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Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,967 Ratings  ·  80 Reviews
Recently, David Hockney, often described as the "world's most popular artist", has made headlines not with his own work but with his sensational and controversial theories about how some of Western art's famous masterpieces -- paintings by artists such as da Vinci, Caravaggio, Velazquez, and Van Eyck -- were actually created. A chance observation of a drawing in London's N ...more
Hardcover, 296 pages
Published October 29th 2001 by Studio (first published 2001)
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Lois Bujold
Oct 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in art, optics, or how the world is seen
Recommended to Lois by: mentioned in documentary film

I came to this via the film Tim's Vermeer and the excellence of my county library.

Well, this is certainly not a book one could read on a Kindle. Hockney works a compelling example of "show, don't tell", though to be fair he does both. The book opens with a long section of large-format and well-reproduced pictures of paintings, essential to and the foundation of his arguments, goes on to a section of select quotes from historical documents about the uses of mirrors and lenses from Roman times onw
Honza Marcinek
Velmi zajímavá kniha o tom, jak ve skutečnosti někteří významní umělci namalovali svá díla. Používali různé nástroje, které jim pomáhali k namalování různých detailů, že pak obrazy vypadaly téměř jako fotografie.
Nicméně tyto optické pomůcky nevytvářejí výraz - vytvářejí jen obrazy a jsou prostředkem měření. Umělec zůstává odpovědný za celkové pojetí a musí být velmi dovedný, aby se vyrovnal s technickými obtížemi a přetvořil odraz v malbu.
Díky knize začnete objevovat překvapující podobnosti mez
Apr 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, non-fiction, british
Remarkable! Hockney convincingly demonstrates that, starting around 1430, artists used optical devices to capture figures and landscapes realistically. This accounts for distortions in perspective and Caravagio-like shadows because of the strong light needed to use lenses.
Impressionists and post-impressionists wanted to do something new and so became post-lens artists. This is a subject that has profound implications for the translation of three dimensional reality into two dimensions as is done
Al Bità
Jun 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This handsome publication sets down for the record David Hockney's long and detailed exploration of the techniques and technologies that may have been used by the great masters of European painting. He concentrates on the 500 year period from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. In the process one is led to a complete re-evaluation and re-appreciation of their work.

The journey was not simple or straightforward. It began with a close examination of Ingres,
Mar 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The secret knowledge is een fantastisch boek van de hand van een van mijn favoriete hedendaagse kunstenaars, David Hockney. Een paar jaar geleden haalde ik het al eens uit de bib, geprikkeld als ik was door de titel. Vandaag heb ik het voor de tweede keer uitgelezen en uitgekeken en niet begrepen hoe het kan dat ik dit nooit te horen kreeg in de vele uren kunstgeschiedenis.

Dit boek is opgehangen aan het vermoeden van Hockney dat veel schilders sinds het midden van de 15de eeuw optische hulpmidde
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the most remarkable books I can recall ever reading about any subject. It is so iconoclastic and written with such authority by a person so accomplished as a practitioner in the field he examines that the experience it provides is unique and the euphoria it induces is real.

Beginning with Van Eyck and heading forward through most every painter of note - Caravaggio, Velazquez and Vermeer most of all - they all used optics, lenses specifically, to accomplish the miracles they created
Jan 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
Great book.

I love controversy especially when it targets the art world, when it stirs up the way we perceive and look at great masterful works of art; when it throws a whole new massive spanner into the works.

Optics or eyeballed?

That is the question.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I savoured it because of the artwork and the new light shining on them. (I still find myself today picking it up to satisfy a looming question, checking out uncertainties.)

