The $90.3 Million Painting That Reveals Unique Photography Methods.


A Masterful Piece of Art.

The 1972 painting entitled “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” by legendary British painter David Hockney fetched the highest auction price ever for a living artist as it sold for a jaw-dropping $90.3 million last month.

A man in trunks swimming underwater is being carefully observed by a depiction of a male figure, the pink-jacketed painter, standing at the edge of the pool.

What on earth made this piece of art so valuable? It has been argued that the interpretation of its elements could produce an entire written thesis. It is possible, with a photographer’s eye, to dissect this masterful piece of art since it is interesting to see parallels between the painting itself and what a good photograph should look like.

By applying the rules of photography we can inspect the composition of the painting.


Ironically, perhaps the most important rule of photography is broken when observing the painting as such. Note that the man in the pink jacket is casting a shadow. It has distinct borders and shows a sharp outline. If it was a photograph that would mean that it would have to have been shot well after sunrise and not shot during the golden hour as the painting depicts.


At first glance, this appears quite bewildering. Depicting water is one of the hardest tasks for artists. How can water be painted? Can water be depicted as a monochromatic blue region in the medium of paint? This is what separates others from Hockney. Painting water in its most natural form is an art that he has discovered and made him well-known.

Against a relatively serene water surface the details of the ripples and their intricacies are depicted here. The reflection of light back onto the water’s surface are beautiful features that can only be shown when sunlight hits water. A photograph shot taken at Golden Hour would not show these features.

Lens and EXIF Data.

What could have been the settings used if this were a photograph? The field of view is neither wide nor too narrow. A 50mm lens would be the best estimate of what would be required to capture the shot. There is a good amount of depth of field that is present in the image. Also notice the sharpness of the hills in the background. The f-stop was probably set to around f/16.

In this instance, what would be the shutter speed? There is absolutely no motion blur on the image of the swimmer. There are exceptional details to be noticed on the water’s surface as well. So, this may have meant that the shutter speed was high; maybe at least 1/400?


Now imagine trying to take this photograph at 11am in the morning on a clear sunny day. The manual mode of your DSLR is set to on. As mentioned above, you have dialed in 1/400 and set to f/16. What do you think will be the ISO (assumed to be on AUTO) for the light meter indicator to be in the center? Wouldn’t it be probably around ISO 400?

This is where we encounter the Sunny 16 rule; without using a light meter it is possible to achieve the correct daylight exposure via a method of estimation. The basic rule states that, “On a sunny day, set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO setting for a subject in direct sunlight. That means if you dialed in f/16 and Auto ISO goes to 400; set your shutter speed to the reciprocal of ISO, i.e. 400 in this example. That gives 1/400!

Rule of Thirds.

Situated at the rightmost third of the image is the man in the pink coat. We can identify the primary subject in such a photograph by placing him in this third. Indeed, the title Portrait of an Artist reinforces this feature.

Triangles and Leading Lines.

It is often helpful to have as many triangles as possible in your photograph. And triangles heavily dominate this piece of art in particular. On closer inspection, there are at least 25 triangles in the piece.

You will notice if you look carefully the incorporation of several different triangles. The most obvious ones are formed by the blue water of the pool and its surrounding pavement; then there are the slightly less obvious triangles formed by the hills, the trees, the leaves in the far right and even the small portion of the visible sky; and finally, the cleverly incorporated esoteric hidden triangles formed by the standing man’s shoes and even the swimmer’s head, upper body, hips, thighs and feet.

There is also a shape of a triangle as you notice the inclination of the swimmer’s hands and legs. But most importantly, our attention is constantly drawn back to the two subjects by all the “leading lines” that form triangle shapes.

Staggeringly, what is known as an implied triangle goes completely unseen yet is present as what would be the most striking triangle in the composition. The implied triangle is formed by 3 elements:

1. the line of sight of the standing man as he observes the swimmer,

2. the swimmer’s body itself, from his feet to his head as he reaches the edge of the pool towards the man’s feet,

3. the man’s stature itself from his feet towards his head and ultimately his eyes.


This feature keeps us engrossed and the invisible triangle plays on and within our subconscious mind as we view the image. Our eyes are mostly focused on and repeatedly drawn to the two subjects despite our depth of field. Profound interest is generated by the visual tension added to the image by the calmness, tranquility, and peace implied by the blue and green hues of colour.

Frame Within Frame.

A frame around the swimmer prevents his importance from being undermined in the image by the edges of the pool as well as the subtle colouring even though the swimmer seems to be the secondary subject.

Colour Scheme.

Finding opposite colours in what is known as the colour wheel isa good basic guideline to follow when deciding to choose complementary colours to oppose one another. For example, the color opposite to Red in the color wheel is Green, hence the artist has contrasted the red (pink) jacket with lots of green in the hills and the trees.

A cleverly placed orange strip along one of the pool’s edges that the swimmer is facing offsets the blue of the water in the pool; subtle, but necessary since there is a lot of blue dominating the foreground. After all, blue and orange are opposites in the color wheel!


So, you might already be aware or know that David Hockney is a famous photographer as well which makes a lot of sense when you consider the composition of the painting and how it may have been devised.

The characters in the painting were based on hundreds of photographs that he took before starting the painting. Working almost 18 hours a day he was able to complete the painting in two weeks but relied heavily on the photographs that he had taken previously – images that showed the minutiae of the splendid effects of light on water, for example – and combined this effects with his ingenious painting skills.

A perfect composition and a well-balanced image were the results that were produced from this combination of working styles. A photograph of the same scene will look ordinary. Turning it into a painting made it not only extraordinary but also one of the most revered ones of the 20th century.

But after this analysis, we might posture that your photographs could well be worth a bundle if you follow these rules to get that composition exactly right.

Words by Elijah (Content Marketer).