‘En plein air révolution’?

Simon Bayliss looks at David Hockney’s iPad Paintings

According to Wikipedia; ‘digital painting is an emerging art form in which traditional painting techniques such as watercolour, oils, impasto etc. are applied using digital software’. Immediately to me, this description sounds rather dull and counterintuitive. Why would one want to use the latest technology to produce ‘traditional’ art? During the last week of David Hockney’s celebrated Royal Academy show A Bigger Picture, I battled the queues and crowds to see what all the fuss was about.

Portable painting

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, spanning the largest room in the Royal Academy, consisted of 51 pictures made using an iPad. Printed on paper approximately 34 times larger than the screen of an iPad, they are surprisingly unaffected by any noticeable pixilation or reduction in quality. These digitally produced paintings depict the gradual spring greening from snow to full-bloom as the change in season dramatically alters the landscape’s appearance.  Produced on site, they convincingly assume a position in the long tradition of painting outdoors. But these pictures have not arisen after an ordeal of dragging an easel, brushes and paints across a windswept hillside. They have been made using a compact touch-screen computer, with an app which simulates conventional painting techniques.

Produced approximately every two to three days beginning with 1 January, they traversed the walls in a clockwise order ending with 2 June. They mostly describe differing views of rambling country lanes gently curving out of sight or tapering into the distance, and feature shorthand observations of puddles, trees, hedgerows and wild flowers as well as recurring motifs along the way; such as road signs, the remnants of a brick wall and Hockney’s favourite tree stump.

To make a mark using Hockney’s favourite app Brushes, one chooses the colour, the style and size of ‘brush’, and these are applied manually by dragging a finger or stylus across the screen. There are numerous advantages to using a tablet computer instead of the usual plethora of materials. The screen lights up making it a glowing sketch pad which can be operated just as easily in the dark. When using the Brushes app the background can be filled instantly with any colour, meaning a white ground is not a prerequisite. The marks are immediate; there is no drying time of course. Results can be endlessly erased, layered and adjusted for opacity after application.  As Hockney affirms; the light can change quickly in the upper half of the northern hemisphere, and for him the iPad captures it much faster than watercolour. The tablet computer therefore, can solve many of the problems landscape painters have been grappling with for centuries. As Hockney has said “Turner would have loved it”.

The introduction of new technology has once before revolutionised the popularity of plein air painting in the 19 century, when oils in tubes were first introduced. Portable paint allowed artists the manoeuvrability needed to venture out of the studio and into the wild.  According to Renoir; “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no impressionism. Thanks to the mobility that [they] provided, artists could capture the light of a fleeting moment” For Hockney, the iPad is the potential catalyst in the next plein air painting revolution.  As a completely self- contained painting kit, it is so portable he even has pockets to fit an iPad tailored into his jackets.

Digitally digestible

Amongst the audience, the public favour for The Arrival of Spring series was palpable. The easily digestible representations of rambling country lanes fit nicely with mass conventions of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’.  In 19 February for example, a pink track snakes into a fuzzy distant green tunnel of vegetation lined with the bare limbs of deciduous trees. Glamorising the knowledge and achievements of impressionism, an array of lucid pastel colours cleverly evoke the wintery light.  A variety of rudimentary marks which rejoice in their own application assemble the image; dots for leaf litter, thick lines for tree trucks, narrow lines for branches and a soft air-brush effect for distant foliage.  In all the iPad paintings one’s eye can trace the strokes and separate the shapes with ease, allowing one to pick apart the structure to understand the whole. These are generous pictures in both their appearance and concept. The romantic theme of the imagery is met with a technologically re-invigorated, but nevertheless romantic approach to painting.  Although nature is described in a familiar way, it is refreshingly delivered with an ultra-modern medium that is so distinct and unnatural to the subject.

