Look Closer

David Hockney: 80 years in 8 works

We explore the themes of Hockney’s work and his various ways of working

This film file is broken and is being removed. Sorry for any inconvenience this causes.

Watch Hockney reflect on over 60 years of painting, drawing, printmaking and photography

David Hockney is an English painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer. An important contributor to the pop art movement of the 1960s, he is considered one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century.

From his portraits and images of Los Angeles swimming pools, through to his photography and Yorkshire landscapes, Hockney’s style continues to change. As the artist approaches his eightieth birthday, we explore the themes of Hockney’s work and his various ways of working.

Early life

David Hockney
Woman with a Sewing Machine (1954)

Born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1937, David Hockney decided to pursue a career as an artist at a young age. In 1953 he joined Bradford School of Art, where he received a traditional training based on drawing from life and produced figure studies, portraits and cityscapes. Hockney found art school a liberating experience, explaining:

I was interested in everything at first […] It was thrilling after being at the Grammar School, to be at a school where I knew I would enjoy everything they asked me to do. I loved it all and I used to spend twelve hours a day in the art school. For four years I spent twelve hours a day there every day

Created while an art student, Woman with a Sewing Machine 1954 is one of Hockney’s earliest prints and shows his mother, Laura Hockney as his model. Hockney would go on to portray her numerous times and in a range of mediums.

Art School

David Hockney
Study for Dollboy (1960)

In 1959 Hockney began his studies at the Royal College of Art, London, where he met artists including Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and Patrick Caulfield.

Hockney’s early graphic works laid the foundations for his artistic career. Much of this work is autobiographical and alludes to the artist’s sexuality. However, because homosexuality was not decriminalised in Britain until 1967, these references are often subtle (such this work’s use of the gay slang term ‘queen’).

This charcoal drawing was created in preparation for one of Hockney’s major early paintings Doll Boy 1960. The naïve and unpolished style has qualities of outsider art, particularly the work of Jean Dubuffet, whom Hockney admired stating ‘it was his style of doing images, the kind of childish drawings he used that attracted me’. Hockney idolised the pop singer Cliff Richard, often featuring him in his work at this time. The title Doll Boytakes inspiration from the song Living Doll popularised by Richard. As Hockney comments:

Doll Boy was a reference to the pop singer Cliff Richard, who was very attractive, very sexy. […] I used to cut out photographs of him from newspapers and magazines and stick them up around my little cubicle in the Royal College of Art, partly because other people used to stick up girl pin-ups, and I thought, I’m not going to do that, can’t do that, and here’s something just as sexy

A Rake's Progress

David Hockney
1. The Arrival (1961–3)

On returning from his first trip to New York in 1961, Hockney began sixteen etchings for A Rake’s Progress 1961–3,inspired by William Hogarth’s series of the same name painted in 1735.

Hockney’s series of etchings depict a journey of self-discovery, in which a young artist and gay man struggles to find his way in 1960s New York. Although Hockney uses his own experiences to inform the graphic tale, he states ‘it is not really me. It’s just that I use myself as a model because I’m always around’.

Much of the imagery takes inspiration from popular advertising. Using slogans to illustrate the affects of a commerical society, Hockney’s hero experiences a social dilemma and potential loss of individuality in an American city.

The Full Series

California Dreaming

David Hockney
A Bigger Splash (1967)

In 1964, Hockney visited California for the first time. The trip was a great source of inspiration, leading to a series a stylised landscapes and the first swimming pool paintings for which Hockney is best known. Drawn to the relaxed way of life, Hockney went on to live in Los Angeles for many years, commenting:

the climate is sunny, the people are less tense than in New York […] When I arrived I had no idea if there was any kind of artistic life there and that was the least of my worries

The largest and most striking of three ‘splash’ paintings, A Bigger Splash 1967 exemplifies Hockney’s attempt to paint transparent materials and transient moments. Unlike his earlier swimming pool paintings, which are populated with male figures, the splash is the only hint of human presence. Capturing a sense of both 1960s glamour and leisure, Hockney’s colour palette encapsulates the optimism found in postwar Britain.

Rather than using quick, gestural marks to capture the constantly changing surface of water, Hockney took about two weeks to complete the splash, using small brushes and little lines. The artist has explained:

When you photograph a splash, you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else. I realise that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way


Seeing Double

David Hockney
Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970–1)

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy 1970–1 is one of a series of large double portraits which Hockney began in 1968. By this time Hockney was a recognised artist, often mentioned in the press and spending time with other artists and celebrities. Here Hockney paints the recently married dress designer Ossie Clark and fabric designer Celia Birtwell.

