Illustrating Hockney's Theory of "The Look"

November 2002


Artist David Hockney asserts in his Book "Hidden Secrets-Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" that beginning around the year 1420, many of the great masters secretly began using optical drawing aids like lenses and mirrors, that produced a new "photographic" look, that not only influenced the art world but also changed how we perceive the world. While using optical aids is simple with today's technology, in 1400 simple imaging devices would have represented the very edge of the state of the art. In a time when most people had never seen a projected image, a lens or concave mirror would have been a magical device, and its possession could have gotten one burned at the stake for witchcraft.

It is relatively easy to produce with lenses, beamsplitters and concave mirrors a device that enables an artist to project images into spaces where they can be traced. Among other things this solves the problem of accurately transferring points from an object to an image on a canvas, simplifying detail drawing, especially of complicated subjects like tapestries and foreshortened objects. Even more important are faces, where accuracy can be critically important if a photographic likeness is desired. We know that artists used complex grids and plotting devices to achieve such accuracy, but the general consensus was that that projected images were first used by artists in the 17th Century, when Vermeer was known to have used the camera obscura to make art. No one had dreamed that Van Eyke had done this three hundred years earlier.

The required optical elements are known to have existed, but their early use in art had not been proposed before Hockney's assertions. It would be an understatement to say that Hockney's assertions have shaken the art history community with objections arising from at least two different schools of thought. One if these appears to interpret Hockney's revelations as a denigration of the achievements of the great masters. The other is more like a "not invented here" syndrome by those who refuse to accept that this could have happened without art historians knowing about it and reporting it. Hockney has credible answers to both of these types of objections that are made clear in his book and further amplified on the web site, which covers the debate of conclusions of the book.

In addition to simplifying the drawing of extremely complex objects, Hockney claims that art created with imaging aids has a characteristics "look". He first discovered the look when comparing work done by the French Master Inge with that done by the modern artist, Andy Warhol, who openly used photographic aids in his work. He had been especially impressed by a collection of portraits that were produced in such a short time and with a photographic appearance and accuracy that pressed him to ask how this could have been achieved.

To gain insight into the process I chose to produce some art pieces, in the renaissance style, of the same subject by both methods and to make comparisons of the resulting images. The process was extremely instructive, leaving me with a new perspective on the making of art. The simplest was a profile portrait of my wife, Pauline, since she served as a readily available (and inexpensive) model. Other subjects included various still life subjects. In the following paragraphs I will summarize my findings, give examples of the two methods of drawings, and describe some of the insights gained in the process. What unfolded was a process of enlightenment that could become a required exercise for art students.

To be able to draw an accurate image of an object requires one to learn to "see" the details in a subject. We don't normally see the individual details that give a subject its overall appearance. Once a person learns to see details, drawing them onto a piece of paper is relatively easy, especially for small objects. As the object gets larger, the relative positions of the details become important for maintaining the likeness, for example in a face. Most artists employ some means of measuring these distances, for example, a pencil or a thumb held up and viewed against the object. In portraiture, the length of the eye and head are used to determine other sizes. Typically, the eyes fall half way between the top and bottom of the head, they are separated by one eye-width, the breasts are one head's length below the chin, women are seven heads tall and men eight.

All artists learn to draw beautiful faces by memorizing and practicing generic faces and face parts, and knowing typical relationships. Any trained artist can whip out a beautiful face in a few minutes with little effort; however, a real face requires variances from these standards. An artist must see what features give individuality to the real person and capture his personage. This is much more difficult and requires much more practice and skill. Tiny details, wrinkles, lips, eye, and nose shapes can be all important. A good portraitist has no problem with likenesses, even though his portrait may not resemble a photograph; he sees and captures important features that reveal a persons individual look. Caricaturists find these and amplify them. Drawing the entire body accurately takes even more skill in judging distances, since the numbers of positional relationships increases with the increasing distance. Nevertheless, with enough practice, these can be drawn with fair accuracy, and small errors produce a "painterly" look.

Hockney continuously refers to "the (photographic) look", a feature that he claims is possessed by drawings created with imaging devices. I agree with him. In my own experiences the look is totally different when imaging devices are used as drawing aids as compared to "eyeballing", a term he uses to refer to drawing without imaging aids. While some of this is likely to be connected with the level of skill, I am confident that all of it is not.

