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Ken Done is an Australian icon
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Ken Done is an Australian icon
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Ken Done is an Australian icon
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"No one escapes the hills and valleys of life, no one. And I’ve had plenty of hills, and a few valleys. But you can’t dwell on them."
Conversations
27 March 2017

Ken Done is an Australian icon

Interview by Amandine Thomas
Photography by Amandine Thomas

Amandine Thomas on Ken Done

Having not grown up in Australia, cultural references are often lost on me. Quotes from popular movies, iconic foods and lyrics from Australian bands have me secretly Googling “The Castle Synopsis” or “What is Vegemite made from?” That is exactly how I came across Ken Done’s work, having heard his name mentioned with the same sort of affection as a childhood memory.

Everyone in the Dumbo Feather office remembered once wearing Ken Done bathers or a Ken Done hat. His work is so inherently Australian—with its iconic renditions of the Great Barrier Reef or Sydney Harbour—that my friends and colleagues seem to have claimed him as a part of their own stories. A monument to Australia’s landscape, culture and way of life.

But beyond being an Australian icon, Ken Done is first and foremost a talented painter—who wasn’t always recognised as such. With a previous career in advertising and a massive commercial success in the 80s, followed by a fall from popularity, Ken isn’t your typical artist. Critics have often been harsh, deeming his work too commercial, but he always stayed grounded. “You have to make money to be able to do what you want to do. And there is nothing wrong with that,” he says, with the authority of someone having started his painting career at 40, with a family to support and a mortgage to pay off. “Now the wheel has come right back around,” he laughs, happy to see his work embraced by a younger generation of Australians.

At 76, Ken has never stopped painting, and he doesn’t intend to retire any time soon. As I listen to his story in the little studio at the back of his gallery in The Rocks, Sydney, his love of Australia is obvious, and so is the mission he’s undertaken: not only to give people joy, but also to remind them how beautiful Australia is, and how fortunate we are to wake up here every day.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

AMANDINE THOMAS: I wanted to start with your transition from being a designer and working in advertising, to becoming a painter. What was it about painting that really attracted you at that particular time of your life?

KEN DONE: Well I went to art school when I was 14. I was the youngest person to go to East Sydney Tech (now the National Art School), and I spent four years there. But when I left, I wanted to travel. I was interested in graphic design and mass communication—and in fact I didn’t want to be a painter at that point in time. There were too many exciting things happening in new magazines in Japan and Germany and America.

I went to Japan first, slightly before the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I met a lot of great designers there. And when I came back to Australia, I started a small design studio called Visual Communication with a mate of mine. It was the first design studio—in Sydney certainly—that sold concept and design to advertising agencies. We had some very interesting clients, and it was a good business, but I wanted to travel more. And most Australians in those days weren’t doing that.

Oh!

So I went to America. In those days, the plane went Sydney, Auckland, Tahiti, Acapulco, Mexico City. I dreamed of seeing Tahiti, thinking about Gauguin, thinking about Van Gogh. I’ve always been attracted to the tropics and to that kind of lifestyle.

Anyway, I got off the plane in Acapulco, I met a couple of girls who had a white Thunderbird. It was the 60s! To have a white Thunderbird! We drove from Acapulco to Mexico City. Then I flew to Los Angeles and I got some freelance work there. Then I took a bus across America, and I got to New York. I happened to have one introduction. So I went to see this guy at about 11 o’clock, and I’d taken my work obviously, all the graphics, the designs and the things that I’d done. He seemed to like it very much, and he said, “You know, once every three months, the heads of all the design studios in New York have a lunch at the Plaza Hotel. Today is the day. Would you like to come to that lunch?”

Great opportunity!

Well of course I wanted to come to that lunch!

[Laughs].

So suddenly I find myself in a room with a lot of guys from the Push Pin Studios, Milton Glaser, people whose work I really respected and admired, and we’re there! I’d put some of my work in my pocket…

[Laughs] You came prepared!

Sure! So when somebody said, “please can you pass the salt,” then miraculously something of mine would fall on the table [laughs]. So I’d be able to say, “look, I did this.”

Yeah!

Anyway, the guy sitting next to me offered me a job at his studio beside the Rockefeller Center. I said, “Well I don’t have a Green Card,” and he said, “We’ll pay you out of the petty cash.”

So suddenly I find myself working in this design studio.

And what I think they were interested in most is that I could do lots of things. Can you do a poster? Sure. Can you do an annual report? Sure.

Can you do some decorative lettering? Sure. Can you do some small illustrations? Sure! Because in Australia in those days, you really had to do everything. That was the Australian experience.

