They’ll have breakfast in an old fisherman’s cottage on their property – it was Done’s studio for years – before preparing for “a lamb barbie and a few beers with friends”, revelling in the multicultural aromas of modern Australia drifting from other barbecues around Middle Harbour.
At some point, Done will return to his current, less rustic studio. Two painted mottos adorn the inside of the studio door in his distinctive capitals: PAINT FOR ME and FEARLESS. “When you’re 79 you should be fearless,” he says.
Most weeks he spends three days here painting, but always makes a point of working on two special days of the national calendar, Anzac Day and Australia Day.
“I paint on Anzac Day to show respect to all those Australians who have allowed us to enjoy this incredible lifestyle,” he explains. “As for Australia Day, it’s a celebration of the diverse country Australia has become.
“I spent the first years of my life in [Sydney’s] Belmore, when there were fields and cows. Now there are mosques,” he says.
“Aboriginal culture is an incredible part of our heritage: I feel it every time I put a dot on a canvas.” Unprompted, he launches into an aside. “If I had a single day being the ‘design dictator’ of Australia, I’d fix our two great design challenges.
“If we have to have green and gold as our national colours, we should have the right green and the right gold. Most of the time it looks like a bloody pineapple salad.
“Then I’d design a new Australian flag. It needs to pay equal respect to two things: our Indigenous and our British heritage, so that’s a harder design exercise.
“I don’t think we could adopt the Aboriginal flag, terrific though it is. Understandably, Indigenous Australians would say: ‘First they stole our country, then they stole our flag’.”
Design goes to the heart of Done’s standing in the cloistered circles of Australia’s art world. Critics still tend to dismiss him as a highly talented entrepreneur and former advertising guru who turned from design to painting as a retirement hobby and made millions from the international sales of his colourful doona covers, scarves and homewares.
In fact, the reverse is true. Done gained special dispensation to leave Mosman Public School at 14 to attend what is now the National Art School.
He has always painted, even during his brief Mad Men days spent working for the global advertising giant J. Walter Thompson in Manhattan and London. After taking over from author Bryce Courtenay as creative director of the JWT Sydney office in 1969, Done suddenly quit his lucrative job at the age of 35 “with one child and a huge mortgage” after a holiday chat with motor racing legend Peter Brock.
“Peter spoke with passion about what he did,” Done says. “I was good at advertising and design, but I was passionate about painting.” He spent the next five years preparing for his first exhibition.
Done has since painted Sydney Harbour more times than he can count. “As a five-year-old I remember travelling to Circular Quay to visit my grandparents in Manly, long before the Opera House was built.”
As we talk, his huge, luminescent, abstract painting of the Great Barrier Reef, Dive 4, is poised on his easel. “I could argue Dive 4 is a strong political statement about why we need to look after the reef,” the avid snorkeller says.
“I believe in climate change. The reef has changed so much in the years I’ve been snorkelling.”
Along with the harbour and the reef, another recurrent theme is the outback, particularly the Northern Territory and Uluru. “When I was young I made one attempt to climb the rock, got half way then chickened out because it was too steep. Now it’s important we respect the wishes of Aboriginal people by not climbing it.”
Beaches are another important element of Done’s oeuvre. Beach, reef, harbour and outback all feature in four new books just published by Thames and Hudson. The exhibition Ken Done, Paintings you probably haven’t seen, 2000-2017, which opened in 2019, is on show at select regional galleries in Queensland, NSW and Victoria until 2022.
How has his art changed across the years? “I’m a better painter at 79 than I was at 39,” Done says, although he’s gone through his fair share of trauma. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 (now clear), he and Judy also lost several million dollars through an unscrupulous accountant.
“I don’t care about the money,” he says cheerfully. “That’s the past. We still live in the most beautiful house in Sydney, where I can paint whenever I want.”
To view images of works in this Ken Done collection in full and to buy a signed limited edition giclee print of a work, go to thestore.com.au/done