For The Arrival of Spring Hockney’s electronic output has been physically reproduced into gleamingly super-flat prints suitable for a large art-going audience. The original way to view the work however is on screen. At the exhibition, in a small dark room containing sketch books, there were a few glowing iPads attached to the wall playing a slideshow of alternative digital sketches, allowing one to view the work in its natural habitat. The obvious further benefit to ‘digital painting’ is the automatic uploadability of images to the World Wide Web, making their exchange and sharing easy and uncompromising.  To behold the true nature of an oil painting one must travel to stand in its presence. As objects they deliver independently; in one part of the world at one time only.  In comparison, the electronic integrity of a digital painting remains relatively consistent from one computer screen to the next, and can be viewed simultaneously by many people in different parts of the globe.  Twenty years ago Hockney pre-empted this global method of sharing art by using the fax machine to send pictures.  Now his friends receive his drawings gratis via his iPhone or iPad.

I asked a lawyer friend of mine who accompanied me to the exhibition what he made of the room full of digital doodles. “It is as if the winner of a Facebook painting competition has been awarded an exhibition”, was his response.  Although pithy, in essence he may have placed the context of these works. Made by a world famous artist, they are perhaps merely an elevated example of the mundane activities already established within the global digital community.  Brushes is a widely used app; easy and cheap to download. From my own experience of using an iPad, the touch screen along with the app is so intuitive and user friendly, to make a picture is more straightforward than grappling with a set of paints, brushes, canvas, turps and so on. The beauty of Hockney’s project is therefore the grand unveiling of the potential of this widespread new medium, elevated unexpectedly from its native platform and placed within a major public gallery. The masterful delivery of its easily accessible visual theme is the reason for its popularity.

Imaginging implications

Because of the mass appeal of Hockney’s Royal Academy Exhibition, the iPad paintings have unfortunately been branded by popular criticism and media as the epitome of contemporary art practice, fuelling the delusions of those who unwittingly consider landscape painting to be one of the few modes of visual art.  There is no doubt that Hockney is a brilliant plein air painter who has been able to transfer all his skills to this equivalent digital format. But Hockney certainly does not demonstrate through the iPad paintings, the cutting-edge in technological art-wizardry. Instead he heart-warmingly demonstrates that if one can afford it, the technology is easily accessible and comprehensible to all. The implications of Hockney’s work within the context of contemporary art are therefore probably slight.

Plein air painting, an unusual mode of expression within the contemporary art world, is typically regarded as an activity for leisure painters and conservative professionals only. Each week in the summer I used to see a coach party of elderly artists sheltering from the wind and drizzle behind the lifeguard hut at my local beach. If plein air painting is therefore mainly an old people’s hobby, computer technology as we can all identify, is embraced more abundantly by young people. I therefore wonder who will embrace this potential revolution in plein air painting. Can this new technology revive this passé pastime?

My own feeling is that Hockney’s iPad series does offer a prospective breakthrough in art; but only within the basic conventions of painting and drawing. As a device for making intimate observational studies the iPad, according to Hockney’s output, appears to be an ideal alternative and potential triumph. I can imagine in the future that school children could be taught art classes using tablet computers, instead of with pencils, paint and paper; and why not? We are now living in the digital age.  Hockney’s message of digital painting therefore does offer an electronic alternative to traditional painting methods. The advantages of a handy, hassle-free handset which can be used to paint instantly impartible images could revitalise outmoded pursuits.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is on show at Guggenheim Bilbao until September 30.



Image 1: The Arrival of Spring (One of a 52 part work) 2011, Oil on 32 canvases 36” x 48” each (144” x 384”) overall © David Hockney

Image 2:  The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven) 2 January 2011, No. 2 (One of a 52 part work) © David Hockney

Image 3:  The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven) 12 April 2011, No.1 (One of a 52 part work) © David Hockney

All images reproduced courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao


Simon Bayliss is an artist based in Devon and Dorset. He studied painting in England, Czech Republic and Ireland and his work is exhibited and collected internationally.