David Hockney is very good at his game.
In the Los Angeles of the late 1970s, when all things were possible, I rubbed shoulders with him once or twice at openings at the L.A. Louver. Although it doesn't matter what I think or thought of his work, I shrugged my shoulders at it for the most part.
It wasn't until I picked up a copy of his tiny book, Looking at Pictures in a Book, that he finally caught my attention. In case the title isn't the big clue, Hockney was writing about looking at pictures. Although I certainly don't know what he was up to in this department before that publication, this is when I began to appreciate Hockney as a teacher.
As these things happen, I found that book just as I was seriously amping up my practice as a teacher of drawing and watercolor. Shortly after that, he released Secret Knowledge, which I immediately ordered. That book, and the BBC TV film of the same title, describes an extensive project he tackled about his theory that, at a certain point, artists started using early camera techniques to aid their drawing. It's a controversial idea but I buy it. It holds up to me as someone who has used the camera, on and off in various ways, to aid my drawing over the years. It also holds up from my observation of students' efforts.
If you're familiar with Hockney's work, you'll know that he's flitted back and forth with the camera throughout his career.
Later, Hockney embarked upon another carefully documented project on the Yorkshire landscape when he was living in Bradford. Again, he made a documentary film about the project, A Bigger Picture. That's when I fell in love with David Hockney and bowed down to him as a great teacher.
Admittedly, I fell in love with him because, in addition to my own long-term focus on the subject of landscape, within that film are over the shoulder shots of him making watercolor landscapes and his work with a brush on paper is sure, confident, and superb. You wouldn't know that he has this skill by looking at his oils and acrylics or many of his drawings. Not that any of those are made without supreme confidence. It's just that with those other mediums, his results are most often more clunky and garish although there are plenty of exceptions considering his prolific output.
Another reason for surprise at his particular mastery of the watercolor medium is that earlier, he had publicly disparaged watercolor as "wishy washy" and "suitable only for Sunday painters". Not so.
For a present to myself last Christmas, I bought a copy of Hockney's A Yorkshire Sketchbook, hoping for some of those exceptional watercolors. I was, at first, disappointed because what it actually is is an exact reproduction of one of his sketchbooks from the project. It's messy and rapid and yet, once over my expectations, I found it to be a freeing thing. So often I belabor and criticize my "sketch" work as do most of us involved in making pictures by hand. But the fact is that a sketchbook, and all drawing and painting from life, is a process to help us see better. And that's what this sketchbook of Hockney's represents. He's just using the drawing and watercolor process to get the idea of what he's trying to get at. What he's looking at.
So, with all of that, I am truly surprised that in a general search through the web, I can find no reference to anyone writing or talking about Hockney as a teacher to anyone who's paying attention. There are plenty of teachers' aids for learning about Hockney but not about his role as a teacher. My bet is that, if there is a future that includes such things, he will be remembered as such. At least, that's how I perceive how he's used his life's work, aside from earning fortune, fame, and the power that comes with that. And that work and teaching includes how he's shared his knowledge of and experience with the history of painting.
Hockney's perspective on the history of picture making is exceptionally important because it is from a working painter's direct experience and not that of an academic art historian.
As you might imagine, I incorporate Hockney's teaching into my own teaching at a couple of appropriate points. Hockney's perspective and insight has considerably enriched my life as a visual artist and I love to share that with students.
David Hockney is many things but my favorite is Hockney as guide to a bigger picture.
Slideshow of the 36 part work: Midsummer: East Yorkshire, 2004 watercolor on paper.
Another exhibit, another view.