David Hockney has a little advice for anyone who fancies taking up art as a lockdown hobby: take out the pencils or brushes, and put away the camera.
“I would suggest people could draw at this time,” he said from the house in Normandy where he has been sequestered since France practically closed down last month. “Question everything and do not think about photography.”
Instead, he recommends everyone drawing with open eyes. “I would suggest they really look hard at something and think about what they are really seeing.” The materials don’t matter: a pencil or an iPad app such as Brushes, which is what he used to create his latest picture of the Normandy landscape, exclusive to the Guardian.
Coronavirus shut the world down when Hockney was in France, living in the Normandy countryside. He is occupying himself there depicting the natural world. This week the release of some of his iPad paintings of spring flowers and blossoms splashed joyous colours in a time of grey anxiety. “We need art, and I do think it can relieve stress,” he said. “What is stress? It’s worrying about something in the future. Art is now.”
David Hockney. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty Images
At a time when more and more people are enjoying walks, time in the garden, or just relishing the short periods they can spend outdoors, Hockney’s new iPad paintings of Normandy advocate encountering nature for escape, solace and renewal. They’re a timely culmination of a life spent looking at trees, flowers and skies.
Even in one of his most famous works, A Bigger Splash, he paid close attention to LA’s palms and lawns.
“I have always disliked crowds,” confessed Hockney the Romantic. “Perhaps it’s because of my hearing problems. And I like solitude. I am very aware we are part of nature.”
Has the coronavirus crisis made us more open to solitary reveries and serious art? “I think at the moment it’s making people think a bit deeper about life. But perhaps it’s my age. I’m 83 (nearly).”
Hockney has a passion for nature that rejoices in British rain just as much as French sunshine. His current project returns to the open-air landscape technique he used in Yorkshire a few years ago after he moved from LA to Bridlington.
“Ruskin said there was no such thing as bad weather in England. I remember being in Bridlington one winter evening when the weather forecast was on. They told us not to go out as there was going to be a terrible snow storm. This made me sit up and I suggested we go out to see it,” he said in a succession of email exchanges.
“We got in our four-wheel-drive truck and drove slowly to Woldgate, not very far and we only went up it about half a mile, and then we stopped. The headlights from the car lit up the snow very dramatically and we watched the snow forming on the tree branches. It was magical, I thought, really memorable.”
Another of David Hockney’s lockdown paintings. Photograph: David Hockney
However gentle Hockney’s spring blossoms may seem, this story reveals he may have something in him of Turner, who once got himself lashed to a mast in a storm. And that awe drives his artistic struggle.
“To depict nature, we can only try. Nature doesn’t have any straight lines. It doesn’t follow the rules of perspective.” This freedom from human rules is what makes a motif such as the tree he’s just sent me such a boundless theme: every pale dapple of blossom, every twist and turn of a branch is unique. Drawing nature is sheer adventure: “It makes us see things. This is why photography is a problem ... with cameras everything is pushed away. I was just drawing a tree this morning and Jonathan [his assistant] made a photograph of it ... my drawing got the space a lot better.”
Hockney is on a roll right now, painting in the open every day, and as he makes picture after picture he sees these unassuming acts of observation coming together as an epic panorama.
“What I am doing here is eventually to make my iPad drawings into something like the Bayeux tapestry, ie you will walk past it. The Bayeux tapestry is 90 metres long. It contains no shadows, no reflections and certainly no perspective as that would stop time. It would look very odd. Bayeux is 40 minutes’ drive from here. In European art history it is ignored. Why? It is like a Chinese scroll: very sophisticated. In a book I read recently called 1066, the author dismissed it as cartoonish. I concluded he wasn’t very visual.”
David Hockney is an artist who thinks deeply and widely about what he’s doing and his apparently simple pictures of spring blooms are anything but. They’re philosophical investigations of what it is to see something fully and “depict” it – his chosen word – with an intimacy the camera can’t give.
If his art is urgent now, it’s not because it is bright and cheery. It is because it is still and pensive. After he mentioned Ruskin, who looked for God in nature, I could not help asking him about his own beliefs. “I don’t know,” he said, but he felt “like Van Gogh, who knew nature was a great mystery to us”. It’s a mystery he’s teaching us to see freshly and find strength in.
“This morning is cloudy here and there has been some frost that affects the blossom a bit, but I’ll find something to draw.”