Ken Done: ‘Artists Need to Have Some Business Sense’

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A life lived in full colour.

Ken Done: ‘Artists Need to Have Some Business Sense’

Ken Done artwork can be called out from afar, his popping colours and eruptive brushstrokes a well-worn trademark of the Australian artist, whose first solo exhibition was held in Sydney in 1980. Last month, Ken celebrated his 77th birthday, and his artistic adventuring looks to carry on full-speed, with a book coming out in October titled, Paintings You Probably Haven’t Seen. “As long as you still have that creative drive, all artists, I think, die halfway through their life, in the sense that there is so many unresolved things to do,” says Ken.

From his career beginnings creating ads during the Mad Men era, to tossing in his big-shot salary to paint for a living, Ken’s career has been multi-hued. After graduating from East Sydney Tech in Darlinghurst, Sydney (now known as the National Art School), Ken was hungry to travel. “I went first to Japan because I was very interested in modern Japanese design and traditional Japanese design.” Following this, he jetted to America, where he landed himself a lucrative career in advertising, which he now regards as a potent training ground for a young artist. “As an art director, I was solving visual problems every day, whether it was a poster, whether it’s film, or whether it was advertising, and I was good at it,” says Ken. He spent the next five years in the UK, where he married fellow Australian Judy Walker. The two decided to trade in London’s winter for a steamy Sydney, where Ken’s ad skills and accolades won him a creative director post at agency J. Walter Thompson. It was at that point, at the age of 35, he decided to throw it all in. “I was much more passionate about wanting to be a painter than I was about wanting to be in advertising,” he says.

“I was 40 when I had my first exhibition, so I think when fame comes to you at 40, you realise what a fairly unimportant thing that it is.”

Sheridan has released a new collection that’s a take on Ken’s original collaboration with the bed linen company back in the ’80s. Click through to our gallery above for a taste. Meanwhile, we caught up with Ken for a yarn about the business side of painting, the futility of fame, and what art teaches you about failure.

Here’s what he had to say…

As an artist, you have to know something about business. I mean, I don’t believe that art drops out of the sky and hits you on the head. I think that you actually have to work at it, and I think, for me, you have to work at it when you’re straight. It’s hard and disciplined work. I think that artists do need to have some business sense; I’ve never sought a government grant, no-one has to pay for me to paint. I think artists have got to learn to support themselves, whether it’s through their own art, or in most cases, of course, artists support themselves by some kind of secondary job, something that pays the bills. I mean, unless you come from an independently wealthy family, you’ve got to find a way.

I think “artist” is a very over-used word and often I’m visited by young people, ‘course everybody’s younger than me now, which is slightly annoying, who have just finished art school and want to call themselves an artist. The best advice that I can give them is go away and paint 500 paintings, and come back and we’ll have another chat. In other words, there are no short-cuts, and there are lots of areas in which artists can eventually find work, whether it’s in film, or in animation, or interior design, or whatever.

I used to say, “I don’t have a five-year plan,” which is true. I had a five-minute plan and a 50-year plan, you know. The five-minute plan would be, “Let’s do the very best we can on whatever we’re working on”, and the 50-year plan would be, “Everybody lives happily ever after.” All of that stuff that comes in between, you make it up as you go along. You know, the very first thing that people saw of mine were undoubtedly very commercial things that sought a wider audience because I wanted to make some money.

The absolutely harsh reality of the market place is, “Will somebody buy it?” You know, will somebody pay thousands, and thousands, of dollars for a painting? Will somebody pay hundreds of dollars for a scarf? Yeah, that’s the reality of it, so it’s quite simply, I think that if you treat people well and you make some good things, it can continue. You know we’ve been running our own gallery since 1980, so we’ve been at it for a while.

I think the thing that has kept [Ken’s wife of more than 50 years] Judy and I together is a very strong shared visual sense of things. Of course, in any long-term relationship there’s going to be hills and valleys, and some of the hills are higher, and some of the valleys are lower. I think a long-term relationship is based on shared understanding of things, and, of course, when family comes along it’s about the immersion within the family itself. I think one of our greatest achievements is that we work together, the four of us, Judy, and I, and [children] Camilla and Oscar. The four of us work together and work together very well.

Well, I think art teaches you more about failure in the end. I think in the sense I don’t like to use the word famous, but let’s say that I became quite well-known in the ’80s and that came from the work itself. You don’t set out to do that. I think if you become very well-known when you’re in your early twenties and you’re smoking dope and you’re dependent on heroin, I think it probably does go to your head. I was 40 when I had my first exhibition, so I think when fame comes to you at 40, you realise what a fickle and fairly unimportant thing that it is. You don’t take it too seriously.

Sheridan’s limited-edition Ken Done collection will be available online now and in-stores late July 2017 at sheridan.com.au/ken-done​ and in all Sheridan boutiques.