Art

On David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Groping for Lines

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters Cover.

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters Cover.

 

In the last part of the critical examination of the Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, I looked at the intricate patterns on drapery that were seemingly precisely integrated with the fabrics’ folds and bends. I came to the conclusion that such precision was possible due to proper training and diligence.

The question now before me is whether his evidence for “groping lines” apprises us of the use of optics. By “groping lines” he means the ordinary action of artists drawing from life by placing multiple lines on paper or other media trying to find the correct position to create a realistic representation. The lines show the observer the visual hunt the artist engages in to pursue the proper proportion or position of the figure. Hockney uses as one example of a lack of groping lines a drawing by Ingres, Portrait of Madame Louis-Francois Godinot:

 

Portrait of Madame Louis-Francois Gudinot, graphite drawing on paper, Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres 1829

Portrait of Madame Louis-Francois Godinot, graphite drawing on paper, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres 1829

 

Hockney asserts that the “swiftness” of the lines in drawing the face attest to the use of an optical device, the camera lucida. So the question arises: Is it possible to draw with such accuracy?

Are the lines in this picture “swift”? We don’t know! It looks as though the dress of the Madame was quickly, cursorily done and the drawing was meant to get just a likeness of the sitter without the need for elaboration. Indeed, Hockney notes that the head seems out of proportion to the body and, therefore, the head was completed at a different time.

The face then becomes the question. Was it done without groping lines? This question largely depends upon how Ingres drew. Ingres did not draw with a medium that did not allow for blending and blurring such as silverpoint or ink. He drew with charcoal or, in particular, graphite which can be smoothed out and blended with a finger, eraser or tortillon (stump). He was a realist, Neo-Classicist artist who naturally desired an image without groping lines, especially if the drawing was a preparatory work for an oil painting. It is quite possible to draw lightly initially and gradually develop a likeness, then blend the lines with some sort of tortillon where any groping lines are either obliterated or very difficult to detect.

 

Louis Bertin. Oil on canvas, Musee du Louvre, Paris 1832. Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. Louis Bertin, Pencil drawing 1832

Louis Bertin. Oil on canvas, Musee du Louvre, Paris 1832. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Louis Bertin, Pencil Drawing 1832

 

 

Dr. Louis Martinet, Graphite on Woven Paper, 1826.

 

 

When doing realistic portraits, I draw this way myself, blending so much as to expunge many groping lines in the process. Besides the ability of the artist, the knowledge or the intensity of study of the sitter’s face becomes a factor. I know my face so well as to be able to draw it without reference to a photo or reflection. Some artists absorb the morphology of their subjects quite readily without the necessity of a greater familiarity.

 

Hockney provides the side-by-side comparisons of his use of the camera lucida to that of drawings by Ingres.

Hockney provides the side-by-side comparisons of his use of the camera lucida to that of drawings by Ingres.

 

Mr. Hockney’s comparisons of Ingres drawings to a series of drawings he did of guards at the British Museum using the camera lucida eludes me.  Without the narrative provided by Hockney, I am at a loss to see where the two sets of drawings have one to do with the other. Hockney’s technique is so much different than that of Ingres, I don’t have a clue as to how one informs the other and, to be frank, Hockney’s skill as a draftsman is considerably less than Ingres’. This difference in skill and technique is exactly the problem in trying to assert any theory regarding the use of optics. Hockney tends to make assumptions based upon his experience and ability and not that of the artist he examines or the level of training and performance required of the artist in his time and in his genre.

 

Celia in a Black Slip Reclining, Paris, December, 1973, David Hockney

Celia in a Black Slip Reclining, Paris, December 1973, David Hockney

 

Jeff Burkhart, Crayon, David Hockney 1994

Jeff Burkhart, Crayon, David Hockney 1994

 

Surprisingly, we see some of the same obliteration of lines in Hockney’s drawings as well due to the nature of rendering a naturalistic image. We see the groping lines in Celia in a Black Slip Reclining, but not so much in Jeff Burkhart. Can we deduce that the Jeff Burkhart portrait was created with the assistance of optical devices? Obviously not. Here, with Hockney’s own drawings, we can not make this judgment, and therefore, how can we forge this conclusion viewing Ingres’ drawings? Besides, questioning the use of optics by one artist does nothing to provide any information about others.

We can’t entirely dismiss the suggestion that the lack of groping lines in Ingres drawings advances the idea he used an optical device such as the camera lucida. However, direct evidence such as written accounts is essential in promoting such a notion.

HBosler

self-portrait-in-red

self-portrait-in-red

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