Ken Done is one of Australia’s most renowned artists, and having just published his memoir, A Life Coloured In, it’s fair to say he has plenty of perspective and insight to share when it comes to working as a painter, designer and artist in Australia.
With a diverse career that spans previously working as an art director and designer in New York, London and Sydney, before transitioning to a career as a full-time painter and creator of his iconic Australian design brand, it was interesting to find out what a day in the life of Ken Done entails. One of the secrets to his success, he suggests, is the farting gnome figurine he keeps in his studio.
‘When you finish a painting, and you are walking out the door thinking what a clever boy you are, that’s when the gnome farts,’ he laughs. In other words, for Ken, perspective fuels appreciation in our daily lives.
Ken Done is soon to be 76, but as the farting gnome suggests, he often feels more like a 16-year-old, and he is far from slowing down.
‘By the time you get to my age and you’ve been painting your whole life, you should be taking more risks, you should be trying things you’ve never tried, and you should be going up tracks you didn’t think you’d go up,’ he explains. ‘You should be doing things that surprise you – certainly not slowing down.’
From his early morning dips at the beach with his wife and business partner Judy, to hours spent painting in his studio, Ken encourages us all to follow our own track in life, and get the most out of each day.
‘Unfortunately, we are not here forever, so you cannot waste a minute.’
We live beside the beach in Sydney Harbour, so the first thing I do of course is open the curtains and look at the tide. The magpies and the rainbow lorikeets are waiting to be fed out the front of the frangipani tree. After I feed them, I go down and stop at my studio underneath the house to see the work I’ve been doing the day before. Sometimes I will spend a little bit of time in the studio, or even start work straight away.
When I made the transition between advertising and being a full-time painter, I always tried to start off the week with the work I was most passionate about, so Mondays were always painting. But of course nowadays I can paint every day, so I like to start the day with painting.
If I think the work from the day before is okay, I will walk further down to the waterfront, where the parrots, rainbow lorikeets and magpies that I’ve fed earlier are already waiting for their second breakfast.
After I’ve done my chores of feeding the birds and looking into the studio, then Judy and I go for a walk along Chinamans Beach and pick up any bits of rubbish that might have floated up onto the sand during the night. Then we go for a swim. We swim every day, even through winter.
We always have breakfast on the little table right beside Sydney Harbour, unless it is absolutely pouring down with rain. We like to have feta cheese, blueberries, kiwi fruit, banana, and maybe a piece of toast with a bit of jam and coffee. We have a fairly predictable breakfast during the week.
If I am going to work at home for the day, then I will go straight into the studio after breakfast and paint. I like to work on a couple of paintings at once and have the work around me – the paintings I’m working on, the paintings I have temporarily abandoned or put aside until another time, and then in the back of the studio are failed paintings, which I probably haven’t touched for months and sometimes a year or so.
Very rarely do I go straight in and into the major painting – you do a couple of things first of all, which might be as simple as rearranging the canvases or putting down the first coat of something, some comparatively menial task. Then you start to work and put the music on and you lose yourself within the exercise of painting, and I do that until lunchtime.
Half the week I’m working in my studio, the other half I’m in the gallery in the city. My kids and myself all work together, so I might be working with them on some particular project. At some point though during the morning I always head into the studio at the gallery and do some painting, then we will inevitably get lunch together somewhere in The Rocks.
If I’m home, I’ll have an avocado or Judy will make something, but usually it’s a fairly light lunch. After lunch I might read, but almost inevitably I will sleep for half an hour.
It’s very important – unless you are having a passionate love affair, I think – after lunch you should have a little rest.
If everybody could have that time off between one and three in the afternoon, I think the world would be a better place. You need to have some time where you are just kind of looking into the distance.
Judy and I will usually go for a walk around the garden. Sometimes I might walk past the studio and have to start work again because I can finally see what a canvas needed.
There are certain days where the work is better than others, and there are some days when you just go at it so hard and at the end of the day – even without the farting gnome – you know that it wasn’t good enough. Maybe one of the most important lessons that you learn is about editing your work, and deciding if it’s a load of crap, and to start over it again.
I find the next real creative period is from four till six-thirty. I like to work and I am disciplined, but I also give myself a break. I play golf and I travel quite a lot. I love it when the grandkids come to visit, and I love having them in the studio. They can paint much better than I can because they are freer.
Judy happens to be a very, very good cook and I am a very good eater, so we have dinner together. I also really like dark chocolate, so after dinner I’ll have a glass of red wine and some chocolate.
I don’t spend much time with other artists. I’m not sitting around having deep and meaningful conversations about art and where it all fits together – I think it’s quite a singular profession. If you are really serious about it, you don’t pontificate about it, you just get on with it. Again, at 75 I have to get on with it, because I haven’t got forever.
In the evening we watch TV on the ABC – the news and the 7.30 Report. I’m also a fan of British comedy, Would I Lie To You, QI with Stephen Fry, and the Australian series Rake.
Or we are might be reading. I’m 75, Christ, I’ve probably already fallen asleep at seven-thirty, woken up again at eight and drifted off.
I always have a painting on my right-hand side where I sit watching television. Sometimes even late at night I might have been lying there and see it needs something, so it is very simple then to pick it up and take it down to the studio and work on it.
You need to look at your work and also get pleasure out of your work. That’s why you did it in the first place, because you wanted to and because you like to do it.
Most nights by nine or ten we go to bed.
'The lesson my father taught me was to get the best out of every day, and living in Australia, you are already fantastically lucky. Waking up and living in Australia is winning the lottery, so the obligation you have is to absolutely get the best out of that experience because it is a great privilege.' – Ken Done