The couple are shown in their bedroom, in a relaxed manner. This presentation of a seated man and standing woman breaks with conventions of wedding portraiture and is perhaps suggestive of the future breakdown of their marriage.

Both subjects look out to the viewer, inviting us into their home and relationship. Working from both photographs and life observation, Hockney’s style is both realistic and yet simplified. According to Hockney, it is his work which comes closest to naturalism. The painting required a lot of reworking, taking a year to complete as the artist states:

the figures are nearly life-size; it’s difficult painting figures like that, and it was quite a struggle. They posed for a long time, both Ossie and Celia. Ossie was painted many, many times; I took it out and put it in, out and in. I probably painted the head alone twelve times

Celia would go on to be Hockney’s model and muse for many years, featuring in much of his portraiture work.

Images of Celia Birtwell

A Family Affair

Alongside landscapes, portraits feature throughout Hockney’s career. Rarely accepting commissions, he prefers to portray relatives, friends and people he asks to sit for him.

Created a year before his father’s death,My Parents 1977 is Hockney’s best-known representation of his parents. Painted from life, the work shows his mother as a poised and graceful sitter, while his father is hunched over reading a copy of Aaron Scharf’s Art and Photography. Reflected in the dressing table mirror we can see a reproduction of Piero della Francesca’s painting The Baptism of Christ 1440–1450 as well as Hockney’s own work Invented Man Revealing Still Life 1975. The inclusion of these works creates a triptych-like image and hints at Hockney’s own presence within the painting.

Ranging from line drawings to prints, photographs and paintings, Hockney’s mother is the subject of many of his works. A willing sitter, his mother appears both a frail and assertive character, exemplifying the humanising quality of Hockney’s portraits in general. It appears that he used the portraits of Laura Hockney to explore and cement their close relationship.

Portraits of Hockney's Mother


David Hockney Billy  Audrey Wilder, Los Angeles, April 1982 1982 Composit polaroid, 46 x 44” Private Collection © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney

Billy + Audrey Wilder, Los Angeles, April 19821982

Composit polaroid, 46 x 44”

Private Collection © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

By 1982, as part of an investigation into cubism and depictions of pictorial space, Hockney began to experiment with photographic collages.

He combined dozens of successive Polaroid photographs, taken from varying angles, to create a complete image, or what he described as ‘joiners’. Making some 140 Polaroid works in a matter of months, these multi-frame images allowed Hockney to experiment with depictions of time, motion and the position of the viewer.

In Billy + Audrey Wilder, Los Angeles, April 1982 1982, we’re able to trace Audrey moving her cigarette towards her face and Billy bringing a small sculpture towards his eyes. Each individual Polaroid is taken separately but experienced simultaneously, creating a dizzying effect and ‘not the view you would see immediately’. This presentation of a subject from multiple viewpoints exemplifies Hockney’s interest in depicting a three-dimensional world through two-dimensional art forms. As the artist describes:

I was at the camera day and night […] the joiners were much closer to the way we actually look at things, closer to the truth of experience

The Bigger the Better

Ranging from scenic Californian terrains, to British landscapes, paintings of natural environments have formed a significant part of Hockney’s artistic career.

Measuring more than four and a half by twelve metres, Bigger Trees Near Warter or/ou Peinture sur le motif pour le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique 2007 is Hockney’s largest work to date. Returning to his native town, Hockney depicts the arrival of spring in the Yorkshire Dales. The upper-half of the painting is dominated by an intricate pattern of overlapping branches, as the artist notes:

[Trees are] like faces, every one is different. Nature doesn’t repeat itself […] You have to observe carefully; there is a randomness

Resembling Hockney’s photographic collages of the 1980s, the painting is made up of fifty canvases joined together to form one large picture. Working in stages, Hockney painted en plein air (‘in the open air’), a method commonly used by nineteenth-century French landscape painters. As Hockney could only work on one segment of the work at a time, he used digital photography to create a computer mosaic of the full image and chart the progress of the composition. This combination of traditional and state-of-the-art methods has characterised much of Hockney’s practice.

Hockney continues to work in various ways, experimenting with his techniques and materials.

You might like