Martin Gayford There are 82 portraits (and one still life) in your new exhibition at the Royal Academy [which runs from 2 July to 2 October]. You get the sense that it’s one work, as it’s a consistent set-up with most of the sitters on the same chair. It’s one of the longest cycles of portraits that I can think of in the history of art.
David Hockney Probably, yes. I realised I could do a portrait in three days. It’s about 20, 21 hours, seven hours a day, sometimes a bit less. I realised, if I could do them in three days, I could ask quite a few people to sit for me. Three days could be a Friday, a Saturday and a Sunday and somebody would just take one day off work. A week, I thought, was perhaps a bit much.
MG Has the time you spend on a painting changed since the early 1970s, when you were doing double portraits of people like Wayne Sleep and George Lawson?
DH With those portraits I sometimes went on painting when they weren’t there, but with these new ones I didn’t do that. I might paint a bit of background, but they had to be there for me to work on the figure. Three days is sufficient to paint, I think. You can do a portrait in an hour. I don’t think Van Gogh spent more than five days on anything. I painted Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell in a room with lights and all kinds of things, but in the portrait it’s just the figure I’m concentrating on and the plain carpet and curtain – never background or table or anything. I think it’s that that gives them their strength.
MG You once said that the silhouette is the most recognisable aspect of the human figure. Why?
DH If you know somebody – for instance my sister, I would recognise her on Bridlington Beach if I saw her a long, long way away. You could recognise her from a silhouette. I realised that was what I was doing. There must be a hierarchy of what you see first, second, third and fourth. The first thing I was seeing was the silhouette, and then I saw the face, then the hands, then the feet. That’s the order I was painting in as well.
MG You also once said to me that our faces belong to other people.
DH With your own face, you can see it in a mirror, you’re always arranging it or something, aren’t you? And yet you know other people through their face and I think they know what I look like. My assistant JP knows what I look like more than I do.
MG You think a lot about how we see things.
DH I always assume there’s a hierarchy of what you see. You have to see first, second and third. If you walk into a room, an alcoholic might see the bottle of whisky first, somebody else the table, somebody else the space. Each person has a slightly different memory. We don’t know what others see, do we? We don’t know how they see colour. I just had an eye done – a cataract on my left eye that made quite a difference.
MG What are you first drawn to when painting someone?
DH The shoes. Everybody has to decide on the clothes they wear. And even if they’re just sneakers, I noticed everybody’s were a bit different. The way the feet go on the ground are a bit different. Feet are rather interesting. In the hierarchy of painting, faces are the most difficult, then the hands, then the feet. And in a way, it’s the hands, feet and face that could tell you about somebody, isn’t it?
MG Is a portrait better than a photo at capturing the essence of someone?
DH A portrait is a 20-hour exposure. Most photos are a fraction of a second. I’ve always thought that pictures make us see things well. That’s why I think photography has been making the world a bit too dull. The world isn’t dull – it’s marvellous. I could watch raindrops on a puddle and find it interesting.
MG At the time of your Bigger Picture exhibition in 2012, you said you planned to carry on painting your native Yorkshire endlessly – but now you’re living in LA. Have you come to the end of what you needed to do there?
DH Well, if I went back I’d paint it again. I think now I’ll stay here. I’ve always been a resident of the US, never gave it up, I think I’ll always end up coming back here.
MG Monet carried on painting at a very high level well after his 80th birthday. At 78, is that something you’d like to replicate?
DH The Chinese have a saying: painting is an old man’s art. I told Lucian Freud that a long time ago. I think it is, actually. It means it’s an accumulation of things. With something like mathematics, everybody is probably under 25, but all really good painters did marvellous late work. When Picasso died, people said his late work was terrible. I never thought so. I can still stand up for six hours a day and paint. So I’m still OK. I’m just painting away.
David Hockney – Back in LA premieres 4pm Monday on Radio 4.