To See Clearly: A Portrait of David Hockney

Image of To See Clearly: A Portrait of David Hockney
Release Date: 
September 19, 2023
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: 

“a man who shared his creativity with the world and modeled how to live an authentic life in full view, placing importance on nurturing curiosity, and forever focusing on seeing the beauty in the world.”

In To See Clearly: A Portrait of David Hockney, author-illustrator and Sibert Medal winner Evan Turk offers a snaphot, a portrait, of the life of world-renowned artist David Hockney—and how he saw beauty in the world, in ordinary things, by simply paying attention—and then painted it.  Turk quotes Hockney, “It is the very process of looking at something that makes it beautiful.”

The story opens with Hockney as a boy living in a cramped house (with his parents and four siblings) during World War II in Bradford, Yorkshire. The climate all around them was depressing, “but the Hockney household was full of books, art, and love.” And David loved to draw—on everything! As he went about his day, he observed all that was around him, including the smallest of things. “David liked how drawing made him look more carefully at things. He found that when he sat down to draw one blade of grass, suddenly he started to see all the other blades of grass around it. The more he looked and drew, the more he saw.”

At the cinema with his father, David began to see brighter worlds, like California with its clear and sunny skies. As a student, he spent most of his time drawing, not focusing on his assignments. His mother saw how David was struggling in school and decided to find him an art teacher. He felt seen, and his artwork was supported, which helped David become a better student. And around this time, he experienced his first boy crush. His world became even more exciting and “David started to see himself more clearly, too.”

Indeed, a unifying theme in Turk’s portrait of Hockney is on the artist’s emphasis on seeing things clearly. Another quote from Hockney: “Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still.” And continuing to draw was exactly what Hockney did at the Bradford School of Art and at the Royal College of Arts in London. It was there that he met Adrian, an openly gay man (recall that being gay was illegal during this time). Turk notes that this friendship with Adrian, “who lived without hiding,” influenced Hockney’s artwork. “He began to put those feelings of freedom into his paintings.”

After finishing school, Hockney then decided to color his hair blond (because they have more fun) and off he left for Hollywood—fulfilling his childhood dream to leave the gray skies of England for the sunshine of California. Turk’s colored pencil, crayon, and gouache illustrations pop even more once Hockney reaches the brightness and excitement of Hollywood. His drawings are playful, vibrant, and exude happiness. And if the reader looks clearly and closely, Turk cleverly references several of Hockney’s paintings in the illustrations (and then notes these in the backmatter).

With his new home and new life in place, Hockney focused on the multiple ways of seeing things, trying to show “that the more carefully you looked, the more possibilities opened up.” He painted portraits of friends and successfully captured not just their outward appearance but their personality—like seeing the surface of water and “see(ing) through it to what was underneath.” David also fell in love with Peter and daringly became one of the first painters to show gay life in paintings. His art got the caught the attention of the world: “People were falling in love with the way he looked at the world and the beauty he saw in it.”

Hockney returned to England after losing many friends to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, painting the landscapes of Yorkshire to help cheer up friends in the hospital. And upon his return, he saw the landscapes of his childhood with new eyes and painted them in bright colors and bold patterns. “He always kept searching for new ways to see things,” and in his seventies he started painting on his iPhone and iPads. “He never got tired of finding new perspectives.”

As Hockney aged, Turk states, “He knew the only way to slow time down was to stop and look more carefully. And that the more time you take to look, the more you see how beautiful life can be.” As this story comes to a close, at 74 years young, with his gaze clearly locked on the young reader, Hockney proclaims, “I think I am seeing more clearly now than ever.”

As an openly gay author-illustrator, Turk’s choice to write To See Clearly: A Portrait of David Hockney about an openly gay artist was clearly done with intention. This beautiful book is a loving tribute to Hockney, from one artist to another, underscoring Turk’s awe and respect for a fellow queer man who has been an inspiration and mentor—a man who shared his creativity with the world and modeled how to live an authentic life in full view, placing importance on nurturing curiosity, and forever focusing on seeing the beauty in the world.