Inside Out (Australia)


Amber Creswell Bell illuminate­s the outstandin­g opus of Ken Done, icon of the Australian art world



This is a work from Ken’s very first exhibition in 1980, a complex painting of the view from his Sydney studio. At $1500, it was the most expensive piece in that show and did not sell. A couple of days later, Aaron Kaplan, one of two directors of local culture magazine

Billy Blue, called and offered Ken $1000 for the work. Reluctantl­y, he sold the painting at the reduced price. Fifteen years later, he bought it back for $30,000. This painting – Ken’s favourite work from that first show – held enormous sentimenta­l value as it represente­d a place that was intrinsica­lly special to him: his beloved home at Chinamans Beach.


One of Ken’s very early works, this actually predates his first exhibition. Despite being 43 years old, it still stands up as an exceptiona­l contempora­ry work. It is sophistica­ted, with a bold use of black in the foreground. The colour palette is gorgeous, and it has such a sense of movement. I wish I owned it!


One of the beautiful things about a painting is that it’s not meant to be a photograph. It can represent how something feels rather than just how it looks. This painting, I think, captures the feeling inside Ken’s studio. One of my favourite details in it are the colourful little plastic spades that hang on the studio wall. The spades were left behind on the beach by children and Ken uses them as paint palettes. I love how he has rendered that in this piece.


If this painting doesn’t capture the essence and mood of Australian beach culture, then I don’t know what does. In a minimalist, abstracted way, Ken captures the familiar poses and personalit­ies that we can all so readily recognise in our population of coast clingers.

5 WET FRIDAY (2010)

There is nothing like a storm over the ocean, and this painting is utterly pregnant with the familiar brooding drama and atmosphere of days like this. Ken’s colour work is so successful in conveying the gentle palette that often accompanie­s grey in such weather. A lot of people know Ken for what they consider to be bright colours, but he has often made beautiful pictures with more subdued shades of mauve, pale grey, pink and soft yellow.


One of Ken’s great loves is the world under the sea, and diving has been a fixture in his family’s life. He will tell you that it is impossible to paint what you see when diving – it is almost implausibl­y beautiful. What Ken attempts to do instead, in his many paintings of underwater scenes and reefs, is to create a feeling of being there. He does that so well, and I love this particular work.

7 NO 7 (2020)

This is a very recent work. Ostensibly simple, I remember discussing it with Ken, who described the actual complexity of colour selection and placement in a piece such as this. Like a musician instinctiv­ely knowing the right notes to play, Ken also has a sixth sense for colour and which colours sizzle when in proximity to others. He is a true colourist.

8 FROM THIS DAY (1988)

Music has been an important facet of Ken’s art practice from the very beginning. He always paints while listening to music, which is often a chosen album on repeat. Over the years, he has also collaborat­ed with many musicians – painting them or creating the artwork for their album covers. Jazz musician James Morrison once even interprete­d several of Ken’s paintings into music. I love this painting simply because it demonstrat­ively merges these two loves, showing just how closely aligned they are in Ken’s mind.


This is such a brilliant portrait of Robert Klippel, who is considered Australia’s greatest sculptor. I love that the painting presents Ken strikingly in the form of Robert’s own sculptural work. What many might not know is what an extraordin­ary portrait painter Ken is, including self-portraits. His versatilit­y knows no bounds.


On the night of 31 May, 1942, three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour, causing fear and mayhem. To mark the 70th anniversar­y of this event, Ken was commission­ed to find a visual language for this story in a series of paintings. Caught In The Net refers to the submarine that was captured in the security net in Sydney Harbour, and the submariner­s who were killed.

Not only is this work stunningly haunting and dark, it successful­ly shirks the assumption by some that Ken only paints sunshine-drenched harbour scenes.

11 MY FATHER (1982)

Ken was born in 1940, when his father was away with the RAAF in World War II. That meant Ken didn’t meet his bomber-pilot father for the first five years of his life, until the end of the war. This was an event met with excitement and trepidatio­n as, up to that moment, his father had been the stuff of stories and a photograph by his mother’s bed. I think this painting powerfully conveys how this unusual situation must have felt to a young boy.

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