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Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (60th Anniversary Edition) Paperback – 5 May 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; 60th Anniversary Ed edition (5 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500600201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500600207
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 2.6 x 29.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,796,182 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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 text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


`The publishing house has rarely put a foot wrong in its 60-year history' -- GQ

`You will refer back to these precious books again and again'
-- Attitude

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
A lavish book of quality reproductions, that alone makes it worth owning. For me Hockney presents enough convincing argument that intrinsic genius is a myth - a myth that all artists and illustrators working today who are capable of painting like the 'masters' know it is. It's always good to see the deification of artists challenged. Hockney presents plenty of examples of all the reasons he believes optical devices were used while still appreciating these paintings for the fantastic examples of the artist's skill that they are. A well balanced viewpoint is presented and the reader is invited to make up his or her own mind. One point he missed that I noticed was how many of the pets (dogs, cats etc) are of a lessr 'quality' of realism than the people in the paintings - not so good at sitting still but then the artists always had access to stuffed animals.
However, to see David Hockney's viewpoint on the matter I think it helps greatly if you have spent years and years of hard work developing your observational skills as a painter and draughtsman and you are not afraid to use the technology at your fingertips in your work, then I think you can completely understand your peers of centuries past.
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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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