‘I transformed it’: watch David Hockney’s painting process by the side of a Yorkshire road

In behind-the-scenes footage from an award-winning documentary, the British artist shows his en plein air painting style


"Hockney Unlocked" is a series of 80 short films produced, directed and edited by Bruno Wollheim. The films are outtakes from Wollheim’s award-winning documentary, "David Hockney: A Bigger Picture", filmed single-handedly over five years with David Hockney. Here, Wollheim writes a commentary on some of the short films informed by a friendship stretching back 30 years.

This scene on Woldgate sums up David Hockney’s rigorous domestic organisation and routine that went hand-in-hand with a busy schedule of outdoor painting. It was May 2006, at the height of spring, during a period of around ten days that David called “Action Week”, when his battle to record nature in all its variety over the seasons was at its most intense. Ever practical and down-to-earth, he was not one to lose an hour in the car going home for lunch. The 4x4 had been adapted into a painting machine, with shelves to accommodate the wet 3ft by 4ft canvases, the paint palette trays and the picnic.

David was working en plein air in an Impressionist manner—outside and on the spot—not in the studio, or at least as little as possible. Because of the changeable English light and weather, he was trying to finish a canvas that same day, which was not always possible. Consequently, he might find himself working on several paintings at once, ready to be continued at particular times of days or in particular weather conditions. And because conditions and light were almost never identical, he became adept at making swift alterations, as here. Now it was mid-afternoon and he was intent on completing a canvas that had mostly been painted in the evening light.

That morning David had already completed a half-finished canvas of a tree on the Rudston-Kilham road, and had also gone to visit two other sites he was in the midst of painting, The Vista (now called The Road to Thwing) and The Tunnel.

Jean-Pierre Goncalves de Lima had started working with David in London back in 2001. I had met “JP” in London in 2002 when I was filming Double Portrait and he was an occasional studio assistant and sitter. It was in Yorkshire where he was to prove himself increasingly indispensable, first during the summer of 2004 when David was painting in watercolour, and then from 2005 when he was starting to work in oils. Without a fine art background, JP had to pick up his studio skills as he went along, while all the time recording David’s painting practice on a still camera. By 2007 he had replaced David Graves as the principal studio assistant; now in 2020 he rules the whole Hockney roost.

For the record, David drinks non-alcoholic beer. He gave up alcohol and caffeine on advice from his doctor after being diagnosed with pancreatitis.

• David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is now available online