So I worked for this guy for a while, only a matter of weeks, and then a friend of mine who was a copywriter at Thompson’s, the big advertising agency, said “You should come show them your work.” And they hired me! They said, “We will pay you more than the other guy, and we’ll give you an office.” And this is the time of Mad Men. This is 1964. “You’ll have a big office and you’ll be on the Ford account.” Well, I’m mechanically illiterate…

Ken Done in his studio in The Rocks, Sydney

[Laughs].

So I knew very little but the opportunity was very good. So suddenly I find myself in New York, I’ve got a big office, I’m in a big agency on Madison Avenue…

Did you have a Green Card by then?

I didn’t have a Green Card.

Oh! It wouldn’t happen today!

No it wouldn’t! They said they’d try to get a Green Card, when in fact they couldn’t get a Green Card! So they said, “Look, will you go to the London office?” I said, “Well I’ve never been to London. I’d like to go on my own and just see how I feel about it.”

Quite different from the tropics.

Anyway I got to London, and again I had some freelance work straight away, from a friend, but I also had a couple of job offers, including from Thompson’s. I chose Thompson’s, and I was really glad I did. I worked there for five years, first as an art director, then as the art supervisor. These were very optimistic times for England. 1965 to 1970, The Beatles, King’s Road and all of that kind of fashion.

There was this sort of class system operating in England, but being Australian you had to be accepted for what you could do. For your ability. So I could cut through lots of barriers. I had some wonderful accounts. I worked with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie who went on to become The Goodies, and we did this series of cinema commercials for Campari that won the Cannes Gold Lion, best cinema commercial in the world! And that’s really not so bad. I had the Bacardi account and I convinced them to shoot underwater in the Caribbean. Each year, I’d go to another part of the world to make commercials for Bacardi.

I also had a tiny studio in Chelsea. I was doing a few paintings, mainly thinking about Australia. Judy and I had just been married, and most of the time I was working as a designer and an art director. And I really liked it! But then I remember one particular Sunday in the winter, a miserable grey rainy day, I went to an exhibition of Matisse’s work in the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. It was the first time I had ever seen his pictures. There is a big difference between seeing reproductions of paintings, and then being confronted by the real picture. And I was just absolutely overwhelmed.

Seeing this exhibition I think did change my life. And I realised that’s really what I wanted to do.

That triggered your desire to become a painter.

Yeah! So we left England, we came back to Australia, I worked for Thompson’s for another five years here. But while Judy and I were in Vanuatu once, I was sitting on the beach, talking to the late race car driver Peter Brock. He’d only just been married and he was there with his then-wife, and he was talking to me about racing, with such passion! And I realised, that’s the passion that I had for painting, but not for advertising. So we flew home, I walked into the office Monday morning and I resigned.

Wow!

We had a child and a big mortgage, so I had to see whether I could support us. That was when I was 35, and it took me another five years before I had my first exhibition.

I find what you are saying about supporting yourself really interesting. Because I think there is this kind of romantic vision of a painter, where you should somehow only live on fresh water and paint fumes.

Starving in the garret!

But the reality, especially for young creatives now, is that we have to eat, we have to pay the rent, and so I think it’s good to dispel that myth.

Yes. Your generation understands perfectly what I did and what I’ve done.

Yeah! Although at the time it wasn’t common.

No, it wasn’t.

People wanted artists to be dope-addicted, starving, or dead. If you could be all three, the trifecta! [Laughs].

Ken’s studio, with one of his very first prints (the shell on the left).

Gallery
An hour in Ken Done's studio
View Gallery

Your generation understands perfectly that you need to have control over what you’re doing, that there are all kinds of avenues that your work could be seen in. When I was just getting started, some people would say, “He is very good, but some of his work is very commercial.” Of course! It’s for sale! [Laughs]. It goes into what we in the trade call a shop! In most big galleries you go into, there will be the artist’s work, and then there will be a shop within the exhibition. And there’ll be stuff using the artist’s imagery, whether it’s a book cover or a scarf or whatever it might be. That’s been going on for a long time. Except the artists are often dead! I wanted to do it before I was dead!

I’ve never had a grant from the government, nor would I seek one, but unless you are independently wealthy, you have to make money to be able to do what you want to do. And there is nothing wrong with that. And if it sets any example, it should show that artists or designers have to be a little bit business-like.

That’s a really important skill that artists are often missing.

Yes. They think, Look, I’m above crass commercialism. I’m an artist. Even the word artist is a misused word. When people come to me just out of art school and they say, “Well, I’m now an artist,” all I can answer is, “Go away, paint 300 or 400 pictures and come back we’ll have a look at it.”

Yeah, and it’s a lifetime work.

It’s a lifetime! I don’t think there are any shortcuts. But as you get older you get better at editing your work.

I always wanted to have my own gallery. My first big exhibition was in the Holdsworth Gallery in Sydney. I wanted to show that I could have an exhibition in a big gallery, but two months after that I opened my own gallery, which I don’t see as being any different from a chef owning a restaurant or a musician having a record company. Or someone publishing their own books. In the end it’s a matter of whether people respond to it.

