Still working and exhibiting in his eighties, and indeed seeming to grow more and more productive with age, David Hockney has become a living symbol of what it is to live as an artist. This entails not just making a lot of paintings, or even making a lot of paintings with an immediately recognizable style under a well-cultivated image. It means constantly and instinctively converting the reality in which one lives into art, an activity evidenced by Hockney’s sketchbooks. In the video above, the artist himself shows his sketchbook from 2019, one of the sources of the work in the exhibition Drawing from Life held last year at the National Portrait Gallery. (To accompany the exhibition, Hockney published a book, also called Drawing from Life, which features 150 drawings from the 1950s to the present day.)
Focused on Hockney’s renderings of himself and those close to him, Drawing from Life could run for only a few weeks before the NPG had to close due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though filled up the previous year, the artist’s sketchbook depicts a quiet world of domestic spaces and unpeopled outdoor scenes that will look oddly familiar to many viewing it after 2020.
He even appears to have included in its pages an exercise in the style of Giorgio de Chirico, whose aesthetic prescience about our locked-down cities we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture. The Bradford-born Hockney’s American city of choice has long been Los Angeles, and certain of his sketches evoke its distinctive pockets of near-pastoral quietude amid urban massiveness.
As befits an internationally renowned artist, Hockney lives in more than one part of the world. It was at home in the more thoroughly pastoral setting of his native Yorkshire that he created the drawings constituting My Window, a limited-edition artist book published by Taschen in 2019. Those images don’t come from his sketchbook, or rather, they don’t come from his analog sketchbook: he executed them all on his iPhone and iPad, devices whose artistic possibilities he’s been enthusiastically exploring for more than a decade. In this readiness to use any medium available, he shows more comfort with technology than do many younger artists. And however many of them have, under the limitations of the past year and a half, got used to sketching the view from their bedroom window, Hockney was doing it long before.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.