'Better now than I ever was': Ken Done's life in art

Portrait of Ken Done Image copyright Ken Done
Image caption Life for Australia's merchandising king has not always been plain sailing

If you entered a typical suburban home in 1980s Australia, in all likelihood there would be a Ken Done print on the wall, a Done cover on the bed, or a Done swimsuit in the wash.

Kitsch squiggles and merchandise made him a household name and millions of dollars.

Done's career has been a runaway success. Yet his life has taken as many twists and turns as the lines in one of his paintings.

"Everybody's life is filled with lots of hills and valleys," he says, "some valleys so deep you'd never imagine you'd fall into them."

Image copyright Ken Done
Image caption Postcard from Sydney, full moon, 2016

Better now than ever

Done is in the process of reshaping himself - attempting to forge a legacy as a serious artist after a troubled period in his life.

He lost millions of dollars in 2007 due to the actions of a rogue accountant; and then, in 2011, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"I'm better now than I ever was," he says, grinning beneath his silver-grey moustache at his gallery in Sydney.

"I've had prostate cancer, I've lost a rather large sum of money, but I'm still here."

Scattered around the gallery's backroom are a number of vivid, starry eyed paintings of the Harbour Bridge and Great Barrier Reef that have become Done's trademark. Most are rendered in colourful, childlike strokes that seem to reflect his optimism.

Image copyright Getty Images

Into darker ground

Throughout his career, Done faced rejection from the art establishment who criticised his work as shallow and populist.

The late acclaimed artist Brett Whiteley once famously scoffed: "I'd rather take methadone than Ken Done."

But in Done's twilight years, that back-handed attitude might finally be changing, not least because of his turnabout to tackle darker subjects.

Done's 2012 series Attack: Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour, explores the 1942 Japanese assault on Australian waters. It earned him his first-ever serious praise from critics.

The previous year saw him create Portrait After Prostate Cancer, in which his disembodied bright yellow sickly head floats in a dark sky over a lurid red landscape.

This year, Done has three large exhibitions. Paintings from Antarctica, launched in the Ken Done Gallery this month; Great Barrier Reef, a solo exhibition of his reef paintings which opens in October at the Rockhampton Art Gallery.

In November, he is appearing as part of group exhibition, The Popular Pet Show, a showcase of artists with their pets, at the National Portrait Gallery where Done's contributions include paintings of him with his late dog, Spot.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Done has conquered both illness and financial straits and come out on top

From sweaters to golf balls

After graduating from art school, Done found a job in the 60s as an ad man. He eventually moved to London, rising to become creative director of advertising agency J Walter Thompson.

Yet Done has always, above all, seen himself as an artist.

It was 1980, on his fortieth birthday, when Done held his first ever art exhibition.

Just three months later he opened his own gallery in The Rocks in Sydney.

His first T-shirt soon followed and business took off.

His fetchingly simple doodles, often of iconic Aussie settings, were printed on everything from sweaters to golf balls. Princess Diana was even photographed wearing a Ken Done sarong.

Within a decade the empire grew to include 15 shops, 150 staff, and, by the early 1990s, boasted an annual turnover of A$50m.

Today art colleges "don't even teach drawing, which I think is ridiculous," Done scoffs. "My track is much more old fashioned in the sense it involved drawing and discipline leading into painting."

"There is no need for any wall text in my gallery," he says. "You either like the painting or you don't."

Image copyright Ken Done

The definition of success

Done is adamant he has had to overcome his own previous success in design to make his way as an artist. To pave the way, he started to strategically shrink his business in the mid-2000s to just one gallery and shop.

"The first thing that people saw in wide distribution might have been bed linen or a scarf - things I'd done as licensing arrangements, which I had spent a small amount of time doing but is widely seen by lots of people," he explains. "I think it's only now that people have understood and caught up with the paintings."

Life has taken a turn for the better too.

In 2011 Done's lawyers reached a settlement with the financial arm of Commonwealth Bank over his accountant's risky investments. He has also had his prostate removed - a medical procedure he believes that men should be able to talk about openly, in a similar way to breast cancer without shame or embarrassment.

Done continues to paint daily and hopes that at least a handful of his work will stand the test of time.

He may no longer be as rich as he once was; but he insists it does not matter.

Once a poor art student who counted pennies for every single sheet of paper, the most important thing is being able to "go into an art material shop and buy whatever I want.

"That's real success for me," Done says.

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