How Artists Connect with Digital versus Physical Painting: The Case of David Hockney

David Hockney, In the Studio: December 2017. Photographic drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond, edition of 25. © David Hockney.

Last November he became the most expensive living artist as his canvas Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art auction, New York. David Hockney, 81, is also a reference at exploring new technology. More than a move from physical to digital painting, the artist sees the two mediums as being complementary — a demonstration of how new tools can contribute to the artist’s creative process.

David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, 19 May 2011. iPad drawings (looped), © David Hockney.

Old Narratives, New Horizons

While some artists get variety from changing subject matters, Hockney is all about the medium, and, in a sense, that’s what makes his vision of digital art so empowering. He innovates within the traditional forms like still-life, portrait, and landscapes, making these subjects contemporary again. By exploring the same themes throughout his career, Hockney relentlessly renewed himself in the methods of representation, which eventually drove him to digital technologies. “Drawing was going out of style actually, it was,” Hockney jokingly explains, “I’m amazed that it’s the telephone that can bring back drawing.”


Digital tools are mobile and offer so much more flexibility than carrying brushes, paint, and pens for an outing. Grab your pocket-sized device, and here we go. For Hockney, this meant he could wake up and start representing his everyday environment — indoor — and as he progressively mastered digital brushwork — outdoor, moving from interiors, bouquets, and books on the bedside table, to the beautiful sceneries of the British countryside in Yorkshire and his love for painting en plein air.

Left: David Hockney, Plug in for the Next Generation (684), 2011. iPad drawing, © David Hockney. Center: David Hockney, Untitled, 592, 2010. iPad drawing, © David Hockney. Right: David Hockney, Untitled, 655, 2011. iPad drawing, © David Hockney.

How Techy Does it Get?

Not much. Hockney is not interested in leading the race for technology. He uses basic software on iPhone and more recently iPad, and is, in fact, rather appreciative of the way it’s easy-to-use. His point is instead to use new tools as an opportunity to rethink representation. Drawing on a piece of glass, the sense of touch changes, altering your practice. Digital brushes have a different feel, and so you need to adjust your usual drawing techniques to new processes and learn how to do things over again.

David Hockney, Yosemite I, October 16th 2011 (1059), 2011. iPad drawing, collection of the artist, © David Hockney.

Visual Effects

How do you paint with your fingertips? Blend colors? Achieve thinner or thicker strokes? Set transparency and edges softness? How do you create effects like light reflection on materials such as white porcelain and polished brass? How do you give in the brightness of freshly-cut flowers or the autumnal tones and ambient humidity of trees? All this panel of settings took some time to master but as Hockney explains digital painting prevented the loss of color. Because of the accuracy obtained with fingers, the painter also felt the challenge and opportunity of using a limited number of marks on his representations.

David Hockney, The arrival of spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 — 31 May, №1 (900), 2011. iPad drawing printed on 6 sheets of paper mounted on Dibond, 290.8 x 218.4 cm (overall), collection of the artist, © David Hockney.

Details, Sharpness, and Scalability

One thing that is essential to Hockney is details. Each living being — may it be an individual or a plant — is unique, and by giving much attention to the representation of specific traits, the artist values each constituent of the (eco)system. By looking closely he sees things we don’t, and so we observe again, more intensely, and rediscover the beauty of multiplicity. Digital painting allowed this interest for observation to foster as he zooms in and out allowed for a more considerable amount of details as Hockney than the change of views experienced when stepping back from the canvas. To maximize sharpness and color saturation, Hockney works with vector-based images, which, unlike pixel-based works, he can render in large-scale prints for the better display of his preciseness.

David Hockney, 4 blue stools, 2014. Photographic drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond,
 edition of 25 © David Hockney.

Photographic Drawings

On top of iPhone and iPad drawings, Hockney also works with digital photography. Frustrated by the limitations of one-point perspective photography, the artist always thought of bringing multiple narratives, notably by representing artworks within the artworks — which ultimately result in numerous oft-connected descriptions. Works like Four blue stools include photographs of people taken from many angles and with multiple vanishing points, and that are then joined together digitally to form a single, unsettling, reality. Digital collage is a primary medium to capture the diversity of looks, but such pieces also include images of other artworks from the artist pointing to the importance that he gives to mixing media.

Trial and Error

“The iPhone makes you bold,” says Hockney. You can go back anytime, and thus explore all possibilities, instincts, and drives. Digital art is not about fashion but about the risk-taking and experimental approach it gives to creation.