Ken Done, Art and the Land, Annabelle JOSSE

Ken Done


I am currently writing a memoir for the ABC and Harper Collins, of about 80 000 words. It’s an opportunity for me to look back over my career and my paths, write about things that are important to me and things that lead me to where I am now.
I went to art school when I was 14, I’m 74, so there’s 60 years… the memoir is essentially about that 60 year period.

The other thing that I’m working on is painting…I’m always painting, of course, in fact, 99% of the time. I am generally painting about what is in my head but I’ve been asked by John Bell who runs the Bell Shakespearean Company, to produce a picture, a painting, related to a Shakespearean quote out of Anthony and Cleopatra: “A woman is a dish for the Gods”. So I am painting a very large nude basically, to make it as sensual and as dominant as I can.
It’s quite interesting because over the years I’ve painted a few nudes, but I don’t do a lot of them so it’s the landscape of the figure in that sense of the work.


I don’t have a medium of choice: over my career I’ve worked in all kinds of things, pencils, crayons, and oils, gouaches…whatever. But most of the painting I’ve been doing recently is in water-based oils.
For instance, both of the paintings you can see here, which are in a sense landscape (one is under the sea, the other one is about the little things that grow on rocks) are just about 99% painted with water-based oils. It’s a paint that has all the properties of oil, without the complexity of all the chemicals or the smells or anything like that.

Alternatively, say, when I’m in a tropical island somewhere and I might be diving or snorkeling, I don’t take any pictures.


Diving Toberua Island, 2000

But when I come back to wherever I’m staying, I might make some small sketches about what that dive felt like, and usually I’m using water-resistant oil crayons and gouache, which I quite like and is easy to transport.

Annabelle JOSSE: Do you work in a notebook?
Anything small… or sometimes clay board, sometimes paper, sometimes just crayon board… They are smaller things that I start and finish and are complete in themselves. I don’t refer back to them very often, only when I’m about to do a big painting.

AJ: You simply use these as a way to fix in the memory of the experience.
Yes, that’s right.
If you look at this little one: there is a feeling about a dive under the water. Now, it doesn’t LOOK like that. It FEELS like that. That’s the difference. I’m not interested in painting the way the landscape looks; I am painting the way the landscape feels.

You can sit in front of any landscape whether it’s in France or Iceland, or on the moon, and you can make a painting about that, and you’re perfectly entitled to do that, and it’s a very honorable way of responding to the landscape. But for me, now, I’m interested in what the feeling of the experience was like.

AJ: Is it something you were doing before (representing the landscape) and then evolved to a more emotional landscape?

Helmet shell coloured pencil on paper 18x28cm 1979

‘Helmet Shell’, coloured pencil on paper, 18x28cm, 1979

If you look on this wall, there’s a very early drawing of mine, it’s a drawing of a shell. It looks like a shell, it is a very photographic drawing, so I can draw in that sense..
Directly below it, there’s a little oil painting about a particular dive and I do suppose it looks like that, it’s obviously not a cityscape nor a painting of a paddock full of cows. It is a painting that people would recognise as being under the water, but I’ve intensified the colour and I’ve changed things around because it’s a painting not a photograph.


The next little painting is also a landscape, in the sense that is the view from my studio window at home: it is quite simple, there’s a palm tree, there’s the sea and there’s the beach but the colours have all been heightened considerably because I’m interested in colour.

AJ: Would you have painted it while looking at it?
Ah no, I probably did it while I was there in that studio maybe looking at the window but not slavishly painting what I could see out the window. More like using the experience.

AJ: Do you still paint in front of the landscape occasionally or don’t you? Is it still bringing you something?
I don’t do it very much..But for instance, just before you walked in, or when I walked in, by myself – I made two tiny little drawings of the wall at Balmoral and the heads and a couple of boats. Now that’s enough information for me to then work on a couple of big paintings, because all it is about, is: “they’ll be an area of sea, an area of sky, they’ll be a bit of the boardwalk, they’ll be a headland”.

