things i've learnt with iconic artist ken done

by sophie kalagas

We're still pinching ourselves to have nabbed Ken Done as our cover artist for issue 87. Here, the Aussie icon opens up about things he's learnt, like how to survive in the art world and the benefits of writing a memoir (even if it's never published).

ken done body

illustration by Cass Urquhart.

ART IS A BUSINESS People still believe in the idea of the tortured artist, but it’s perfectly all right, I think, for artists to make money. You have to be business-minded. When I had my first exhibition at 40, not everything sold, and I had a child, a house, a big mortgage. I needed to make money. So I made some prints – one was a basket of cowries, one was a single shell. I wasn’t trying to shock the crap out of people; I wanted to make things people would like. I’d take them to various print shops and say, "Look, you can buy this from me for $10, and you can probably sell it for 20 bucks." You've got to take responsibility and find your own way.

COPYCATS ARE INEVITABLE When you become popular for a certain look, as I did in the ’80s, people think it's absolutely fabulous, and start to knock it off shamelessly. Somebody came to me a few years ago with a Sydney Harbour t-shirt, very well printed, absolutely line for line like my original drawing. The thing that gave it away was underneath – where I used to write ‘Sydney Harbour’, it said ‘Gulf of Thailand’. In the ’80s, if anything was in colour, people would say it was mine. When that happens, there's too much of it around, and people move away from it. Hopefully, if you're any good, you can find your way back up again. Or, another generation discovers you, which is what's happening in my case.

LEARN FROM THE MASTERS Study other artists as closely as you can. If you like the feeling of Picasso, look closely at what he's done. If you like colour, look at Matisse. If you love the Australian landscape, look at Sidney Nolan or Fred Williams. You will learn. And don't be worried about painting over something, either. You might finish something and your grandma or auntie will say, "Oh, that's wonderful." Well, maybe it's not wonderful! Your auntie's your auntie, she's going to love it. Be prepared to paint over something and move on – it’s a journey.

KEEP MOVING FORWARD In my studio, I've got a handwritten sign on the back of the door that says ‘painting for me’. A few years later, I painted over it with the word ‘fearless’. I’m 78, right? If I'm not taking risks, there's no point. Some artists paint essentially the same picture their whole lives, but I like to try and push myself. I rarely make paintings to frighten or shock people, because I don't think that's the role of painting, especially in the time in which we live. For me, the definition of a good painting is something that gives you pleasure over time, like a relationship.

GO ON THE RECORD I recommend everyone writes a memoir – whether people actually publish it or not, it's very important. I was thinking just this morning, "I really wish I’d asked my grandfather more questions." You don't have to be Shakespeare to write down some things so another generation can understand how you felt, or what you did. Somewhere in the sky, there's a piano that's gonna drop on my head. Where and when, I don't know. But that’s it – you never know.

Ken's words of wisdom come from the pages of frankie issue 87, on sale now. Nab a copy here, or subscribe from $10.50.

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