Ken Done sees all the colours
Known for his vibrant and pulsing-with-energy paintings depicting iconic Australian moments from Sydney Harbour-scapes, to lazy beach scenes, to tropical coral reefs, to gardens bursting with flowers and life, Ken Done is an internationally acclaimed artist who aims to bring the experience of beauty and joy to a diverse audience. Our joint founder and Art Director, Lila Theodoros gets to talk art, design and colour with the man himself.
The Ken Done Gallery
1. On Australia’s colours:
He would “... get the bloody green and gold right, which always looks like a pineapple salad because they never get the bloody green dark enough and never get the yellow right.”
2. On art: “There are no rules in art so do whatever you like.”
3. To be an artist: “Simply begin by opening your eyes.”
4. A well designed t-shirt:
“... has got to work with a pair of jeans.”
5. The role of art: “... should be more like poetry.”
As a child of the 1980s, I experienced the national excitement of Expo ’88, the explosions of new colour ideas emerging in fashion and homewares, and the optimism of what it meant to be an Australian. I grew up in the Age of Ken Done.
My first memory of a ‘Ken Done’ was on my mum. She emerged one morning from her room wearing Done top to bottom – a matching two piece ‘suit’ – a high waisted flowing skirt and a smart, tailored for the 80s and featuring amazing shoulder pads, light weight jacket. She wore it with the kind of joy that a special outfit brings – it makes you sway and dance and smile; it lifts you and makes the day a little brighter.
I would see the suit in her cupboard, hanging proudly in amongst a dull mix of early 80s standard greys and pastel pinks. Staring at this outfit, I could see vibrant shapes, moving and jumping and swirling. The movement of this outfit was hypnotic, the colours radiating from inside her tiny wardrobe, in our tiny house on our rural property outside of Murwillumbah, in northern New South Wales.
Art was in our home. Beauty was hanging in the wardrobe. Ken Done was a part of our lives.
Ken did the unheard of – he made beauty in art accessible, lucrative and – maybe unknowingly – inspired the next generation to reach for colour, joy and success in whatever creative field they would go on to choose. Growing up we had an accidental hero – a hero for all the kids who struggled with the idea of being anything but creative. Our hero changed the face of creative Australia and showed us that we could be an artist, we could be creative and we could make an actual living.
Before he became the unofficial ambassador and promoter of Australia, Ken spent his early years growing up on the Clarence River, in the NSW town of Maclean. His language of colour began developing at a very early age and his memories of these formative years are speckled with a vibrancy and positivity. “When the Clarence was in flood, it was this amazing khaki floating river with bits of purple hyacinth floating down on it – it was beautiful,” he tells me as we chat on his landline phone in his studio overlooking Sydney Harbour.
The Australia of Ken’s youth was projected in dull or sepia tones – television, magazines, fashion – and colour was a rarity, only bursting through in lovingly tended garden beds or vibrantly painted-with-love homes.
“When I was growing up, the kind of gardens and houses you would see in Maclean or Grafton, had the most wonderful coloured flowers that people would feel thrilled about, and yet that wasn’t reflected in the colour of clothes they would wear.”
It was this ability to actually see, appreciate and appropriate colour that would later set Ken’s work apart and establish him as an internationally acclaimed artist.
When Ken was around ten years old, his family moved back to Sydney, where he spent his school days travelling by steam train from his home in Springwood to school in Katoomba. “It gave me my love of trains and travel, but didn’t add anything to my love of school – which I really didn’t like very much. Mostly my school days were spent gazing out the window, thinking about things,” he not so fondly remembers.
The not-very-interested-in-school student managed to create an express route that led him to enrol in East Sydney Tech at the age of fourteen-and-a-half, one of the main colleges that taught art. And he loved it from the start. This was the beginning of his path towards an incredibly successful career as an art director and designer in New York, London and Sydney. Ken’s creative achievements during this time revealed his ability to see in creative composition and to problem solve with engaging visual stories for big brands that admired and respected his vision, optimism and his Australian-ness for giving everything a go.
“The thing that seemed to impress the most was that I could do lots of different things,” he says of his advertising days, “which was in a sense the Australian experience. You know, ‘Can you do a poster?’ Sure. ‘Can you do an annual report?’ Sure. ‘Can you do a line of lettering?’ Sure. You had to be multitasked in Australia, and the Australian experience would be that you’d give everything a go.”
“I didn’t particularly want to work for a big advertising agency, but they gave me a big office and a big desk and all of those kind of things, so you do it. Advertising and design can be a fascinating business if you have nice clients and in all those years I had wonderful clients. I convinced Baccardi we should shoot underwater in the Caribbean, we shot swimwear in Portugal and Greece and I won a Cannes Gold Lion for the best cinema commercials in the world. I worked with Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor – who went on the become The Goodies – on a series for Campari. I enjoyed the advertising business, and I was good at it.”
