View Full Version : Secret Knowledge

01-29-2012, 06:26 AM
Art books are sometimes the subject of interesting threads in this forum so I’m going to throw my cap into the ring and introduce – for the benefit of those who haven’t read it earlier – David Hockney’s “SecretKnowledge (rediscovering the lost techniquesof the Old Masters)”
When it was first published in 2001 it was described as “The most talked-about art book of the year.” The reviewer’s introduction is probably a bit restrained when it says that the book created a sensation when it was first published, sparked world-wide media attention and generated intense debate in both science and art history. I have just read the expanded second edition, published in 2006, and reprinted in paperback in 2009. Don’t be put off by the term paperback. This is a heavy book measuring 24cm x 30cm and sumptuously printed on quality art paper with over 500 illustrations of which 442 are colour plates. More importantly it is not expensive.
In the book Hockney presents his observations that at sometime during the early 15th century there was a significant change in the way that artists presented their work. The change he attributes to the use of optical devices which aided the Old Masters to produce more realistic images. The visual evidence is carefully presented and identifies the clues which reinforced Hockney’s hypothesis that optical aids were more widely used than many art historians would be prepared to concede. The use of the camera obscura by Canaletto and Vermeer has been widely reported and accepted but Hockney goes further and suggests that there is substantial evidence to support the view that optical devices were in use long before these artist’s time. In the early days Hockney identifies concave mirrors and lenses, used either separately or in combination, as being the principal aids, whilst in the early 19th century the camera lucida was specially manufactured as an aid to artists. Far from decrying these methods Hockney makes the point that they are simply aids and that it is the artist who makes the marks and applies the paint.
The book is divided into three sections of which the “Visual Evidence” is by far the largest and a feast of imagery. This is supported by “Textual Evidence” which presents a selection of documents, some dating from as early as the 10th century, which describe optical means of throwing or displaying an image. The third section of the book deals with “Correspondence” between Hockney and a number of experts with whom he associated during his investigations. The latter section alone is highly informative.
I was fascinated by this book and impressed by the careful way that David Hockney presents the evidence. It does generate a great deal of food for thought as to what is and is not acceptable in the creation of a painting. Now that computers are widely available just adds to the debate and itis interesting in this respect that David Hockney himself uses an iPad as an aid in the creation of some of his work.
It is pretty clear from perusal of the catalogues of artist’s suppliers that optical devices such as the opaque projector are very much in vogue nowadays. These instruments would be very useful to illustrators and to those working in the advertising business. But what about their use in Fine Art? Have any forum contributors used any type of optical device to aid them in the creation of a painting? Does anyone have any strong feelings either for or against their use?

01-29-2012, 07:48 AM
The amazing thing for me is I have seen a huge massive rock. I have felt it. Sat on it. I did some clay work and modeled something similiar to a woman.

What Michaelangeo does with it is like me looking at a Chimp poking at a termite hill and thinking I could do it better than that dumb monkey.

What Rembrandt does with the exact same materials as myself is astounding.

But part of it is the empathy derived from having tried to do it.

Vermeer and Carravaggio are noted for camera obscura. There are some amazing steps to getting from a blank canvas to a finished work. I have traced, grid, projected, used a "Lucy", registered multiple images together, carbon copied etc, etc, etc. I also spent many hours in front of a model.

Binocular eyesight coupled with psychological responses are not captured by camera or computer. That nakid human is nakid in front of me, I can smell them.

The mirror I sat in front of distorts my reflection and its binocular viewpoint.

The canvas is bare. empty. devoid.

There is a huge process in between the finished piece and the first hit of the hammer, the first note of a symphony, and my lifting of the sharpened pencil towards that white paper.

What bothers me about being a click away is that the AUDIENCE does not empathise with the making.The digital artist claims that huge amount of work I go thru to overcome, translate, transfer, invent and struggle to achieve.

01-29-2012, 09:28 AM
one more idea about assisted rendering.

If a cave man takes a hollowed tube and blows "ink" at his hand placed against a cave wall. Is he doing assisted image transfer. What is an xray. where does it begin or end.

Gehard Richter:


01-29-2012, 10:57 AM
Wow, a discussion on a book I have actually read!! I found it interesting and provocative...and a justification for those times, in the begiinning, that I traced to get eye and nose placement, or wingspan or whatever. I also know, that the tracing did not help very much, as I managed to move that placement most of the time, and had to go back to 'eyeballing it', to bring it back to life. In other words, it did not really help, except, perhaps, to give me the courage to start.

As for the masters...if we find beauty in their work...if our hearts connect with the symphony or resonate with the placement of light and color...then who cares if they used an aid or not. What does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

The only thing I might object to, or at least question, would be the reduction of a painting to a paint by numbers sort of thing...where the placement of objects goes beyond a guideline, and places each item and line, down to the shadows and highlights, allowing the "artist" to achieve greater perfection, than he or she might be able to without the aid. Yet, perhaps it comes down to the old verse about judging others...? Who am I to judge?

