Hockney’s iPad: How Technology Illuminates the Way We See

Xconomy National — 

The best painters don’t just make pretty, eye-catching pictures. They make us think about what it means to see. On the canvas, they must reduce the three dimensions of the living world to two—but if they’re good at it, they add a different kind of depth in the process.

David Hockney is very, very good at it.

A major exhibit of the iconic British painter’s recent work—David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition—just closed at the DeYoung Museum here in San Francisco. I was so drawn to the show that I braved the massive crowds twice.

Technology took center stage. The largest galleries in the exhibit were devoted to Hockney’s digital drawings of the East Yorkshire countryside, made using the Brushes app on his iPhone and iPad, and to his art videos, running on wall-sized displays. Plenty of Hockney’s more conventional watercolor and acrylic paintings were also on hand, but the DeYoung visitors—including a goodly number of school-age kids—seemed to linger longest in front of the videos. Those included a mesmerizing “Cubist movie” of a trip down a country lane, as well as animations captured by the Brushes app itself, which has the power to replay each brushstroke.

I came away from the show feeling that Hockney had given me a new perspective—quite literally—on one of the oldest problems in art: how to represent 3-D space on a 2-D surface in a way that’s intelligible and provocative.

In 2006, after three decades in Los Angeles, Hockney returned to his native Yorkshire. According to the interpretive material on the DeYoung’s walls, he spent the next few years looking for ways to represent the passage of time. And if you focused solely on what was shown in the works—mostly pastoral and woodland scenes captured in spring, summer, fall, and winter—you might actually have believed that. But if you looked beyond content to form and process, it was pretty clear that these paintings were actually about space, not time.

I think Hockney chooses to work in video and in digital media, rather than just watercolor or acrylic, because those tools are better for forcing the viewer to think about the problems of depth and point of view. Some critics have demeaned Hockney’s videos and tablet drawings as a form of dabbling—“Openness to technical innovation is one thing, art another,” the Guardian’s reviewer intoned. I strongly disagree. At age 76, Hockney still wants to change the way people see, and there’s no better way to do that than using the devices we’ve all got in our pockets and backpacks.

How can digital media open up our understanding of space and depth? Here’s one amateur critic’s theory (bear with me here; I’m a history PhD, not an MFA). In real life, we’re able to judge depth because we have two eyes, each seeing from a slightly different point in space. The resulting parallax helps our brains figure out which objects are occluding other objects—that is, which are foreground and which are background. But even a one-eyed man, bereft of parallax, can still infer depth. If you can see the top of a distant tree but the bottom is blocked by the roofline of a house, then it’s a good bet that the house is closer than the tree.

Our brains get so much practice at this that we can usually sort out the order of occlusion even when we’re looking at a static, non-stereo image like a photograph. Painters hijack these visual routines to mimic depth; artists like M.C. Escher deliberately confound our eyes by mixing up the layers.

Now, in an app like Brushes, if you want to give a painting the illusion of depth, you have to slow down, take your brain out of automatic mode, and think about which shapes belong to each layer. The only efficient method is to paint them from back to front. If you’re drawing a landscape, you start with the sky. Then you layer in the horizon. Then you add a row of trees. Then you paint the house, and then you paint the person standing on the porch.

"Yosemite II, October 5th 2011" © David Hockney

“Yosemite II, October 5th 2011” © David Hockney

This isn’t how you’d create an oil painting, because you’d waste too much time (and paint) covering up the background layers. And it would be absolutely impossible to create a watercolor this way, since everything in that unforgiving medium depends on translucency and having as few layers as possible. But on a tablet screen, you can add as many layers as you want—the software doesn’t care.

What’s particularly great about Brushes, a free, open-source app originally written by Silicon Valley software developer Steve Sprang, is that you can replay this process later and see how shapes get layered in and filled out, brushstroke by brushstroke. Watching a Brushes video made by a genius like Hockney is, almost literally, a look behind the curtain—even for Hockney himself (“Until I saw my drawings replayed on the iPad, I’d never seen myself draw,” he told the Telegraph). It reminds you that depth in a painting is a trick performed with nothing more than color, occlusion, and trigonometry.

Staring at the Hockney videos, I could feel my brain being jarred out of its automatic routines. When I stopped looking at the screen and turned back to the real world, it spoke to me in layers. Neurological processes that are usually hidden became briefly visible. I think that whether you’re an artist or not, you have to appreciate these small moments of perceptual self-consciousness.

Hockney’s videos have a similar effect. The most popular and crowded room at the DeYoung exhibition featured a three-by-three array of flat-screen displays on each of the four walls. They played a movie captured by nine separate cameras, documenting a four-minute drive down the same wooded East Yorkshire lane in spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Sure, the piece was about time—you had to stand there for 16 minutes to get the full experience. But it was also about space. The camera’s views didn’t quite line up, which made the movies feel like joiners, the Cubist photo collages Hockney was making in the 1980s. But more importantly—for my little theory, anyway—the videos changed slowly enough that they were akin to a painting, the only difference being that the cameras were moving gradually into the scene. Whatever tree branches or fence posts formed the distant background at Minute One didn’t stay there for long. By Minute Two they were in the middle distance, then at Minute Three they were in the foreground, and at Minute Four they passed entirely out of the frame. Meanwhile, a new set of background shapes had popped up to replace them. Layers again—just recorded a different way.

I hope this doesn’t make me sound like I’m stoned, but the amazing thing about being ambulatory is that there is an infinite supply of background. No matter how far you advance, you’ll never run out of it. (Unless you’re Truman Burbank, in which case your sailboat will, eventually, crash into the horizon.) If a painting or video that exists in two dimensions can remind you how wondrous it is to live in three, I think the creator has earned his keep for the day.

Hockney himself is obsessed with the problems of vision, technology, and dimensionality. He’s said to be suspicious of photography; “it’s all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops—for a split second. But that’s not how the world really is,” he says. Allegedly, he conceived the joiners in an attempt to overcome the camera’s limitations. At the same time, however, he thinks optical technology was key to the development of Western art. In his controversial 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, written with physicist Charles Falco, he argued that the invention of optical aids such as concave mirrors and the camera obscura helped to explain the true-to-life realism that showed up in European painting starting around 1420—and that the invention of chemical photography in the 1830s finally freed painters to return to more interpretive styles.

So it’s no surprise to see Hockney, even in his eighth decade, poking at issues of depth and space over and over in different media.

The DeYoung exhibit has ended, but there’s a wealth of video material about Hockney’s latest experiments on the Web, and Smithsonian Magazine published a terrific article back in September about the artist’s love affair with technology. The iPad paintings are the kind of publicity Apple couldn’t buy if it tried; it’s as if Ansel Adams had personally endorsed Kodak or Leica. But if it gets a new generation of museum-goers thinking about art and vision, I’m all for it.

The main image above shows the iPad drawing “Yosemite I, October 16th 2011”, © David Hockney, used by permission of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Here’s a video of a lecture on Hockney’s “timescapes,” presented by Lawrence Weschler (author of the Smithsonian article cited above) at the DeYoung Museum in October 2013.