Book review: Secret knowledge – rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters. David Hockney

This review was first posted to Goodreads on May 11th, 2020.


I can rate this before getting anywhere near the last page because it’s a parallel of two BBC documentaries made in 2001 that details Hockney’s theory that many of the old masters used contemporaneously new technology as drawing and painting aids. The camera lucida for instance that allows for an image to be visible within a lens positioned over paper and that the artist can see to ‘trace’, and later the camera obscura that uses a larger lens to project an image onto a canvas or wood support in an enclosed room. It was upside down but this time it was in colour, the artist again traced over it and thereby managed to reproduce complex perspectives that hadn’t been seen just a short while earlier. Hockney notes a pivotal point before which patterned fabrics were flat against whatever form was underneath and after which they followed form in minute detail. “Between 1500 and 1860” he says, “you never see a badly done basket.”

Typically, there were no sketches; also typically these works were all of a similar size (the size governed by the projection), faces were brightly lit (subjects sat outside the room in strong sunlight), backgrounds were dark (because they didn’t replicate on the support), and everyone was left handed due to image reversal.

There are many other clues too, backed up by mathematics and measurers of misaligned perspectives, directions of gaze, and multiple use of the same image in larger paintings.

Hockney doesn’t judge and why would he – he’s a man who adopts 21st century century technology in the interests of artistic expression. Instead he observes, wisely in my view, that the use of new tools has always been part of the progression of art (personally I can think of at least two – the development of new and better pigments and the advent of acrylics as a medium), and the critical factor is what the artist does with them that matters, how they make the result their own, not the raw skeleton of the work. Elaborate, detailed, and naturalistic brocade brilliantly executed is still elaborate, detailed, and naturalistic brocade brilliantly executed and a poor practitioner would be lucky to make a coarse blanket of it.

The videos are on YouTube. Treat yourself.


Hockney, D. 2001. Secret Knowledge: rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Conboy-Hill, S. 2020. Goodreads. [online] Available at Written and accessed 11 May 2020.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Secret knowledge – rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters. David Hockney

  1. Yes, I watched a video about this a while ago. He’s right … and it’s so interesting to understand that the Master used techniques like Camera Lucida to make the process easier (and quicker). Today, the vast majority of us artsy type people don’t have months/nay, years to produce a work of art, so any trick or App we can find is always useful. There are a few Camera Lucida apps available that I’ve tried with varying degrees of success – not mastered any of them to be honest, as I found them a bit fiddly but i think if you are seriously doing portraits on a regular basis, it is valuable to invest in these aids. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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