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Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters [Hardcover]

David Hockney
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 Oct 2001
David Hockney takes us on an enthralling intellectual and visual journey as he rewrites the story of how the great drawings and paintings of the last six centuries were created. He demonstrates for the first time how artists as far back as the 15th century used mirrors and lenses to project colour images onto flat surfaces and then captured these projections in pencil and paint. As well as being the presentation of more than two years' research, Secret Knowledge is an amazing detective story, as Hockney uncovers piece after piece of scientific and historical evidence, each one revealing further secrets of the past.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd; 1st Edition edition (12 Oct 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500237859
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500237854
  • Product Dimensions: 31 x 25 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 402,829 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

David Hockney's brilliant Secret Knowledge is the fruit of his practical and historical investigation into how artists from the 15th century onward produced such vividly realistic drawings and paintings. Hockney's conclusions are simple but devastating. He argues that, "from the early 15th century many Western artists used optics--by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two)--to create living projections". The results are extraordinary. Secret Knowledge carefully explains how Masaccio, Van Eyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, Vermeer and Ingres all used optical aids, as it carefully takes apart the paintings and recreates the instruments and techniques used by artists from as early as the 1430s.

Hockney concedes that his opinions have been attacked by the mainstream art world that has complained that "for an artist to use optical aids would be 'cheating'; that somehow I was attacking the idea of innate genius". As a practising artist himself, his response is persuasive: "optics would have given artists a new tool with which to make images that were more immediate, and more powerful". Hockney concludes that this does not "diminish their achievements. For me, it makes them all the more astounding". Hockney's evidence is compelling and convincing, and brilliantly conveyed in this beautiful book, complete with details, foldouts and over 400 illustrations in sumptuous colour. Secret Knowledge also contains a collection of primary evidence detailing artist's use of optical devices, and Hockney's correspondence on the subject over the last two years. This book will revolutionise how we look at the art of the past. As Hockney himself suggests, "exciting times are ahead". --Jerry Brotton


'This book enriches the reader's understanding of the painting process and encourages us to look at paintings afresh. A valuable edition to any art educator's library.'
--Start Online

'A book of distinction which reshapes a valuable period of art history' --The Sunday Business Post

'Sumptuously illustrated, intriguing' --What's On in London

'A fascinating insight from an artist's viewpoint into the methods of great painters from Giotto to Cezanne, and also a stunning gallery of major paintings' --The Artist

'A theory that has shaken the art world to its roots ... a great excuse to look at the Old Masters in a new light'
--The Daily Express --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
152 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revolutionary view of European Art History. 14 Oct 2001
This is a seismic publication. It will rock the art world right down to its foundations. Hockney blows the lid clean off the secret practices of the Old Masters. He shows, with stunning clarity, that conventional European art historians have simply never understood the central and defining importance of optics - the cameras (obscura and lucida), mirrors and lenses that were all used to project images only flat surfaces. These made for very accurate painting. Artists liked it - so much easier and quicker. Clients liked it - so life-like, so real and so desirable. It was optics that made possible the uncanny, almost superhuman precision of Caravaggio, Canaletto, Vermeer, Holbein, Velazquez and many, many others. Not all the old masters used it, but most did and the rest were certainly influenced by it. Optics created realism in European visual art.
Why has all this come out now? Partly because the Old Masters were guild members and, for purely commercial reasons never revealed the tricks of their trade. They were too valuable. And partly because Hockney, ever the persistent and gleeful iconoclast, smelled a rat. Why were Ingres' exquisite pencil portraits so small, all the same size, so accurate and so quickly executed? How come Vermeer's paintings were so mathematically precise that a computer can exactly recreate his studio from the measurements taken from them? Why did so many Old Masters make very obvious errors in human anatomical proportion? Why did it all start in 1430 AD? In a riveting account Hockney describes his two-year journey to the certain realisation that it was all down to optics. He also shows that optics, in a tyranny of cold one-eyed precision, dominated European art for 500 years. Impressionism and, later, Modern art liberated it.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly convincing! 20 Nov 2006
Great book! I read it in one sitting! Hockney may well be derided as "popular artist" by the serious art world, but all fields of endeavour have their jealous guardians who stake their existence on consistency; a new viewpoint is rarely made welcome by them, and an outsider contradicts them at his own peril.

Nevertheless, the arguments about moving vanishing points, inconsistent perspective, left handed prevalences, optical distortions completely accurately rendered and so on are not going to just go away. They are well thought out, tightly argued and well illustrated (and were completely new to me!). It seems obvious with this in mind that any artist making a living from his skill would be very stupid not to use a tool to enhance the realism of his work and cut the time needed to churn these portraits out. Hockney entertainingly shows how this process had to include the use of lenses and mirrors.