It may not necessarily be blue …who knows?

nightbridgeandoperahouse04 acrylic on canvas 150x100.jpg

Night Bridge and Opera house, acrylic on canvas , 150x100cm, 2004 

AJ: But that was triggered by something you saw…
Partly, and also It was triggered by the fact that I already have a couple of paintings out there, on the wall, there were four of them, now two of them have sold, and they’re up this kind of track…I might not work on those for six months, but that is the essence of the idea, that’s the construction of that particular idea.



Very rarely. Sometimes I might, but I’m certainly not going to hold up the photograph and try to copy it. But it might be a little trigger that reminds me of something.



Sometimes I draw for the sake of drawing but not a lot.And I don’t when I’m about to set up for a big painting, like these two paintings here, there’s no preliminary drawing at all. How could you draw that? You just have to start with the idea of something that triggers that thought and go for it.

heat wave oil crayon on paper 30x42cm 2015

‘Heat wave’, oil crayon on paper, 30x42cm, 2015




The painting here on the left, is a painting called “Christmas Tree and Wreath”, because if you dive, there are little molluscs, or little things that are on the rocks that look like Christmas Trees – in certain reefs anyways – and when you dive down they quickly disappear, and that was essentially the idea of that painting, little bits of colour on a grey rock, that some of them look like Christmas Trees.
Now, it has become much more complex than that, because I’ve wanted to make each little mark interesting enough so you can find pleasure out of the shape of the mark, out of the colour, out of the texture, out of the positioning of it. I’ve probably worked on that painting for, maybe two or three months.

The other big painting there would have taken me forty minutes, no more. Fast. Fast.

Confident. Swift. Just absolutely like a piece of jazz, like a piece of performance. And it was triggered by the fact that an English paint manufacturer came to visit me and asked me to try his particular paint (Michael Harding).

He showed me some of the colours, which are quite astounding: that mauve pink colour in the middle comes from a paint tube that is more than $500 dollars a tube, so you know, you tend not to use a lot of it. But I didn’t care…I used as much as I liked because I just wanted to play with those colours.

AJ: There is a lot of energy compared to the “Christmas tree painting”. Is it a finished work?
Yeah it’s finished, there’s no point in doing any more than that. As a painter, you understand how fast some of those marks were made, in the middle there, that swirly ridge of lines or the down the sides, through that pink, you can’t make those marks slowly.
It’s about the movement of the hand and this shape of the mark.



Sometimes the figure is in the landscape.


Hot Sunday I, 2001

If you look directly behind you, there is a seascape. The sea is not really quite that colour. The beach is certainly not as yellow as I have made it, and the black part of the bottom is really what would be shadows, and there are little marks on the yellow to suggest people. Only suggest people. They are the figure in a sense.
Or, there’s a painting about the figure in the garden. The table’s set for lunch, the figure is simply drawn there, some figures that were on the little bit of lawn next to our house, or the woman coming out of the door, there, lying on the towel.
It’s as much about the girl as it is about the still-life around her.

AP: So, you don’t plan for the figure?.
I don’t. Sometimes the figure can be within the landscape, other times….
I suppose the best example is that big painting there: it’s a garden, it’s a landscape, it’s about the colours of the flowers in our garden and the shapes of the trees, and you see all of that on the table before you find the figure.

AP: there is a similar painting in the gallery, same composition without the figure.
Yes. The figure is not that important to that particular work. It’s just something that you find scraped into it. You could say therefore it shows how much that woman is part of the garden. The woman is the garden.



When I was about 7 and lived in a little town called Maclean on the north coast of the Clarence river, there was an ABC program in the afternoon call the Argonauts. It’s a radio program, and they had an art person talking about art and encouraging listeners to send drawings. I sent two paintings of boats on the Crown river. They sent me back Gold Stars. ….”mmm, we are onto something here!”…. And so the earliest response to my work was gold stars for landscapes….

Then I got an exemption to leave school when I was fourteen, to go to art school, to East Sydney Tech. The examination to Art school in those days was purely physical: what did you paint, what could you draw, did you understand colour?

The other incentive for the 14 years old boy I was then was that I really wanted to see a totally nude woman.. so art school was the way! Unfortunately for me then, life classes where not for first year students, I had to draw from plaster casts…

When that first life class finally arrived, everybody sits around, the model comes in, and takes off her clothes and you start the short poses leading to the final long one. The teacher would walk around and lean over and correct everybody’s drawings. But he never ever came and stopped at my work and I was getting worried because I can draw quite well I thought and wondered why he hadn’t stopped. Just before the class finished he finally came over, lend over and he said “Isn’t it about time you attempt the head?”
[both laughing]
Maybe it was why I didn’t become a portrait painter.