It will be interesting to listen to the furor over purity versus assistance....but it all comes down to each person's preference in the end.

...But part of it is the empathy derived from having tried to do it.
Very well said!!

01-29-2012, 03:06 PM
Michael: From your response I guess that you support David Hockney's view that an aid is an aid but that the artist's marks and the application of colour make the picture. Whilst I tend to agree with that viewpoint I wonder though why it is that many old-style art teachers place such emphasis on the student's ability to draw as the first, and important step, in the creation of a painting.

Susan: Glad to learn that you also found Hockney's book interesting and provocative. It certainly excited a lot of comment when it first came out. But, as you say, does it really matter if a painter uses an aid or not? If the viewers of the work connect with it in some way then the artist will have achieved one of the major objectives of having made the painting. Generally it will only be the artist who knows whether excessive reliance was placed on aids of one kind or another and only the artist can judge as to whether or not the use was justified.

01-29-2012, 07:40 PM
The ability to draw from life without a photo is a great indication of control. But still it lacks that poetry of creation. I see acurate renderings that seem academic and student like.

The artist sets his own problem or exploration while the student accepts the assignment.

Somewhere there is this artistry that is the passion, the obsession, the myth of ones own self.

Myth is what seperates art from craft. (in my most descerning crit that is, but I still temper that crit with the who what and where questions)

01-29-2012, 09:21 PM
The ability to draw from life without a photo is a great indication of control. But still it lacks that poetry of creation......Somewhere there is this artistry that is the passion, the obsession......

Yep, yep...so true!!

01-30-2012, 07:37 AM
I enjoy these lil romps thru "art theory". :)

ty doug and sue!

01-30-2012, 07:40 AM
If I may. I am tempted to say 'welcome back' to this topic. It has been discussed over and over again and I am sure it will be on the top of the 'oldies but goodies list' in the majority of the art forums.

I think we tend to forget in discussions like these that the 'old masters' were businessmen. The more they sold, the faster they could deliver, the better for them. It stands to reason that they would have used all tools available to achieve their goals. Why is it that i.e. Rembrandt had students of his' drawing/painting his pictures with him adding the final touches to sign it and declare it his own work? Why is it that Dürer rather made prints than paintings because in his words 'in the time I do a painting, I can sell more prints'. Why is it that Andy Warhol is quoted to having said 'art is what they let you get away with'. I am sure this list could be expanded.

I think we are having a luxury problem here. We, and I think I speak for the vast majority of us here, do not have to live by our art. We are amateurs and do this as our hobby. No pressure, just fun. I know that to be true for me. Our ideal of the artist seems to stem less from businessmen like Rembrandt, Dürer, DaVinci et al (the old masters) and more from the Van Gogh's (who only sold one painting of his' in his lifetime), to Gauguin who paid for boat trips with paintings of his' (the lone starving and striving artist who purely dedicated their life to their art - and could not live by it).

When in museums we tend to admire the old masters for their excellent workmanship and with the modern masters their ideas and concepts (installations, performances, and alike).

Why don't we take art 'as is' instead of 'how did they do it and is it "pure"'? Let art in its forms 'speak to us' and less from the angle of with or without technical assistance.

My 2 cents and stepping down from my box.

04-18-2012, 10:45 AM
I watched a video interview with Mr. David while being obsessed with Vandermeer work and I read about the camera obscura. I'm ordering this book, I was also impressed with Color and Light by Mr. James Gurney (very interesting book if you'd like to check it out, no relation myself to the author, just obsessed with light lately). These two books are next on my reading list.

On the point of using aids, I myself don't mind them used in a work as long as they don't eclipse everything. You know if they serve a point to keep things moving. I wouldn't mind a masterpiece created where an aid was used somewhere instead of a masterpiece never finished due to not using one. Just don't let it overwhelm the whole work. You have to burn some of your life force in your work to give it wings.

You know Mr. Reinhard its funny you should mention Van Gogh. I was watching a BBC episode on him in a series called The Power of Art. I knew he had difficulties but it was amazing how little the man sold. Now in his mind did he think of himself as an amateur? What about anyone who got famous after dying but had another job during his lifetime? Did those people think of themselves as hobbyists?

In the end, I think we have to hear the whole story about a work to determine if it has value or not. The rest cannot be looked at in parts, like he used an aid here so the integrity of the whole work is ruined, I think that is not the right way to do it. When I hear the story, does it reach me? Do I feel what you had to go through to reach here? To me thats all that matters.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. I can get lost in a philospohical mood sometimes.