More to the point, the use of such aids does not diminish the painters' skill. Their style is always recognisable and painters today would be hard pressed to create anything comparable. But it helps to know how human beings managed, in some cases, to achieve impossible levels of observational accuracy. So after a lifetime of interest in drawing, I immediately ordered a camera lucida to try it for myself!

A great read! Buy it!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ENVY AND JEALOUSY 4 April 2012
By pfvll
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The art world is well known for the prevalence of jealousy and envy among artists for the more successful among them. It's understandable, as many hard working, highly skilled artists are ignored while others, equally or even less skilled, become world famous, either by accident or because of superior marketing skills. For example, one often STILL reads that Picasso or Dali could not draw or even paint "properly", in spite of the fact that several world-travelled exhibitions of their works have featured early drawings and paintings by both artists showing draughtsmanship skills of the highest order and the ability to produce skilful representational paintings. In both cases, however, as they grew up and developed, they chose to take a different path and be judged by the results. Hockney has joined this exclusive group and produces uniquely stylised paintings, instantly recognisable, only because of the skills acquired in his classic training in drawing and painting, honed by hard work, dedication and long experience.

Life is unfair. Hockney has become a National Treasure, because he is an excellent artist, but also, perhaps, because he has not only survived to a ripe old age but achieved "grumpy but lovable old fart" status. Yet many of his contemporaries, equally skilled, are completely unknown or known only to a few knowledgable fellow artists.

Of course Hockney can draw. Anyone who says he cannot draw or paint "properly" is either blinded by professional jealousy or simply does not know what he is talking about. There is ample evidence on record in his published work. His teenage paintings and drawings show ample evidence of a great artist in the making.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An artist's study of other artists 18 Oct 2010
By Peasant TOP 100 REVIEWER
This is a book which only a working artist could have written; Hockney's insight comes not from a mad conspiracy theory but from his own expert knowledge of the process of drawing. It is worth noting that Hockney himself is a poor draughtsman who has struggled all his life with that aspect of art which consists in converting one's 3D view of the world - 3D because of binocular vision and parallax - into the 2D surface of a drawing or painting. If Hockney was a fluent draughtsman, he might never have asked himself the questions which led to this book.

Hockney's starting point is Ingres, a draughtsman of such genius that other artists are struck dumb with awe. Why, then, did Ingres in so many of his drawing and paintings, produce errors of proportion which a novice would have avoided. Something must be over-riding Ingres trained eye for the natural "canons" of the human body. What could it have been? Hockney is the first person to ask this simple yet iconoclastic question.

This book is produced in an epistolary style, allowing the reader to follow Hockney's thought processes as he explores the role that optical devices have played in the work of a number of artists. He supports his exploration with documents, opinions from relevant experts and, most compelling of all, the evidence of the paintings. By the end of the book, we have a fully developed argument with more proof than an unbiased audience would require.

Despite this, Hockney has been attacked repeatedly by readers and critics who have not understood his thesis. Proper reading of the book shows that Hockney does not consider the use of optics "explains away" the skill of artists who used them.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book!
The theory David Hockney is presenting is this book is very interesting! He has done an almost scientific research on methods of image transmission and demonstrate also in praxis.
Published 3 months ago by js kindem
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, great seller.
Seller had even underrated the actual condition of the book, it was actually perfect. Great reading for every art lover, and real fun. Read more
Published 5 months ago by owl
5.0 out of 5 stars great book
my daughter who as been studying photography for 4 years, as not put this book down , great book for people who know what they are talking about !
Published 6 months ago by tracey frier
2.0 out of 5 stars Secret Knowledge
I gave the rating 2 stars because although I had purchased as "used" I understood that fair ware and tear would be normal, I was not expecting some of the books pages to be... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Ricky
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful insight
This is a great example of how an artist sees famous art of his former fellow artists. He explains the mistakes in optics and how
it was made that way. Read more
Published 7 months ago by tobicool12
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Insight from a Master of the Subject.
I found this book thrilling and there is so much in it that it will keep me reading up the subject for some time to come.
Published 11 months ago by C. B. Heywood-Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant book
Hockney has gone up in my estimation - the camera lucida article supports the organisation producing them via Kickstrater ...and many others.
Published 11 months ago by R. J. Hobby
5.0 out of 5 stars Revealing!
An amazing book, full of revealing insights into the techniques used by the Old Masters. Any artist could learn so much from reading this.
Published 11 months ago by Mrs. L.C.
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written and handsomely illustrated
Hockney does an excellent job of describing how artists from the Rennaisance to the advent of photography used lenses, mirros and (non-recording) cameras to make their paintings... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Goff
5.0 out of 5 stars the best book of all time on Art
This is one of the best book that I have ever read on Art, Hockney is a brilliant, I could not put the book down. So many color paintings in the book. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Harry
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