The figures of "Pauline I" and "Pauline II" are drawings made with and without imaging aids respectively. I spent about 15 minutes with a live model creating the foundation for Pauline II, and then another hour in various settings to finish the painting. I did use the photograph to finalize a few details like the hair since it changed a lot between settings. Pauline I, which was created by projecting the image and tracing it onto paper, was done much faster than Pauline II. It clearly has the photographic look. In Pauline II the lips and eyes are enlarged and the lines are thicker and more "guessed". The camera sees more details and locates them more accurately than I can possibly do by eye.


Using photographic aids can drastically simplify locating the accurate positional relationship between all of the body parts. If likeness is a goal, imaging devices allow an artist to skip over one of the most difficult tasks, that of locating the relative position of all of the individual parts, such as eyes, mouth, nose, arms, legs, and hands. Drawing the individual parts, themselves, is relatively easy after one simply learns to "see" them.

The difference in "look" was also present in all of my drawings of various still life and landscapes. Artists look at a scene with two eyes that move around and constantly refocus during the process of drawing. A camera looks at the object with one eye and a fixed focus that does not change during the recording. This makes a huge difference in what is "seen" by the two processes. Looking at Pauline's head with two eyes allowed me to perceive it with a different aspect ratio than seen by the camera; it is taller than the camera sees. My movement in the sketch allowed me to see more than the camera could see in terms of overall perspective.

Foreshortening is a process whereby an object pointed towards the viewer appears to be much shorter when recorded on a two dimensional surface. Achieving the best foreshortening requires skill of an artist, especially since he knows the object is longer than it actually looks. One eye always sees it longer than the other eye does, and we move our heads to see the added length. Cameras automatically foreshorten. In my experiments I always drew the foreshortened object longer than the camera did, partially because I was drawing "what I knew" and not "what I see", but also partially because I was using two eyes verses the camera's one eye.

This underlines a less discussed but equally important part of Hockney's revelation is that through the various imaging processes beginning with optical-device-enhanced drawings we learned to perceive in a photographic way. If artists had not begun the process, accepting the photographic look would have been delayed by many years. Seeing with photographic perspective is drastically different than the natural process of seeing with our own two eyes and its associated neural system. The photographic process simplifies, filters and removes huge amounts of data from our perception. In addition to the tracing process itself, all of these contribute to the "look" that Hockney refers to. Drawing what one actually perceives with two eyes and the connected brain is a much more complex process, containing much more information, including not only sight, but also smells, sounds environment and history. There are two distinct, dynamic images that an artist must transfer into a fixed image on a plane. Everything the artist knows can change the final result. The photographic method of transfer is only one of many possible ways of achieving this and may, in fact, not be the most accurate way since so much information is removed.

Friends have noted a distinct difference between paintings of mine that were based on photographs and those done "plein aire" or from a live model. The latter paintings have a "cartoonish" look, the look Hockney refers to. Knowing about this look allows one to walk through any art gallery and recognize it. Artists also often refer to this as a "painterly" look. In a photograph the dimensions have already been transferred to two dimensions so it is, of course, easier to get the photographic by using the photograph to paint from. When done from a live scene, this transferance must be done in the brain. Since people today are more likely to have exposure to photographic images of just about anything than to hand drawn images, the photographic look has become the norm. Whether an artist should strive to attain the photographic look or not is a more subtle question. 

I have always been proud of my ability to draw likenesses of scenes. I would have hoped never to be accused of tracing an image. Accepting that the ability to draw likenesses is no longer a big deal in art is difficult. Projecting and tracing images is a capability we should not hesitate to use if accuracy calls for it and if it helps us achieve the final goal. We have replaced doing things "the old fashioned way" by more efficient methods in ever aspect of life. Artist have been doing it for centuries. My talent for drawing likenesses may actually have gotten in the way, holding me back in the creative process by making creating likenesses too important to my overall creation. ("If one has a hammer then the problem must be treated as a nail") I can get on with creating beautiful art and refine other talents that may have been overridden by this one. If I want to project and trace and image as part of the art process, I no longer have to think of it as "cheating". If Van Eyke thought it was okay, then surely it must be okay with me.

More recently scientists have taken the opposing argument and have proven that some of Hockney's assertions are not true, specifically about Van Eyke's work. The Hockney revelations are an unfolding story and the truth appears to lie somewhere in between the former view of most art historians and Hockneys new revelations. When, if, and which artists needed lenses to achieve the photographic look may never be absolutely clear. There is essentially no doubt many artists did and did so many years ago.