Hockney, who must be the most famous living artist, has been portrayed recently as an increasingly sad and disillusioned figure, missing close friends who have died of Aids, half-imprisoned by his deafness, working on abstract, figureless paintings without the instant appeal of his earlier work. Meeting him on a visit to his new exhibition in Manchester, however, I met a man who seemed to have regathered his forces. If he has been through a bleak period, he is out of it, fighting and looking forward again.
In the course of a recent hour-long talk, Hockney announced his return to more representational painting and proclaimed that photography was dying, beaten by drawing. Politically, too, he seemed optimistic, forecasting a more open, democratic age in which the power of information technology will liberate us from a world-view dominated by CNN and the big press barons.
Manchester, on the day we met, felt like a negative of Hockney's California - dark, cold, undecorated and functional, a city of dour down-to-earth people getting on with their post-industrial business. Hockney seemed dressed more for Manchester than LA, in a rumpled grey chalk-stripe suit, baggy cardigan and plain tie. Very tall and stooping, like a great black heron, he sat in an upstairs room of the City Art Galleries, sipping and smoking and still sounding more like Alan Bennett than Andy Warhol.
His exhibition, though, is a glowing, retina-scorching box in the room below us, and his talk is all of colour, and the light of California and Mexico. British people were timid about colour. He thought it was to do with the weather. "Look at Manchester today - you don't see colour like I do at home... the clouds are too low, too low over your head." We discussed SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, the depression caused by lack of natural light; Hockney said he thought he'd always suffered from it.
But back to Vermeer, another great painter of light, whose paintings Hockney is particularly keen to talk about. The exhibition - one of the great art events of 1996 - had, it seemed, been something of a revelation. "I was deeply impressed, more impressed than I thought I would be," says Hockney.
"When I went back to California I happened to joke that Vermeer's colour is going to last longer than MGM's colour - and it's 350 years old already. That is true because Vermeer made a very, very fine physical object and put the colour on with very great care and thought." At the Hague, after seeing the exhibition, Hockney had wandered about the streets watching people in windows, catching echoes of the paintings, and thinking about the light used by Vermeer 10 miles away in Delft.
"I was so impressed with this I went back and I realised that in California we have terrific light - that's why Hollywood is there, isn't it?" With a very good north light streaming into his studio, he created an electric system of movable curtains ``so I could manipulate the shadows'' and set to work. He had been struggling for some time with how to do a portrait of his sister Margaret, and he began too on a series of flowers (because flowers ``are cultivated nature''). Many were sunflowers - and not only because of the Van Gogh references.
Shortly after Hockney returned from Holland, his friend Jonathan Silver - who opened the Hockney museum in Bradford - sent him 59 sunflowers for his 59th birthday. "He did that because when I was ill he had sent me sunflowers. I wanted to paint yellow pictures, yellow being the colour of hope." These are not the first still lives or portraits that Hockney has attempted in recent years, but his attitude to them seems different.
In the early Nineties there were a series of flower and fruit paintings and the 60 to 70 portraits (smallish, like the new ones) which cover a wall of his home. He regards those portraits as a single work - ``they were done very quickly... they weren't particularly psychologically penetrating. They were appearance. I was trying to record my friends.'' It was all part of the aftermath of 1989, the worst year of Hockney's life, when he suffered from an illness that forced him into hospital and he lost many friends from Aids.
This time also marked the "Very New" paintings which dominate the Manchester show. It takes a selection of Hockney's photographic collages from the mid-Eighties, including the famous Pearblossom Hwy, and then follows their use of multiple viewpoints to the highly-coloured, scored, decorated and semi-abstract "VN" paintings, which are Hockney's most recent well-known works - and have sharply divided the critics.
Manchester demonstrates that they are not a break with Hockney's earlier preoccupations at all. Indeed, in small details, such as window-like holes and foot-like objects protruding from the bottom of the canvas, they refer explicitly to photographic and more naturalistic works. And, like his opera sets, they are highly theatrical.
Hockney says they partly derived "from a three-year period in which my studio was never free of a theatrical model with lights". But it isn't only the lighting of the VN paintings that is operatic; so is their emotional content. He speaks of his drives through the Santa Monica mountains in his red Mercedes, with Wagner playing, in that darker period. "I was playing Parsifal on that drive; Parsifal is about wounds, illness, that I now realise was quite obsessing me when I was choreographing that drive [partly for the internal `landscapes' of the VN paintings]... I have no doubt it was linked to it."
These paintings do indeed have some of the claustrophobic, highly physical feel of being inside, and about, the human body; they are also Parsifal paintings, paintings about pain. Hockney relates that he had included the image of ``a small red mountain'' in one: after he was in hospital, his friend Henry Geldzhaler told him he thought it was a reference to a blood clot. The painter is not displeased by the idea.
Now, though, there seems to be a keenness to return, via Vermeer, to ``yellow hope''. One of the last works in the Manchester show, the dancing, romping and enormous Extending Path, which was painted with a long brush, like the ones used by Matisse in old age, has something of that simpler, more joyous spirit. Hockney calls it a form of performance art, "drawing with the whole body moving... I was drawing with the shoulder and moving along. It was a choreographed drive, like one done in the mountains with the car."
It was a one-off exercise he is not likely to repeat. But all through our conversation he has spoken, above all, as a maker of marks. And now, along with his return to representational painting, he is exuberantly optimistic about drawing, as opposed to photography "which I have entirely given up". His argument is simple and fascinating: the arrival of easy- to-use and high-powered computing, and high-definition screens, which give rich colour and texture, allow us to interfere with photographic images and make new images all the time.
Photography, therefore, is "losing its veracity". Hockney argues that, at the end of a century which has echoed to claims that painting is dying, "on the contrary, it is photography that is dying. It's being altered by drawing - drawing, meaning you rearrange things on a flat surface, pretending it's space... New software, new screens, bring back drawing." You only need to think of the dominance of graphics - drawing - in computer games and models, as well as in printed media, to see his point.
So: from a time of darkness to stronger light; from scrumbled, disturbing "internal landscapes" to still lives and portraits; from photography to drawing? That is, no doubt, a simplistic, journalist's rendering of Hockney's own extending path. But, as his collision with Vermeer should prove, this is not an artist who has lost the capacity to be surprised; nor, therefore, to surprise the worldn David Hockney's "You Make the Picture", sponsored by Manchester Airport and BMW (GB) Ltd, is at Manchester City Art Galleries, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 (0161-236 5244) until 2 Feb
His exhibition of flower paintings and new portraits opens at the Annely Juda Gallery, Dering Street, London W1 (0171-629 7578) in April