The author has written a good book wit
Jun 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best books about art, because there is a specific theory directly tied to how artwork is created and then many illustrations are deployed to prove the theory. Topics like biography, motivation, symbolism, etc are put to the side to focus on how artists see. The discussion on drawing with camera lucida is interesting, as Hockney brings up the concept that certain lines look more confident, but also he can see duration of time in lines (which lines were drawn at certain speeds). Hockney ...more
Sep 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2010
Researched and written by British artist David Hockney, this is a compelling book which explores the "how" of painting historically. Hockney's thesis is that artists — particularly those working in the Dutch and Flemish heyday like Van Eyck or Rembrandt — were aided by lenses, optics, and mirrors to help them craft realistic artworks.

In this visual essay, Hockney proposes that these high-tech methods date back hundreds of years further back than the common conception among art historians. The b
Jan 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
Pointed out some necessary things for a painter to realize. I sort of understood in general terms that old masters used particular techniques to produce some of the most realistic looking paintings ever made, but this told of those on the specific level when and why they used them and most importantly how. Optics played an important role in the development of old masters techniques and how those really shaped the reasoning and purpose of painting from the 17th century of painting to now. Hockney ...more
Mar 06, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, art
An interesting read, bad photoshop art has a long history.

The controversy is fun reading, see Wikipedia for details. On that note many of the paintings in the book are located near where I live and having inspected them after reading this book I can see optical distortion caused by the use of simple lenses, based on my image processing and optical design experience. Critics of the theory will have to explain how a 15th century artist "faked" that look. Unless of course the actual paintings don'
John Lambert
Sep 16, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very interesting book. Hockney's evidence that painters used optical devices to create almost photographic images on canvas is compelling. At the same time, there are artists that can do this by "eyeballing." Some of their work is in Aaron Brothers in the " How to Draw _______" section. I have no doubt that Hockney is correct. This is the most interesting art history book I have read. I enjoyed reading the way Hockney meticulously described and duplicated the processes used by master ...more
Austin Kleon
Jan 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book about the use of optics in painting from the 1400s on. Fantastic book design.
I return to this book a lot. I keep it next to my bed. AMazing!
Jorge Fecklesson
Beautiful. The grand perspectives were done by tracers, shows the great painters were resourceful as well as gifted with sight and vision. Deflate some of the current art world blowhards.
Jun 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Before you go to another art gallery with European painting from between 1400 to the impressionists, read "Secret Knowledge". This book will literally give you an entirely new lens for seeing and appreciating what is happening. This book mounts a compelling argument that lenses and particularly mirrors were used to aide artists in composition from near the dawn of perspective drawing.