But Ken’s true creative path came to him when he was 40 years old.
“I came back to Australia and worked here for another five years, eventually taking over from Bryce Courtney to be the Creative Director of J Walter Thompson, but I didn’t want to do it anymore, you know? I wasn’t passionate about it. I was in New Caledonia on a late Sunday afternoon and I was talking to Peter Brock, and he was talking about motor racing and just how passionate he was about it, and I realised I was much more passionate about art than I was about advertising and so we flew back to Sydney and I resigned the next morning. I gave up everything. You know, if you want to do it, there are no shortcuts, you just have to do it,” he matter of factly tells me.
Most of us can’t really comprehend a future where we get to dramatically change what we have been doing for so long, to simply pursue a long-held-in-our-heart passion. But Ken did. And he was great at it.
“You’ve got nothing to lose, it can only not work you know, and so then you’ll do something else. But it’s the experience of doing it – it’s like a painting, they’re not all great, I mean some of them I hope are, but the ones that don’t work, you know they don’t work, but you’ve learnt something from it and you can move onto the next one,” he says with incredible wisdom, hidden in a warm straight up Australian tone.
Ken talks in pictures. Ken talks in colours. His words take you on a visual journey, where images and scenes flash past your eyes as you listen to him explain the most complex creative ideas in his flowing and visually descriptive language.
I am fascinated by Ken’s work history. Art director turned artist is an amazing leap and I need to know more. I ask Ken what is the biggest difference between being an art director and an artist. And, of course, “It’s quite simple …”
“As an art director, essentially you are solving a problem, and the problem is reasonably well-defined. You want to do ads that work and the definition of them working, you can plot that. You are surrounded by lots of people, so you’re getting the constant feedback and interaction with what you’re doing, as to whether it is good or bad. But with painting, you’re setting the problem yourself.”
And then I ask I him the question that rolls around in my own mind anytime I want to try and break out of my commercial problem solving world and make something that I have independently directed. How do you set that problem as an artist? And Ken answers without missing a beat. He knows the question. He knows the answer.
“It depends what kind of painter you are. I don’t sit in front of a vase of flowers and paint a vase of flowers. I’m much more interested in thinking about what I might feel about a vase of flowers if that’s what I’m doing. In other words, I’m setting the problem myself. I might start off with having an idea about the vase of flowers, seeing the softness and the pinkness and the sensuality of the flowers, and that could very well turn into a nude. Who knows where it’s going to take you. It’s an adventure and the end result, only you can decide whether it is good or bad.”
I listen and a familiar knot of anxiety starts to churn in my stomach as I imagine pouring myself into personal work, where I alone have set the problem, and I alone have decided that it is good. I ask Ken about the transition from solving a problem set as an art director and then leaping into the much more personal and emotional experience of an artist.
“Art teaches you more about failure than success and the failure is the drive to get better at it.”
I digest this Ken Zen, which is what I start calling his short and sharp drops of wisdom – BAM! – as he continues to talk about feeling for the lonely painter and their isolated creative existence.
“It is different for me, you know, I have staff, I’ve got a big gallery and I have some kind of structure around me. I feel for the lonely painter, because it is a lonely job. There will be somebody sitting in a small studio in Bangalow at the moment, thinking ‘Well, what the fuck am I doing? It might be the most beautiful environment but I’m so immersed in this painting and it’s not going right, how can I fix it up?’. My only advice can be bigger brushes and work faster, but then even that sounds like a rule.”
Ken is forever the Australian – all anti-rules, anti-establishment, pro-beauty, pro-optimism.
“I never start to do anything to upset anybody, and even though those words like ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘decorative’ are not spoken of in certain artistic circles, well I think they’re wrong. I think beautiful is a lovely word, as is decorative. It is okay to do those things or to try and elicit that response, especially in the troubled world that we live in.”
“I think, in the time that we live where you can see, while you’re having dinner at night, suicide bombers or Donald Trump – there is so many horrific things happening in the world – that I think the role of art should be more like poetry.”
Ken’s incredible talent comes from a seemingly unending ability to draw inspiration from the world around him. And, what may seem like a mundane snapshot of life, in Ken’s mind, becomes a sweeping, lyrical canvas of colour, pattern, emotion and experience. In one small conversation, Ken explains where to find inspiration and then paints an incredibly visual experience while talking to me on his landline phone, leaning back in a comfortable chair, and looking out of the window of his studio overlooking Sydney Harbour.
“If you’re an artist you simply begin by opening your eyes,” he explains as he glances out the window and starts painting me a picture.
