David Hockney's series of stunning watercolours invites viewers to journey along the sweeping roads and rolling hillsides of his youth. Ghislaine Kenyon reports
These four landscapes, currently on show at the Gilbert Collection at Somerset House, are details from a 36-part watercolour work called "Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004". Each work is painted on a sheet 38.1 x 57.2cm, and they are hung in six rows of six sheets each. The whole series can be seen in a sweep of vision as one work or examined as individual works.
Three features stand out. First, the colour harmonies - a restricted palette of clear greens, yellows, bluegreys and reds, which sing out at you. Second, the light - the bright light of open expanses has always attracted Hockney; here he exploits the watercolour medium, which allows pure thin pigment to be lit up by the light ground of the paper. Third, Hockney's viewpoints - in the 1980s and 1990s he famously painted the Californian scenery (he made his home in the Hollywood Hills in 1978), where we follow the snaking roads into dizzying perspectives, which Hockney has compared with Yorkshire views, such as "Roads and Cornfields in East Yorkshire 2004". Here, the sweep of the road is gloriously echoed in reverse by the curve of the hillside above it.
"Fields of Bales, East Yorkshire, Grey Day 2004" is another full-frontal confrontation with the hedge-lined horizon via perspective lines of the furrows, which jar satisfyingly with those in the more distant field. The vibrant green brushstrokes of the grass of the foreground may remind us of Vincent van Gogh, an artist Hockney greatly admired and who animated landscapes in a similar way.
The low viewpoint of "A Gap in the Hedgerow 2004" also helps us to "see differently" - we're in an anonymous patch of long grass looking out through the dark curtains of hedgerow into a peaceful green vision of meadow and field-covered hills. And "Bridlington. Rooftops and Clouds 2004"
again encourages us to lift our eyes and take in the contours and colours of the skyline (albeit an ordinary suburban one) to then focus on the swirling cloud world above.
Both Hockney's particular take on landscape and his approach to the watercolour medium make these paintings ideal resources for work in several curriculum areas for different key stages.
When we look at painted or photographed landscapes, we often have a subliminal need to "put ourselves in the picture", to imagine what it would be like to be in that place. To do that, it's easier if there are also people represented, because we can then work out the relative size of buildings or other features. Hockney does not help us in this way in "Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004", and the only human traces are occasional vehicles or buildings. This absence of people, particularly where there are long empty roads disappearing into the horizon such as in "Roads and Cornfields in East Yorkshire 2004", can affect our response to the work. If you discuss these pictures with your students, be prepared for adjectives such as "lonely" or "sad".
Hockney has worked in many different media, from oil and acrylic paint to printmaking (etching and lithography) and experiments with Polaroid and 35mm photography. He has even used photocopiers and fax machines to produce his art. However, from 2002, for three years, Hockney worked almost exclusively in watercolour, painting a series of works, which included a set of double portraits and some large landscapes made during visits to Norway and Iceland.
The watercolour medium can have unfortunate associations, calling to mind images of men in blue quilted anoraks painting diligent views of the high street, or Little Britain ladies with flowing scarves describing beaches or hillsides on summer Sundays. However, many great artists have used watercolour in strong and surprising ways, from the German artist Albrecht Duerer in the 16th century onwards; and Hockney in coming to the medium later in his career has also stamped it with his own vision of the world, evident in his clear well-drawn lines, flattened perspective, sense of pattern and luminous colour.
He has always been highly sensitive to his surroundings and in "Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004" he captures places he knew from his childhood and teenage years when working as an agricultural labourer in the Wolds. Later in the 1980s he regularly visited the area when his mother and sister settled in the seaside town of Bridlington.
These, then, are places that also have strong emotional associations for the artist. Watercolour painting (drawing directly with the brush) also links back to early artistic experiences, so that these works can be seen as a kind of "coming home", at a time when the artist is approaching 70.
* Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004 runs until February 19 at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2 R 1LA. The galleries are open from 10am-6pm daily. Admission costs pound;5 for adults, and school students can visit for free. Also at Somerset House, at the Hermitage Rooms, is an exhibition of watercolours by the great British watercolourists of 1750 - 1850. It includes works by John Sell Cotman, Francis Towne and JMW Turner, from whom Hockney drew inspiration.
Gainsborough to Turner: British Watercolours from the Spooner Collection is on until 12 February 12, open 10am-6pm daily. To book free gallery talk for these exhibitions, contact Learning at Somerset House
Tel: 020 7420 9406
Ghislaine Kenyon is head of learning at Somerset HouseHouse
David Hockney Born in 1937
David Hockney is a painter, printmaker and photographer. He was born in Bradford and studied at Bradford School of Art from 1953 to 1957, then at the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1962, where he won a gold medal.
Hockney lives in California. In 1970 he had his first major retrospective exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.
Art and geography
Use "Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004" to introduce watercolour technique.
If possible, buy good quality watercolour paper, such as Arches. Use it for portraits, landscape, still-life, and so on.
Try wetting the paper and applying pigment to a slightly sloping surface for a basic wash, or glaze over a dried wash with a thin transparent pigment, such as cobalt blue. For strong contours, such as those of the grasses in "A Gap in the Hedgerow 2004", use a brush loaded with pigment and very little water, and apply it to dry paper.
In addition to the above techniques, try more random and interesting effects: wet the paper, apply pigment and allow it to feather and bleed on its own.
Link art with a local geography project, by asking children to paint their favourite views in the locality.
Use the paintings mentioned above and other Hockney landscapes as a resource for students' own work on landscape.
Discuss these views, focusing on Hockney's choice of place, viewpoint and symbolism (what might an empty road winding into the distance stand for?) Ask students to make their own landscapes in any medium, with an emphasis on places with emotional associations and how to suggest these through colour and mood.
David Hockney By Marco Livingstone Thames and Hudson pound;8.95
A standard survey of Hockney's work in all media.
Hockney's Pictures David Hockney and Gregory Evans Bulfinch Press pound;26.89
An excellent range of images from all periods.
Images are available from:
Hockney's biography is available by visiting www.tate.org.uk