AP: From that perspective, did art school guide you well on that path?
I was young and had some very good teachers but I had not planned to become a full-time painter. I was interested in graphic design, illustration, and design in general, and I wanted to travel. I didn’t want to, nor imagine, that I would find myself in a studio and paint pictures every day. Mass communication and ability to do great posters was the centre of my interests.

I started a business in Sydney when I was 19, a small design creative studio, selling our ideas to advertising agencies at a time when we were the first to do so. I was occasionally doing a painting for myself but really mostly devoting my time to the business.
I went to Japan first, worked with a Tokyo graphic designer. Then I went to Mexico, America, was hired in NY, worked in London for five years. And that is where I started to paint.

AP: where you just “ripe” to start painting or did something happen?
Well, here is the trigger: I went to see a Matisse exhibition.
I liked Matisse’s work but I had never seen any real work. And on a cold, grey Sunday afternoon I went to the Haywood Gallery to this big Matisse exhibition…I still have the catalogue from that show here. And it absolutely knocked me out.

So two things happened after that: I went back to our little flat in Chelsey and set up a studio in one tiny room. And then I set aside part of my office in Barkley square for painting because I worked for a very large advertising agency there. I was very good at advertising and had major accounts, but I knew then that I had to spent time painting.

They had a deal that if you place a red “do not ‘disturb” sticker on the door of your office no-one would come in so I use to put the sticker there and start painting! …From that point in time I started to spend more time painting.

A wman walked through my still life 2001 oil and acrylic on canvas 80x100cm

‘A woman walked through my still life’, oil and acrylic on canvas, 80×100 cm, 2011

I came back to Australia, worked for Jerrold Thomson here. When I was about 33, I went to the chairman to explain I only wanted to work four days a week. I still needed the money but wanted to have one day to paint. He agreed and offered I didn’t come in on a Friday, because Fridays in those times where the days of long lunches… But I answered “I won’t come in on a Monday, because I want to start the week doing what I want to do.“

And so, from that point on I diverted more and more time to painting, until three years later at thirty-five I gave it all up.

AP: Do you think your experience with graphic design has helped or hindered your painting ways? Did you have to unlearn your graphic design skills to free yourself for painting?

There is two parts I can answer that kind of question with:

The first part is: a good painting always has very strong design elements so the concept of the two being separate is not correct. So the design, the structure, the harmony is just as relevant to design as it is to painting.

With me, you have to accept that I came to be a painter not like most other Australian painters. Most Australian painters (please accept this as a wide generality so not quite right, and probably applying more to my generation of painters, not so much to the younger generation), went to art school, started to paint, painted their whole life.
About half an hour before they’d “drop of the twig” someone would say “your paintings are quite good, here we’ll give you some money for it”…if they were lucky.

I didn’t want to have to hope for that. I wanted to have control of what I did and so I did.
So the first things that people saw of mine were incredibly commercial and set out to reach a wide audience. I was painting to be commercially successful.
The first things that I did to reach wide audience was some prints of those “shell drawings”. They were very easy to like. So I made prints of these drawings, repeating this singular effort. I went around to framers and design shops, sold the prints for ten dollars and told them I thought they could sell them for twenty, which they did.

I then made very simplistic drawings of Sydney Harbour to go on the first tee-shirts to give to the press for my first exhibition, to remind people of the press. I made twelve of them, they had a number, that how few I thought I would actually end up using. Well, that was thirty-five years ago and we are still selling that design.
Obviously, that whole business expanded into things that people would respond to. That led to licensing arrangements, in Japan, America, that led to bed linen, swimwear, all of those things…

All of the time I was painting and drawing, but all of that time you could take something that I might have painted or drawn, and reproduce it in another kind of ways.


