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on 14 October 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. So now visual art can once again be human, eccentric, two-eyed and wonky.
Secret Knowledge is a big book and it's not cheap. But it's worth it. Fully half of it is devoted to beautiful, full colour reproductions of the great art works that Hockey uses to demonstrate his argument. His writing is not at all academic. It is crystal clear, cheerful, blunt, engaging, honest and totally persuasive.
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on 20 November 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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on 28 April 2002
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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on 4 April 2012
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. His few representational portraits, throughout his career, as well as many conventional pencil and colour pencil drawings, are clear evidence of classic drawing and painting skills. I am a particular admirer of his charcoal drawings, which show a remarkable ability to convey softness and tonal range as well as the high contrast and hard edges more typical of this medium.

As for his theories on the use of optical aids by great artists of the past, there can be little doubt that leading artists have, when required, used every aid technically available to achieve precision when needed - and why not? Grids, shadowgraphs and the camera lucida are techniques which would have been fascinating and irresistable to a skilled artist seeking to perfect his craft. Such techniques are taught in the better art schools alongside the more traditional skill of draughtsmanship.

It is also unarguably true that some great artists have, by hard work and enormous dedication, achieved the ability to reproduce the three-dimensional world they see onto a two-dimensional surface with extraordinary perceptual skill, so as to make the image appear convincingly accurate, without the use of instrumental aids. Some of Hockney's early paintings show that he was quite competent at that when he wanted to be.

Whether particular artists used optical aids to the full extent hypothesised by Hockney cannot now be known for sure. Nor is the Scientific American article a definitive "debunking" as claimed. It is a contrary opinion as subjective as Hockney's. We shall never know for sure, but the single-minded skilled professional striving for perfection is not something that has appeared only in the last century, and I suspect Hockney's theory, if not 100% correct, is nearer the truth than the denials of his critics.

This book is a fascinating exposition of some of the clever techniques the Old Masters could have used, and probably, in many cases, did use to achieve their extraordinary results. In no way does it denigrate their skills - on the contrary, it shows the amount of study and research needed to become a great artist. If you are interested in the craft of painting, this is required reading.
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on 29 August 2002
For me, Hockney's theories answer a lot of my wonder about works of art and artists, and it's a thoroughly good read, whether you paint/draw or simply admire art.
What I would say is that I'd thoroughly recommend trying to recreate the techniques Hockey illustrates, so you can fully admire the technical achievements of those pioneering artists, whose aims were often very different in the time before the invention of the camera.
An excellent book, well researched and well written - will be debated by art scholars for years to come!
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on 14 October 2001
This book outlines the discovery by David Hockney of how the 'overnight' invention of perspective was not that, but the clever use of a concave mirror to project a perfect image onto a canvas and to trace and/paint that image. At first a mirror was used as the quality of glass needed for a lens was not available, and this led to the pictures being about 30cm square. With the development of glass, lenses became available and pictures could be larger.
It is a remarkable discovery of the use of a technique which can be traced by looking at the development of art.
Excellent book.
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on 17 January 2016
I bought this as a Christmas gift for someone who has an interest in art but is not very familiar with it. It was very well received! It's written in a really accessible way and the points Hockney makes are backed-up with close-ups of relevant paintings etc. It's the sort of book you would dip in and out of, a coffee-table book. One of the quotes on the cover says that it will change change how you view Western Art and it certainly has made us see things we would not have noticed or appreciated before. Would recommend!
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on 17 July 2011
Hockney is on top form in this book; he presents his argument very convincingly. I remember the backlash he suffered when the TV programme was aired a few years ago but I think it's difficult to argue with him here.

It's a very easy read, makes total sense and who is going to argue with one of the greatest draughtsmen of our age?

If you think that drawing and painting are dvine gifts, don't read this. If you think that there's technique behind most things, even though they may have been lost, this is for you.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 October 2010
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 describes himself is an artist who has struggled all his life with drawing and especially 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. Instead, he considers the use of lens and mirrors a natural extension of the range of techniques available to artists from the Renaissance onwards. He links the use of optics to the scientific enquiries going on at the time, improving our understanding of the historical milieu in which artists worked.

Alongside his study of artists who used optics, Hockney examines the work of painters such as Raphael and Rembrandt who used the eye alone; he shows how their work develops differently as a result. He brings the study into the 19th century and links it to the knowledge we have about the way painters reacted to photography. His musings on the dominance of the lens in modern visual culture make the argument complete and well-rounded.

Throughout this book is exceptionally well illustrated with examples of what Hockney is talking about and diagrams of what is going on in the paitings, and how optics functioned for the artist. Anyone who wishes to read other studies of the use of optics should read Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces by Philip Steadman, and The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century by Svetlana Alpers

For a thought-provoking book on Hockney's theories, read Hockney on Art: Conversations with Paul Joyce
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on 9 January 2015
What a great and informative book. I came to painting a bit later on and didn't study art history. This book doesn't only provide you with an insight into what was almost certainly early use of projection assisted painting but also there's quite a lot of interesting art history in it too. I liked it so much I bought one for my art teacher for Christmas.
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