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Published  03/01/2000
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Ken Done's Sydney

Ken Done's Sydney

Ken Done's earliest recollections of Sydney Harbour were as a young child during the war. In the early 1940s, before the end of the war precipitated the family's move to Maclean on the Clarence River on the north coast of New South Wales, the Done family lived in Belmore in the Western suburbs. His grandparents, however, lived in Manly and their frequent visits there and the first glimpse of the Harbour, became firmly etched in Ken Done's mind:

"It was during the war, in the early 1940s ... and for us to go to Manly was the most wonderful adventure and journey. We would walk down to the railway station at Belmore, then there would be the excitement of the train trip coming down through the first glimpses of the city from Redfern, that you start to see what, to a small boy, seemed like huge towering buildings."

"The railway line finished at central station in those days, so then you would get from central on the far side of the city to Circular Quay by bus. And I would rush to try and get upstairs to be in a front seat, and I can still remember the feeling of sitting in that seat and gazing with such incredible expectation – of looking out, of wanting to get the first glimpse of the water. "
"The first glimpse of the water, I think, you probably got somewhere down around the end of Pitt Street where you glimpse the harbour, you saw this incredible shimmering mass of light and the water glimpsed through tall buildings. And then when you got to the quay this incredible excitement of the boats coming and going and the old Manly ferries with the big wooden ladders with big wheels on. Then going up the big gangplanks. Looking down at the big churning up of the water, and the froth and the incredible dark green of the water. The fish that you could see hanging around the edge of the piles on the wharf. And then you would start off on this complete adventure of sailing across the Sydney Harbour to go to Manly. And I've never forgotten that and I never tire of being in Sydney Harbour."

From his earliest recollections, Sydney Harbour was equated with adventure, visual pleasure and youthful joy, qualities that over several decades of work as an artist he has managed to sustain with candour, and increased sophistication. Done draws on his childhood memories for his painting.

A dialogue with nature and a growing awareness of the visual dramas and beauty in nature began at an exceptionally young age. Early drawings display a precocious talent which his parents recognised; they were convinced too of his commitment to the point that they made arrangements for him to leave school at the young age of 14 in order to attend the National Art School in East Sydney to study art full-time as the youngest ever entrant.

The Done family lived in Cremorne from 1953 – 1956, during the first part of Ken Done's art school career. He travelled to the city each day by ferry, always experiencing great pleasure on Sydney Harbour itself. In addition to the usual curriculum at the National Art School of classical anatomy, life drawing, and botanical drawing Done studied outdoor drawing in various locations around the harbour: Watson's Bay, Double Bay, Lavender Bay, the Observatory. So during his teenage, student years he built up knowledge, familiarity and love of Sydney as a city and as a natural paradise. For the first three years at art school Done studied a broad range of art subjects; in the last two years he specialised in Design and Illustration. The prestigious atelier Smith and Julius, the workshop that had provided work for many young artists in Sydney, offered a summer placement awarded to Ken Done as the best art student of design in his year at the National Art School. After his course, he developed his natural gift for design, travelled to Japan and America and succeeded in finding work in the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising company in New York and London.

Done was inevitably influenced by developments in the art world in London: the rise of Pop Art, for example, exerted considerable influence. The philosophy behind the questioning of the hierarchy of traditional art forms appealed to Done. Subject matter, motifs and symbols traditionally relegated to popular culture entered the arena of High Art and effectively exonerated Done's natural penchant for everyday pleasures – for objects and text that might come from sources as diverse as a Vermeer painting or a Tin Tin comic book. His boyish irreverence enjoyed dismantling restrictions where the definition of art was concerned. His outlook appears to have been energised by the breakdown of a strictly traditional hierarchy of art which his career in design has since displayed. Done's early paintings and drawings are eclectic and often illustrative. They were always underpinned, however, by his fine draughtsmanship and natural talent for colour. In America Done had seen many examples of Abstract Expressionist painting of the New York School. As his painting developed he often returned to the colour field paintings that created such a profound impact on him as a young artist in his early twenties. American abstract art and Japan design principles as we shall see exerted a most significant impact on him as a young artist, even though he did not start to exhibit as a painter for almost 20 years. A turning point in his career whilst in London was seeing the Matisse exhibition at the Hayward gallery in 1968.