There is something in the fine art world in particular that is quite anti-commercialism. Art is confined in those galleries.

It’s a bit of a myth isn’t it? Because nowadays Jeff Koons has got a hundred assistants [laughs]. It’s a business!

It’s ok for artists to make money. We are, in a sense, in the entertainment business.

We are demanding time of someone, to look at something, and if they look at it and if they love it enough, they might actually buy it, and have it on their wall. But often I go into certain galleries where there might be installations…and it might be a lot of crap, basically.

Yeah, what makes it art? The curator probably.

That’s right! [Laughs].

You and I could have a long and complex intellectual discussion about the things that are on this table. And we could move the glass a little bit, or move the magazine a little bit, and we could take 20 pictures of this table with slight changes of things, and we could have a kind of aesthetic conversation about the pattern that’s made. In the end, it’s two books on a table, move on! [Laughs].

[Laughs]. So you had your first exhibition at 40, and you’ve said you’ll never retire. I think there is something really great in your philosophy, that people in their sixties and seventies need to keep on going, keep on taking risks.

It should be the best time of your life! You should take more risks. No one escapes the hills and valleys of life, no one. And I’ve had plenty of hills, and a few valleys. But you can’t dwell on them. I’m 76, there is not a minute to waste. Although the truth is I’m somewhere between 14 and 28, in my mind [laughs]. And I think that one of the great stimulating things about art is that it allows you to have that drive. Some painters, when they get to my age, they just continue to paint the same picture. Well that’s ok too. If that’s the particular song they want to sing, that’s fine. But not for me. I want to find things that really excite me.

For my first exhibition, I made 12 t-shirts to give to the press. People liked them, so I made some more. Eventually I had one shop, then licensing arrangements in Japan and America, then 15 shops and 160 people working for us. But really it was young Japanese girls who first understood what I was doing.

They responded to your work.

They responded to the work. Young Japanese girls in the early 80s were changing Japanese society. They were feeling much more powerful, they didn’t want their husbands to go to the pub every night. They would go back to Tokyo from Australia and they would be carrying my bags. Which led to the editor of a Japanese magazine asking whether I would do a logo for a magazine called Hanako, and whether I would do the cover. What he meant was, he wanted my work to be on every cover.

Wow!

Now, most magazines in Japan, they’ll go for maybe a year. My work was on the cover of Hanako for 13 years. Every week, on the newsstands in Tokyo, with a circulation of almost a million. And even though Hanako is a much more fashion-related magazine now, they still use my logo. And they still credit my name on it!

On their logo?

On their logo! I own the copyright for their logo in my hand. If I had written the words for an Australian magazine, they’d have given me $20 and…

“Be on your way.”

“Be on your way son!” [Pulls some copies of Hanako off his shelf]. Here is a strange painting about, what does it say? Flying Fish in the Outback. And yet it’s there, on a magazine.

On a Japanese magazine!

On a Japanese magazine. A cover. Or you know, Picture of my dog on a couch! Or punk koalas! No one else in the world has done this, and had their work on so many covers. Weekly!

Obviously your work really took off in Japan, and in Australia as well, but then it kind of went in and out of fashion a little bit. Was that hard for you?

Yes. But it’s an inevitability of a degree of success. When you first start off and people see it, they absolutely love it. They think it’s fantastic. And then it starts to grow, and then people start to knock it off.

When it becomes mainstream.

Yes. Then you do the licensing arrangements. You do the bed linen for Sheridan and people love it, and then almost inevitably it falls out of fashion.

Ken Done bathers in the making!

You have to overcome that commercial success. Some people can’t. They never do anything again. I used to cop a bit of criticism for things that weren’t mine. You would see something with a lot of colour in it, and people would say “Oh it’s Ken Done.” Well it probably wasn’t. I did the book for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic Games. People always thought that I did the uniforms for the volunteers. No! I had nothing to do with it at all! But it was kind of a bit influenced by what I was doing. It’s actually very hard to work with a lot of colours, you can’t just slap it on. Most of the time, people who are critical of it don’t really understand it anyway.

But it did hurt, because I knew what I was doing. Now the wheel has come right back round again, and a younger group are understanding my work. People are really discovering the paintings and that’s obviously the most pleasing to me, because that’s what I’ve always done, even in these very commercial years.

I wanted to talk to you about your recent paintings from Antarctica. That was beautiful, I loved that series.

Thank you. We were in Antarctica in November 2015, and I did a series of drawings about being there, the feeling of the people, the families… I did a painting about the tourists and the penguins. I did it I think 19 times before I got it right. I kept on destroying it because every time I made the penguins look like the penguins, it was too illustrative. But once you reduced it, it was good. Now strangely enough, whether this happens or not, but Sheridan is actually looking at that as a duvet cover.