But even with, say, the bed linen, which was widely successful at the time, I didn’t treat it as just a “bloody throw away thing”, it was like a big painting, or a big design: You have to treat it with as much reverence as you would to the Sistine chapel. Well, maybe not as much as the Sistine Chapel, but you treat is with as much respect as you possibly can!
And there was nothing like that in Australia at the time and people really responded to my colours. And that all thing of art being something that you wear or sleep under, or has design elements, we are still doing it.
And I’ll show you when we go next door and I introduce you to Judith, my wife and my son and daughter as we all work together: she is doing some fantastic silk tops and about to do swimwear: but we can’t be, we are not like other Australian artists are, we’ve come at in some other kind of way and I like that.

But I guess from 1990 onwards, around the time when I did all the work for the Olympics, I have done nothing but painting.

You may have seen this year on Australia day that one of my paintings was on the front of

Emerald and Magenta Coral Head by Ken Done.

Emerald and Magenta Coral Head by Ken Done, cover of SMH for Australia day 2015

the SMH, and the Canberra Times, and the Melbourne Age… no other Australian artist has ever had that situation were a single person’s work has been used to symbolise Australia and Australia Day. I was pleased about that. These are works that are liked.

Many older generation artists dislike that very much, but I think younger artists don’t mind. What I did was take control over what you do as a visual artist.
It is similar to a musician producing his own record or George Lucas and Star wars. But it is true that for a long time it did get in the way for me that people wouldn’t look seriously at the painting because they would think “how could a person who does a cute koala drawing for Japanese tourists also do a serious and sophisticated painting?”

AP: well, this is a very good link to my next question: If the artist needs to work to someone else’s brief and stay at a conscious level of awareness during art making so that the end result matches the brief or expectations of the client: the artwork has a purpose from its start.

Do you find that having worked in that professional manner for a long time has made art-making more difficult when it was for your self driven practice? Are you easily able to be in the ‘flow’, to avoid self-awareness? Here, I am not considering the END RESULT, I am not making assumption about the “seriousness” of the work based on its application, but the PROCESS.

I guess another way of answering that kind of question is that sometimes lots of painters towards the end of their life, will repeat the same kind of picture. There is nothing wrong with that but it’s more like a singer may continue to sing in the same way. I try to do different kind of things. I try to go up different kind of tracks.

There is no doubt that I am often returning to a particular theme say, the reef paintings. I love the reef, I love being in the water and I love colours so I return to this often. But another to think about this is that a painting is a journey, it is an adventure. You don’t want to know how it’s going to finish. While when you are doing an illustration, you do know. You have worked it out in your head from the start, and so you are trying to fulfil that expectation.

With a painting, no….So in that sense, maybe somebody at an earlier stage of their artist’s development has to overcome the facility of being able to be lost in the detail, in the reality. Bigger brushes, and work faster…that will help.

AP:  you mentioned a Matisse exhibition being the trigger…


Absolutely. These beach paintings we looked at I wouldn’t have painted unless I’d looked at Fred Williams paintings: a simple mark on a flat background: in his case described the bush, and  in my case the beach. And Fred Nolan who I met a few times, incredibly inventive painter, but also the obvious ones, Matisse and Bonnard for the colours and Picasso for the drama and who also had this ability to go off-tracks. Milton Avery, the American painter and fantastic colourist. But also traditional Japanese paintings or Dutch still life.

You certainly know this as a painter, every single thing that you see shapes us [Ken is now pointing at me]:
The relationships of your yellow shoes to that slightly brown on that rug with those spots on it… beautiful. The colours on that necklace….beautiful… that’s what you like, you use your eyes and respond to those things.I have already seen five hundred pictures this morning: I’ve been to the beach, I’ve had a swim, I’ve walked through my garden and I’ve come here. There are so many things I could make a picture of.

Cadmium sea garden 2001 accryli ad oil caryon on canvas 183 x 152

‘Cadmium sea garden’, acrylic and oil crayon on canvas, 183x152cm, 2001

AP: in fact, your love for the colour, is this something you had from the start?
Yes. I understood colour from the start, as a boy. Looking through a book and find a page about “parrots” for instance, or flags from other countries….I would love the patterns of those things and I loved the colours.
Again, as a boy, when I’d go down the Clarence river and especially when it was in flood, it was that amazing brownish coloured swift running river, with bright green clumps of grass and flooding down with French ultramarine blue flowers…I really liked that. I didn’t consciously know why, but I liked it. I remember looking at those kinds of things and getting pleasure out of it.  I don’t think I am unusual in that sense; I may be unusual in that I have continued in that love and expanded it over the years. But I am convinced it is a natural human thing.



