountain peaks, I guessed—correctly—that he was in Yosemite National Park. Earlier this year, after he’d been in bed with the flu, a picture of a foot on the floor beside a slipper indicated he was well enough to get up.
“The great thing about the iPad,” Hockney says, “is that it’s like a sketchbook, but you have everything you need with you all the time.” He tends to document his surroundings—the view from his window, his bathroom shelf, landscapes he visits, his dog, friends, anything that catches his attention—and the result is a sort of visual diary.
He sends me the drawings as part of an ongoing series of exchanges we’ve been having since 2006. Our conversations, conducted in person, over e-mail and by phone and text, are the subject of a book I’m writing, to be published by Thames & Hudson this fall. But I’m far from the only recipient of the 73-year-old artist’s creations, as he routinely sends them to friends. Most days he might even do several of them, most dashed off in five, maybe ten minutes.
Hockney has worked in many styles and media over the past five decades. In the 1960s his cool, witty paintings of Los Angeles life, which were often associated with Pop art but were really too personal and idiosyncratic for that label, quickly brought him international fame. In the ’70s and ’80s, at the same time he was designing brilliant productions for the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, he was also creating photo collages and pioneering work with early computer drawing programs and then-new gadgets such as the fax.
These days Hockney spends most of his time in the little seaside resort of Bridlington on Britain’s northeast coast, a couple of hours from Bradford, the town in which he was born. He relocated there in 2003 after 20 years in the Hollywood Hills, though he retains a house and a studio in Los Angeles. His work since then has been extreme in both ambition and contrast. Using an approach that dates back to the days of the Impressionists—painting outdoors in front of an easel—Hockney has created multipanel landscapes that are epic in scale. At the same time, he’s used 21st-century technology to make digital drawings as small as medieval miniatures. He is one of the first artists (and certainly the most famous) to seriously explore the possibilities of drawing on touch screens.
Starting with the iPhone in late 2008 and switching to the iPad a little more than a year later, Hockney has created hundreds of digital drawings. Though he doesn’t sell the works, he exhibits them. Some 400, displayed on multiple iPhones and iPads, were featured in a show at the Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris last fall, and roughly the same number are currently on view, through August 28, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, near Copenhagen, Denmark. (The show’s curator, Charlie Scheips, is also working on a book about the drawings.) The show’s Paris title, “Fleurs Fraîches” (in Denmark it’s called “Me Draw on iPad”), refers to the fact that many of the initial iPad drawings were of flowers, of roses, lilacs or lilies placed in a vase on Hockney’s bedroom windowsill by his partner, John Fitzherbert. “I drew in bed because I’ve got this lovely window, and the flowers were there and the light was changing,” Hockney says.
When he first started working on the iPhone, Hockney found painting with one finger awkward. It took him a few months of practice, but soon he began producing pieces that were marvelously free and fresh. He was even quicker to adopt the iPad: It went on sale on April 3, 2010, and by April 6 he had sent me his first iPad drawing. Eight times the size of the iPhone, the iPad’s larger scale allows Hockney to use all his fingers. Lately he has been working with a stylus as well, and his on-screen virtuosity has grown accordingly. While the iPhone drawings were loose and broad, some of the recent iPad images have been complex and highly polished.
But perhaps it’s not the way Hockney creates these pieces that is the most radical thing about them—it’s the way he sends them out. An original Hockney painting costs tens of thousands, even millions of dollars (his auction record stands at $7.9 million). But he freely distributes his digital drawings to close friends, who can forward them as they wish. Hockney has always been interested in the art market, he says, “in a subversive way.” One of postwar art’s major figures giving out his work gratis? That is revolutionary.
The Art of Hockney’s Technology
Though not “a mad technical person,” Hockney is always “interested in any technology to do with image making: printing, cameras, reproduction itself,” and consistently embraces new innovations as they emerge.
Early ’80s: Though the first gadget he picked up, the Polaroid, had been around since 1948, Hockney made innovative use of it with collages composed of dozens of snapshots.
1986: Hockney used photocopiers to create his “Homemade Prints” series. “People said they were just bad printing machines,” he says. “But I think there’s no such thing.”
Late ’80s: Using a fax machine, Hockney transmitted entire exhibitions to be assembled at the receiving end. “It’s like it is now with the iPad,” he says. “I sent them out to people.”
1987–91: Hockney experimented with early drawing software, including Quantel Paintbox, but found the systems too slow for convenient use.
1999–2001: Hockney did research on the camera lucida—using it to create portraits of attendants at London’s National Gallery—and other optical devices he believes were used by the Old Masters.
Late 2008: On his newly acquired iPhone, Hockney began using the Brushes app to create digital drawings. He switched to the iPad when it came out in early 2010.