With David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, much is being made of the artist’s decision to exhibit copies of works made on his iPad and iPhone. Many journalists and critics have focused on this development given that it’s an unusual choice of medium and because it’s likely to polarize opinion; you either think it’s an ingenious use of modern technology or an affront to the traditional arts.
But what many seem to forget or simply do not realise, is that Hockney has been a stalwart supporter of new technology throughout his career. His iPhone and iPad paintings are not his first digital works. Back in 1985, the film producer Michael Deakin, who had worked with the artist at Editions Alecto, demonstrated the functions of the Quantel Paintbox to Hockney. The result was Little Stanley, My Dog (above) which hangs proudly in Deakin’s living room today.
The Quantel Paintbox revolutionised television media, allowing for images and graphics to be produced immediately onto the screen. It was the precursor to all the graphic news reports and title sequences which we take for granted today. Users could paint directly onto the screen with the use of a stylus and tablet. As Deakin explains, ‘Nobody had ever seen anything like it and every TV station had to have one. You could mix colours on a palette and use different thicknesses of brush, just like conventional painting. Nowadays everybody can do all the same things on a Mac. Before then it was lettraset and glue’. Images made on the Paintbox could be printed, but like a reproduction in a book they would lack the quality and colour of the image as it appeared upon a lit television monitor.
Hockney was immediately taken with the rapidity and luminosity of this new digital medium, describing it as akin to ‘liquid stained glass’. A few months later, the artist participated in the BBC/Griffin co-production, Painting With Light. Directed by Robert Lockyer, the series consisted of six episodes in which artists (the other participants being Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin, Sir Sidney Nolan, Larry Rivers and Jennifer Bartlett) would use the technology to produce a work by the end of the show. What was particularly brilliant about the series was that it was predominately shot from behind and in-front of the artists so that their working processes and reactions could be captured on film from beginning to end. The bulk of each episode consists of accompanying commentary from the artist. It is almost impossible to conceive that any arts programming would follow this example today given the prevailing orthodoxy for flashy cuts and edits. The brilliance of Painting With Light was its simplicity, that it encouraged viewers to really look at the works being made.
The series was inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 film, Le Mystère Picasso in which the artist painted onto a giant translucent canvas with a camera behind it. Picasso’s work appeared to evolve upon the screen. For Painting With Light, Quantel provided a technician, Martin Holbrook, a fine artist and graphic designer, who demonstrated the Paintbox’s functions to each of the artists, such was the novelty of the technology. ‘Hockney was the most sparked by the whole thing. He took to it like a proverbial duck to water, as he has to similar technologies subsequently’.Throughout the episode, Hockney’s mood brightens as he masters more of the Paintboxes functions and it’s a joy to behold. The BBC should certainly rebroadcast the series, or at the least make it available online. Painting With Light is a brilliant illustration of the intersection between art and technology as well as a fascinating cultural artifact. At a time when Hockney has never been more popular, I can’t believe that the series is not already available.
David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts until 9 April 2012
Special thanks to Michael Deakin and Roger Thornton at Quantel.
Quantel’s blogpost on the history of the Paintbox
Lauren Niland, David Hockney: The art of technology, The Guardian, From the Archives Blog