In the last twelve months I have been in the Seychelles, in Madagascar and Mauritius. Before that, I was in Portugal and Northern Spain, Copenhagen, Greenland and Alaska. In the past years I have traveled a lot. I didn’t do a thing.

Later this year I am going to Antarctica and I will do something there because it is for an exhibition which profits go to breast cancer. But I don’t go to places to do work: I am not a painter of Alaska, Canadian wilderness or Madagascar…I don’t go to places to paint the landscape.

AP: but does going to Greenland and being exposed to a different landscape triggers some emotions that you want to use or translate in your work back here?
Well, again it relates to what we were talking about a few questions ago about responding to every visual thing that you’ve seen:
For instance in Anchorage in Alaska, which is not the most attractive town, I remember walking past some old building with that fainted paint than only fades over 20 or 30 years, a strange blue, up against a strange brown, up against a bit of dirty mauve….well, that’s in there [pointing on a painting in the studio] but it won’t come out as ‘this is a picture of a building in Alsaka’


Ice Cliff, oil on linen, 122x97cm, 2016

For me in this last trip it actually worked the other way around:
The last picture that I worked on before I went away was in fact this big picture which is a grey background with pieces of colours on it. Well…when we got to Greenland, most of the towns sit on grey rocks and every single building is a different colour.

AP: you must have thought “I recognise this place! It’s like in Australia…”
Yes, I had been painting this place without even thinking about it…that’s just like this kind of visual serendipity.
But no, there are no ‘Ken Done African safari’ work or ‘my time in Portugal” …because I don’t work in that particular way.

AP: so can I translate that into “you have a special connection to the Australian landscape”?
I am 74, I am on my way out! I don’t have enough time left to be a great painter of a foreign place.

AP: What about “the bush”?
Well, the bush comes there sometimes, not a lot. Because I am rather clinging to the edge of Australia. I am the Beach, I am the Harbour, the Reef…I am not a painter of the “Great Outback” myth. I have made some interesting paintings of Inland, but few.

When painting from memory and paint based on feelings of places, when growing older, experiences and feelings about places will be affected by age.

I walked on the beach this morning (it is very low tide at the moment): I was looking at the colour of the breaking waves.. it was that kind of colour in there [pointing to a painting in the studio] and I was thinking that exact same thought: “if you know something well or you thing you know something well, or have looked at it for a long time, you do change. You become more perceptive of the things that you see

I am writing this all in my memoir. It is kind of sad in a way because you don’t write a memoir when you are 15…



I think my answer would be that I love it, no matter where it is. If you are lucky enough, as I am, to live besides Sydney Harbour, then you are overwhelmed by it: a beautiful landscape every minute that you look at. You don’t have to have a grand house beside the harbour: you can find beauty in a suburban backyard. It is in the way you use your eyes. It is not just because I enjoy the process of painting, it is also a way of communicating.

All painting is half a conversation: there is a painting, there is what I’ve said, you provide the other half of our conversation.

If you like it and respond to it it’s a pleasure.


Ken Done is most one of the most well-known contemporary Australian artists worldwide and


Ken Done – A life coloured in, published by ABC books and Harper Collins  publishers

intimately linked to Sydney Harbour, the beach and the colours of the Australian sea.

Born in 1940, he has spent his life painting and to this day has held over 50 on man shows. He has
been hung in the Archibald, Sulman, Wynne, Blake, and Dobell Prizes.
Despite his iconic status and his incredibly busy schedule, he has generously accepted to meet me and discuss the sources of his inspiration as well as process. 
I met with Ken Done at his studio attached to his Gallery in The Rocks in February 2015.
Since, he has published his memoir (Ken Done – A Life Coloured In – Published by ABC Books and Harper Collins Publishers) and traveled to Antarctica. 

The resulting expedition, called ‘Pinktarctica’ in support of the McGrath Foundation, has been held in Sydney in June 2016

For more about Ken Done and his art see

An excellent article about the Pinkarctica exhibition:





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