Oh! It came full circle.

It might be quite nice.

I wanted to talk to you about the environment, too. Here in Australia the reef is a big inspiration of yours. And more recently Antarctica. Both of those amazing landmarks are slowly being put in danger by climate change. Do you have hope that those wonderful places will recover?

Every time I make a painting about the Reef, it is in a sense a political statement.

It’s reminding people about how beautiful the Reef is. It’s not overt. But it is having some kind of influence. I think.

And as well as that, Taronga Zoo in Sydney, which is now 100 years old, asked a few people around the world whether they’d be ambassadors for various animals. I’ve chosen the sea turtle. Lovely! And I naively thought that, when a little sea turtle gets out of the egg, if it gets across the sand, and into the water, hurray! It’s gonna be alright. Well that’s not true. It’s the next two years that are really dangerous. Because sea turtles eat jellyfish. And jellyfish look like plastic bags.

Yeah.

So every time you say that to people, they understand it and they get it. They say, “We shouldn’t have plastic bags.” Gradually these attitudes are starting to change, a little bit.

My paintings, in most cases, show a quite obvious love of Australia. I make paintings to give people pleasure. To give people joy. We see suicide bombers and strange political things happening in the world, so there is a need for beauty.

That’s the role of art.

Isn’t it? I’ve said this before, but a really good painting, it’s like being attracted to somebody. You might just instantly have that attraction. But you’re not gonna get everything on the first date, nor should you! So with a painting, it’s got to give you pleasure over time!

Ken Done's rainbow of paint pots at the back of his studio.

And your work is such an iconic representation of Australia, and a lot of people associate deeply with it. How do you see Australia now—and has anything changed in the way you interact with the Australian landscape?

Ok that’s a good question. Me, and most Australians, we cling to the edge of the country. And even though people might not have been there, we still have this kind of feeling of the great bush, the great landscape, the great desert. We are a continent that is harsh in the middle and sensitive around the edge.

I’ve travelled most places in the world, but I’ve never been to a place where there is such an unbelievable sense of mystery and space as you find in the middle of Australia. The outback is much more accessible than it used to be. Since air travel, people are understanding the landscape from above much more. And every Australian artist needs to pay respect to Aboriginal art. Every time you make a dot, as an Australian artist, you need to be reminded of the Aboriginal dot. But on a global scale, that’s the thing that links all people, all artists together. We have the desire to show something to somebody else. And the dot, it’s the simplest possible thing. A human being puts his or her finger in something and puts it against the cave wall, makes a dot. It’s universal.

Anyway, If you wake up in Australia, you are already blessed. This is not Aleppo. This is not Baghdad.

It’s a privilege.

I swam this morning in perfectly clear water. I live, as far as I’m concerned, in the best house in Sydney. It took me a long time to get it. We fed the magpies, we fed the rainbow lorikeets, I’m even feeding the fish now, in the morning, I’ve got about 40-odd fish that come in the morning too.

You’ve worked with your wife Judy from the very beginning, and now your daughter and your son.

Camilla and Oscar, yeah. It’s our greatest achievement, I reckon, that the four of us love each other and work very closely together. We all have slightly different roles. I think we decided that it’s better that there is only one painter in the family, which is clearly me [laughs]. Judy is a terrific designer, Camilla is a wonderful designer too and got first class honours in art and design at university and Oscar is very entrepreneurial. We’ve always taught our kids that in the area of creativity they can do anything.

That’s very liberating for young creatives I think.

You can do anything. You can involve yourself in any kind of business that you could bring creative flair to. The other thing we taught was what we call “the Brazil option”.

I always said to them from when they first started in the business, “if you wake up in the morning and you think to yourself, ‘You know I’d rather go to Brazil’, then I want you to go to Brazil.”

You’ve got to want to come in here. It’s not to say that every day is happy, it’s hard! And we’ve made a few mistakes, but we’ve made a few good things too.

I wanted to finish by asking you what advice you would give to young artists, creatives, designers, who are at that important point in their careers.

So, for you, what will be the next move? How will you use your skills? You can bring your youth to it. You can show that you understand the next generation.

You can see that it’s taking an idea and making it into something that people can respond to.

Is that how you think about your own work?

Well I don’t have to now, because I can paint whatever I like, going up whatever track I like, but thinking about people like you, how you might start. Make an image so that people remember what you do.

Amandine Thomas

Amandine is a French illustrator and graphic designer, who travelled her way to Australia a few years ago and somehow never made it back. When not strapped to a backpack, she is busy designing the next issue of Dumbo Feather. The rest of the time she writes and illustrates books for little human beings—and contributes to a number of European and Australian publications.

Photography by Amandine Thomas

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