When Done returned to Australia and began to paint Sydney Harbour and still life works and interiors his passion for Matisse's colour, subject matter and simplified shapes is in strong evidence:

"Ken Done, like Matisse, is essentially a colourist who depicts the joyous aspects of life. Unlike the rather formal elements of design which occupy the decorative and contemplative pictures of Matisse, Ken Done's simplification of nature, his amplification of colour, and the fluidity of his paint, produces a rhythmic energy that parodies the orchestration of music. This aural correlation is clearly illustrated by his collaboration in 1988 with contemporary jazz musician, James Morrison, to produce the ÿPostcards from Down Under' series, where each painting by Done corresponds to a work by Morrison."

Done spent the first 16 years of his working life in the advertising industry in New York, London and Sydney. In 1975 he decided that he wanted to devote himself to being a painter and that he would sacrifice financial security in order to do so. At the time he had two young children and the usual financial commitments of a family to consider. In a sketchbook drawing of figures on the beach, Done's annotation reveals his quiet determination and candour: "I have no doubt that I can become a painter. A good one. I think it's as much knowing how to go about it. KD.75."

Done realised the necessity of constantly drawing from nature. In the early years of painting professionally Done built up a repertoire of images from careful observation: shells, plant forms, the objects washed up on the beach, figures on the beach. The drawings formed the basis of his stock of images which he began to paint at his studio called The Nook, on Chinaman's Beach, Mosman. Early paintings such as Trying to Paint on a Monday (1981), represent the period of transition in Done's life from the structured secure existence of the advertising industry and the workplace to the precarious life of a painter with the accompanying solitude of working in one's own studio. The Nook (since demolished) was an old wooden fisherman's cottage tucked amongst the trees at the southern end of Chinaman's Beach:

"I used to go down and start the day, start the week, painting, and because it's an old dilapidated building and this is painted in June, the 18th, the day before my 41st birthday and important because a year previous to the day I'd had my first exhibition at the Holdsworth gallery. I'd really committed to spend the rest of my life painting ..."

The painting began as a painting of the harbour from the studio until Done decided to impose personal feelings and elements to denote autobiographical aspects in his life. In the top right hand corner he included the telephone ringing because people were still interrupting him at work. The inclusion of the paints themselves within the studio interior were intended to represent the joy of colour and faith in the potential of the process of painting itself and the satisfaction and joy in the finished painting as well.

Many subsequent paintings confront the identity of self and they are a necessary and vital aspect of Done's oeuvre. But Done's personality is essentially outgoing and generous in spirit. His love of his surroundings in Sydney, his own pleasure and satisfaction in becoming a painter triumph. He experiences great joy in orchestrating colours and in inviting the viewer to accompany him in his creative adventure. The narrative and autobiographical content make Done's paintings easy to identify with so that by taking a walk with the artist on a Jacaranda Morning, for example, the viewer identifies with the artist to an extraordinary degree. As such, by accompanying Done on his joyful appreciation of Sydney, his enduring subject, the subject thus becomes the identification of artist and viewer alike, and in turn a vital component of the national psyche.

Done's international recognition came about in a remarkably short space of time following his fist exhibition the Holdsworth galleries in Sydney in 1980. His decision to print 12 T-shirts with a simplified image of Sydney Harbour Bridge to give away to the press as a memento of the show led to a design business that is one of Australia's most famous. Further, his reputation is now global. In financial terms he has been free to paint without the constraints normally experienced by artists. Done's art is unashamedly beautiful and joyous. Sydney is his main source of inspiration. As a study of his work reveals it is through his concentration on beauty in nature in this one place and its positive effect on human activities expressed by a heightened palette and with the generosity of spirit that one finds in Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, that Done shares his love and positive philosophy of life with a wide audience.

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