As a result of reading this book, you will understand the improvements in renderings of the facial proportion, f
Stephanie Kesler
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really terrific and interesting. One will never look at the artwork of the masters in the same way again.
Sep 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A really interesting argument about the use of optics in European artwork from the 14th century onward, beautifully made over the course of the lavish illustrations and clever text. Do I buy it? I don't know. The influence of optics in some cases seems very strong, but as the book goes on, I got the feeling that Hockney had "optics on the brain" and was seeing them everywhere, even places that didn't (to me) look very compelling. I completely buy that Caravaggio probably used optics, for example ...more
Michael Meusch
His ideas on the Camera Obscura are fascinating but I'm doubtful that all of them use that technique. Hockney should realize, Art which in Ancient Greek means skill of hand. One can also read the works on Leonardo da Vinci and come to the conclusion that most masters had mastered the seeing process and were utilizing a plethora of techniques to invoke the seeing process and depending less on the camera Obscura.
May 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am late to the party, having discovered this book at my local library. I flat-out loved it and felt like I was having a conversation with David Hockney about that age old question...How DID they DO that? I am and have been for quite some time a fan of David Hockney's in regards to drawing and design skills, his use of pattern and color, his early adoption of iPads for painting, and his willingness to share information...he has some great educational content for young kids. I think of him as ve ...more
Oct 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a fascinating book. There are some grumpy reviews about it around the web, but I think a little controversy just adds to the mystery. The author demonstrates with many fascinating examples how artists may have used lenses to project images to aid in their painting. I've never thought so much about HOW art is created, and I've also never really thought about this potential bridge between photography and film and painting and drawing. I've never really been a huge art museum person, much as I ...more
Apr 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dit boek gaat over Hockneys fascinerende ontdekking dat de laatste 600 jaar heel wat kunstenaars, meer dan we ooit vermoedden, hun toevlucht genomen hebben tot optische hulpmiddelen (lenzen, spiegels, camera lucida,...) om waarheidsgetrouw te schilderen en te tekenen.
Zo herontdekte hij het gebruik van de kleine holle spiegel waarmee grote meesters als Jan Van Eyck of Giovanni Bellini al projecties maakten om hun portretten en stillevens een grotere figuratieve plausibiliteit te verlenen.
Ook hede
Jun 02, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all artists
the controversial theory Hockney puts forth about Renaissance painters in this book is actually beyond the controversy. historians and theorists have been fighting about this and tearing him (and each other) apart since this book came out, but it doesn't have anything to do with them. as a painter, this book speaks to me as exactly what he purports it to be: secret knowledge that has been lost to modernity. theorists might have to deny it in order to maintain the legitimacy of the old masters; i ...more
Sep 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I waited forever for this book. It was unavailable at the library and even Amazon had only a few copies. It was worth the wait.
I remember the New Yorker article detailing Hockney's "discovery" in 2000. Yes, lenses, mirrors and art history can be memorable for 15 years!
Hockney's passion is so compelling and contagious and the best part is, this is not an academic book. He's not condescending even when he brings in the experts. We see what he sees-- the whole first half of the book are painting re
Oct 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very beautifully published book with stunning photos and very strong thesis. Although I don't agree with all of Hockney's ideas (some of his examples and comparisons are biased. It's true that the whole range of optical instruments will help you to make more precise drawings but they won't apply the paint for you. None of the instruments mentioned by Hockney would help in actual painting) I can fully appreciate all the work he put into it and reccomend this book to everyone as a very i ...more
ANIOTUS Marcus Longmuir

An amazingly fast or incredibly detailed read, depending on your mood. Either way it is engaging and makes a strong case for the use of optical enhancements being used by artists considerably more than perhaps anticipated. The idea that was more remarkable for me was to learn the mechanics of building the physical space that is required to make the optics work and the close examination of subtle perspective and depth of field difference to show how sectioned paintings using these techniques are
Feb 01, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-and-stuff
A nice approach to intuitive analysis of the technology at play in paintings over time. Of course, it is very well illustrated and it is interesting to read a painter/photographer as he attempts to "prove" a theory about the use of camera lucida and obscura. However, the proof is merely observational in almost all cases. This doesn't mean it's unbelievable; it's just lacking a little oomph.

This book is very worthwhile, despite my 3-star review.
Feb 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I learned so much about painting today. The book is full of brilliant insights such as this quote.

"All drawn lines have a speed that can usually be deduced: they have a beginning and an end, and therefore represent time, as well as space. Even a tracing of a photograph contains more 'time' then the original photograph (which represents just a fraction of a second), because the hand takes time to do it."
Sep 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you can draw, this book will make you feel more talented and proud to have not used aides. It stands to reason that artists who are in the business of making art use what they can to improve the process and speed it along. But, today, if you have a job that doesn't require you to make art to pay the bills, you are free to explore techniques and technologies as you please with creativity as your primary concern. I find that liberating.
Jan 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of those great books that will permanently affect how I see art. Hockney's argument is that optical devices such as lenses and projecting mirrors were used since the early renaissance (and even before?) to create an early form of photorealism. The important idea is that art using these devices is very realistic but also fairly flat.
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David Hockney was born in Bradford, England, on July 9, 1937. He loved books and was interested in art from an early age, admiring Picasso, Matisse and Fragonard. His parents encouraged their son’s artistic exploration, and gave him the freedom to doodle and daydream.

Hockney attended the Bradford College of Art from 1953 to 1957. Then, because he was a conscientious objector to military service, h
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