Published  01/03/2000

Ken Done - beaches and boats

Ken Done – beaches and boats

The view from his studio of Chinaman's Beach long sustained Ken Done's artistic inquiry throughout the 1980s and today he continually finds himself returning to it as a special source of inspiration. As if echoing the suffuse patterns of nature, relaying the cycle of the seasons, of the tides, Ken Done presents vibrant, elemental images. In many of the beach paintings of the late 1980s there is a strong influence of American Colour Field Painting. These are small, almost abstract sketches, jewel-like in appearance, that in an Australian context bear a relationship to the landscape paintings of Fred Williams.

Here simple marks are used to denote people on the beach. In a light-hearted vein, Hot Day shows people scattered across the sand with one umbrella, framed by a yellow and red frame. In Very Hot Day, the picture plane is dark yellow and the languid figures have gravitated to the water's edge. Sunlight 1990, is inspired by the spectacular effect of light on the harbour and by the exquisite patterning effect created by the boats. The speedily executed image conveys fleeting moments of sheer beauty, in Sydney Harbour.

Paintings of storms also occupy an important place in Done's oeuvre. Such works reveal the artist's inner creative struggle and personal vulnerability just as much as they display his passion and fascination for the unpredictable and dramatic forces of nature. Before the Storm 1993 is filled with trepidation (and a febrile tension). By contrast, Sudden Storm 1994, one of Ken Done's darker images, is redeemed by dramatic formal qualities; brilliant yellow and pink sails on boats.

The Storm paintings are therefore more complex than the first cabin paintings which seek just to celebrate life and the environment in a direct and effusive manner. Ken Done observes the harbour in Sydney from a number of different vantage points, in particular from Mosman and Balmoral where he has lived for most of his life. He never palls of the remarkable range of natural phenomena. Of particular interest is the effect of light on the water. Like, many artists before him, such as Turner, Monet, Bonnard, Dufy, or Lloyd Rees in Sydney, Done is constantly inspired by the beauty and extensive range of emotions to be evoked by the dramas that unfold during different seasons and at different times of day.

From a very young age, Ken Done has been interested in making pictures of sea, rocks, and boats. Although not himself a boat owner, Done frequently accompanies his friend Dennis on his boat in order to take in the visual splendour of life on the Harbour. Light effects, reflections, the colour of boats, shapes of the sails and spinnakers form endless combinations and infinite visual and creative manifestations become possible. Ken Done draws from the boat, without distraction, visiting different parts of the harbour, so choosing inaccessible coves and favourite sites. He enjoys the opportunity of making descriptive and anecdotal images as well as the better known reductivist views. He often revisits parts of Sydney that he drew as a student: Watson's Bay, Lavender Bay for example and enjoys local haunts such as Balmoral Beach which attracted artists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. His contribution therefore, forms part of an artistic tradition in Australia, including more recently Lloyds Rees and Brett Whiteley whom he warmly acknowledges as influencing his harbour paintings.

Ken Done's work has developed greatly in painterly terms over the past 20 years. He has also developed the means to convey subtle and haunting moods. While the Balmoral paintings by and large are images of the bon vivant, there exist images with more sombre overtones. A tragic and appalling incident when Ken Done was fourteen altered his perception of the harbour. A shark attacked and killed a boy he knew just half-an-hour after he himself had been diving off the same rocks, fishing with a spear gun.

Done acknowledges sadness and disappointment with increasing visual sophistication, and in many of his works there are undercurrents of despair. For the most part, however, Ken Done intentionally celebrates the good and the beautiful. He himself distinguishes between works that have a limited audience and those that reach a very wide audience via the various processes of his design business. Boats on the harbour epitomise a way of life that is associated with the city of Sydney. The traffic of water provides a most superb repertoire of images for an artist, the combination of shapes, colours, movements light and constant change.

In Sydney Harbour the traffic of vessels and the marvellous variety of craft symbolising different parts of history, and the rich and complex character of modern city life, provide endless images for a painter of light and life. The use of such imagery, the variety of activity is underpinned by formal considerations and the development of a formal language over thirty years. Boats on Sydney Harbour as subject for Done share Raoul Dufy's bon vivant.

They are images with wide appeal and Ken Done has been highly successful in selling them in Australia and to visitors from abroad. These works represent a way of life that Sydneysiders are proud of and that visitors want to be reminded of. As paintings and drawings they celebrate life in rich and vibrant colours.

An early example showing his interest in the formal qualities of boats on the harbour is Fifty-One Boats 1977. It shows Ken Done experimenting with the compositional patterning of the boats, and empirical approach which relates to his numerous series of beach paintings. The early boat paintings are abstract images, tentative yet with serious intent. The Wind Dropped 1992 some fifteen years later is an understated work and yet it contains evidence of the devoted struggle on a formal painterly level and also in terms of implication:

"I happened to be watching one boat sailing across and there were a few rocks in the distance and suddenly because the wind dropped the sail instead of being a triangle becomes a much more fluid shape. It is the shape of the spinnaker moving and clearly the sea wasn't yellow and the beach wasn't orange and it didn't have pink in between it and this boat is white, not redŠ so it's an invented harmony."

The Wind Dropped 1992 and Sunrise 1990 represent the fleeting moments that are however hard won in personal terms. Their brevity nonetheless provides an eternal quest and optimism. Ken Done's admiration for, the American artist Milton Avery has stimulated his interest in tonal harmony which his recent work achieves. Boats are placed in various contexts to denote different meaning. In Some Boats in Winter I and II 1995 the boats assume the vulnerability of humans in a sea of darkness. In the storm paintings boats epitomise vulnerability and are vessels of struggle. In the Balmoral series of paintings of 1993 the boats represent movement and a free spirit. The large canvasses were divided almost in half. An industrial blue paint was applied to represent the sea and the boat shapes were drawn by scraping back into the blue revealing the white canvas. The speedily executed method creates the speed at which the traffic on the harbour was moving. In the Balmoral series I - XII the boats assume an iconic quality. They are shorthand for the descriptive variety of shapes on the harbour; they celebrate life and the joy the artist experiences from his subject. These paintings exude the confidence Ken Don was experiencing as an artist after a long struggle. By the early 1990s growing confidence in his work led Ken Done to larger canvasses, often in series. The development of an iconic language is asserted, sometimes by an empirical code. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Beach Dreaming 1991, Between the Flags 1996, a series of large canvasses and in the masterly minimalism of Harbour and Beach, 1995. These paintings represent years of dialogue between subject and artist, between drawing and painting and the development of a rich personal language, including references to aboriginal painting.

Ken Done highlights the elemental in nature. The feelings evoked range from the sensual and erotic, at times hedonistic to the rawness of feelings that intense light, heat and natural beauty precipitate. Exhilaration and the intensity with which life is lived in a city are evoked by the rapid application of lines, the swiftness of brushwork. The beach traditionally represents freedom from city life, yet within the picture plane Ken Done creates a parallel existence equally intense, teeming with life but connected by a primal awareness to nature, harmony in another guise. Harmony in this form is established through a coherent visual language suggesting that redemption through nature is possible.

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