“From where I’m talking to you now, the back of the studio faces the overseas terminal. There is a big P&O boat in at the moment, so in the top of the image if you will, is a long white boat with endless windows and suites on the boat. Just below that is the overseas terminal itself, which is a rather kind of 1950’s design, which is also broken up into a whole series of squares, and bits of coloured glass. Then if I take my view down a little lower, I see another kind of series of squares. Then if I go even lower, there are a couple of people walking along the pavement which is also patterned. So in other words it would be easy enough I reckon, to make a painting that consisted of all of those squared patterns. Now, I wouldn’t want to paint it photographically, but it could be quite an interesting pattern. A man is about to walk past and he has one of those absolutely amazing fluoro tops that workmen have, so in amongst all of those squares and all of those things, certainly you would put a little bit of absolutely fluorescent yellowy green, and you know you could get a picture out of that.”
We talk about the importance of ‘slowing down to see’ and Ken says that we should “see with the eyes of a child”. I tell him about my nearly-four-year-old son and how amazed I am at how he sees the world. And so matter of factly Ken says, “There is nothing that you will ever own that is more important than the drawings that little boy will do over the next four or five years. It will tell you everything he feels about you, and his life, and the world in general.”
Ken’s own grandchildren have grown up visiting and painting in their grandfather’s art studio, and being surrounded by the world of Ken Done Colour.
“I have got three grandchildren, two girls and a little boy, and the little boy is four and his whole class is coming in next Monday to the studio, and I’m doing a drawing that they are going to colour in. I often go to schools and I am always stunned by how beautiful the things that the kids do are.”
“They live in a world which is saturated in colour. If you go back to my world, you went to the movies and they were in black and white, you opened a magazine and it was brown and white. Now days, your son is seeing so many images on television and so many different things using colour. People used to say to me that ‘Ken Done is taking the beige out of Australia’, and that was kind of flattering. And when they would describe my work they would say ‘We love your colours’. Well, they aren’t my colours, they are everybody’s colours.”
I confess to Ken my almost daily anxiety as a designer in having to create colour palettes that work and ask the Godfather of Colour, how does he work so successfully with colour?
“It’s just something that you feel, it’s something that you feel. It is just like notes on the piano, one colour …”, he breaks, his eye catching a scene outside his studio window.
“There’s a girl that’s walking past and she has a kind of khaki-green top on and a pair of jeans but she’s got an amazing orange-vermilion purse hanging over her shoulder. Now, that vermilion purse makes the khaki look even more khaki. So it is always one colour against another colour just like notes in music.”
Then, he is quick to reinforce, “But there are no rules, so it’s whatever you like. There are no rules in art so do whatever you like. Do whatever you like.”
Admiring the art director that he was – and always will be – I ask him about “The T-Shirt”. The first, small run, promotional only t-shirt that he created to launch his first ever exhibition in 1980 as he transitioned from the advertising world, to his passion of art.
“I did a drawing of the Sydney Harbour for the first exhibition in blue and white, which was a drawing on a canvas in the Holdsworth Gallery, and I made 12 t-shirts. I put numbers on them. I thought that they would just be given to the press. Well, one of them I gave to a woman called Marion Von Adlerstein who used to be a major writer in Vogue, and she absolutely loved it. She said ‘you can hang a Done on the wall or a Done on yourself; there’s an integrity to everything he touches’, which is a lovely thing to say and I tried to keep true to that. Everything we’ve done over those years, whether it’s a scarf or swimwear, you’ve just got to design it as well as you can. But that first Sydney Harbour t-shirt, did certainly set the wheels rolling because there was nothing like it that you could buy that said ‘Sydney is a really nice sophisticated city’.”
Creating a t-shirt that “has got to work with a pair of jeans” seemed to be the catalyst to the Ken Done I grew up with – art that was accessible, beautiful and in my home.
“As soon as I had done them, people wanted some more, so we printed some more. Then I had the staggering idea to print them in a different colour. And people loved those. And then ‘wait a minute, let’s do a sweatshirt’ and ‘wait a minute …’.”
I finally ask the man whose art could be found in most homes in Australia – and all over the world – at one time in one form or another, who played a crucial role in the visual representation of Australia to the world at the Sydney Olympics, who was a Unicef Ambassador, what he now considers success to be.
“In a tiny way success to me means I go up to the art shop up here and I can go in and get whatever I want. Whereas when I first started, I had to save up to get a decent sheet of paper. Now I can walk into an art shop and have whatever I want. That’s a kind of level of success.
“Waking up each day and realising that you’re still here and live in Australia, that’s pretty good too.”
Ken’s new book, Paintings you probably haven’t seen is out now.