Ken Done: a man of many colours

Ken Done. Photo: Stuart Spence/supplied.

Ken Done is a designer whose eponymous brand is embedded in Australian culture. He is also an acclaimed artist whose paintings hang on the walls of galleries around the world. Arts editor Rita Bratovich spoke with Done about success, inspiration and the passion that drives him, ahead of a dual exhibition of his works at the Casula Powerhouse.

Ken Done’s talent was evident from a very early age. At 14, he enrolled at the National Art School in Sydney. He studied for five years before embarking on a very successful career in advertising as a graphic designer and art director, working in New York, London and Sydney.

“I was in the advertising business for quite a while and I was good at it, and I enjoyed it,” says Done. “But I just wasn’t passionate about it.”

It was a conversation he had with champion racing car driver Peter Brock while in Vanuatu that finally nudged Done to follow his true north. 

Brock spoke about how “passionate” he was about racing. 

Galvanised by that word, Done returned to work the following Monday morning, went into the chairman’s office and resigned.

“Because I knew if you wanted to be a good painter, you had to give it everything,” he tells the Sentinel.

Done was 40 when he decided that painting was his passion. But he also had to make a living. He and wife Judy set up Done Designs, initiating a venture that was commercially viable while still allowing creative freedom.

Ken Done designed t-shirt and sloppy joe. Image: supplied.

“[Judy is] a very good designer, very good fashion designer. We’ve been married for more than 50 years … so clearly we know how to get on with each other, and we clearly share – and continue to share – strong visual attitudes to things.”

This was the early 1980s and there was an international spotlight on Australia as a holiday destination. It was a perfect alignment of the stars for Done Designs. Their flagship product was a bold, brightly coloured image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a t-shirt and it went gangbusters. 

“There wasn’t anything like that you could buy in those days,” says Done. 

Both tourists and locals loved the vibrant, distinctly Aussie designs, which soon started appearing on various articles of clothing, homewares and giftware – in fact, they quickly became ubiquitous. 

“Of course, we got knocked off shamelessly. There was a time when anything that was colourful, they’d think: ‘Oh that’s Ken Done!’ Well a lot of the time it wasn’t.”

He recalls once seeing a t-shirt with an image on it identical to his Harbour Bridge design. The giveaway was, where he normally wrote ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’ underneath, this t-shirt said ‘Gulf of Thailand’.

Ken Done Flowers bed linen. Image: supplied.

Done Designs had licensing agreements in the US and Japan. The business was hugely successful – which was both a blessing and a curse. 

“It took me a little bit away from the painting, I have to say that,” says Done, citing the difference between designing and painting. 

“A good painting should be well designed anyway, but the difference is, when you’re doing a piece of design you have some understanding of who you want to respond to it, but in painting I can do whatever … the only person I have to please is me – which is getting harder and harder, actually!”

Ken Done’s Indian Summer, 2011, oil and acrylic on board, 76 x 102. Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Both Done’s designs and painting employ strong shapes and colours, and have a modern abstract sensibility with a uniquely Australian flavour. They tend to be uplifting, sometimes even quirky and humorous. 

What inspires him? 

“Look, if you wake up and you’re in Australia you’re already incredibly blessed. If you wake up and you live in Sydney, you know! I live beside the harbour, I can swim in it every morning, walk on a very quiet beach, dolphins come past my studio and I’m 20 minutes away from a big bustling city.”

Done has used Sydney Harbour as a theme for many works over the years and it continues to be a source of inspiration: celebrations, weather conditions, the changing cityscape – there is always something new to capture. 

He also ventures beyond the city limits. 

“For years and years, I’ve been painting paintings about the Barrier Reef. Not so much about precisely what it looks like but what it feels like, you know, the great joy that you find when you’re diving or even snorkelling. Snorkelling on a beautiful reef, there are the most wonderful colours and shapes. So that’s a constant source of inspiration,” says Done. 

Ken Done’s Yellow Beach II, 2016, oil and acrylic on linen, 152 x 122cm. Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

“But equally so, I was in Kalgoorlie a few weeks ago and I made paintings about the Bungle Bungles and about the desert in Western Australia or even the big mine. 

“Look, for a painter, you walk around with your eyes open and there are plenty of things to inspire you. I don’t have any problem thinking about what I’m gonna do.”

The upcoming exhibition at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) is in two parts. The first, Liveable Art: Stories of Done Art and Design, is a collection of Done Art and Design clothing, homewares, stationery and other branded items. It includes examples of early drawings and design work, as well as anecdotes from collectors around the country and the world who have loaned personal items to the exhibit. Done’s daughter Camilla has been instrumental in curating the exhibition.

“It’s quite a big exhibition and unlike any that I’ve had before, so I’m really looking forward to it,” says Done. “I think we’re going to show the original Sydney Harbour drawing that I did for the very first t-shirt.”

Ken Done’s Me, 2011, oils and acrylic on linen, 182 x 153cm. Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

The second part, Paintings You Probably Haven’t Seen: Selected Works 2000 – 2020, is an exhibition that has been touring regional galleries in NSW, Queensland and Victoria for the last two years. Thanks to the expansive space available at CPAC, the exhibition has been augmented to include additional works including several very large paintings. 

Done will also be interviewed by CPAC director Craig Donarski during a one-off event, An Evening with Ken Done on Saturday, 31 July. He will talk about his art, business and family, and share stories from his eventful and colourful past. The talk will be accompanied by screenings of archival footage.

Asked how he feels when he looks back over his life and career, Done says: “I guess the main sentiment is that I’m extremely grateful to have been able to support my family and the people that work for us through what I can paint and draw … and you know, I can do colouring in and go over the lines.”

Liveable Art: Stories of Done Art and Design: Saturday, 24 July to Sunday, 3 October, 2021. Free entry.

Paintings You Probably Haven’t Seen: Selected Works 2000 – 2020: Saturday, 24 July to Sunday, 3 October, 2021. Free entry.

An Evening with Ken Done: Dinner service from 5.30pm, event 7.30pm, Saturday, 25 September, 2021. Tickets $35 (event only) to $84 (event and meal).

The exhibitions and talk will be held at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 1 Powerhouse Road, Casula. For further exhibition information, as well as tickets to An Evening With Ken Done, visit www.casulapowerhouse.com.

*Please note: due to uncertainty about the Covid-19 lockdown length in NSW, dates may change. Please check the CPAC website for updates.