Assignment 4 – Project 2: Stage 2 – Ken Done Analytical Study

Sydney Celebration

Sydney_celebration_5In 2007 Ken Done painted a picture entitled Sydney Celebration.  It is a wonderfully vibrant piece and although I wasn’t able to see the original I did see a limited edition print in his gallery last week (No. 84/100).

Sydney_celebration_4 A riot of colour splashed over the dramatic black sky of Sydney Harbour at night.

I chose this to examine because it was later printed onto fabric which was used to make umbrellas (see first photo).  Whilst it is the umbrella I’ve chosen, it will be the painted design I will be analysing.  This is a very successful and iconic painting that has been well translated, with the design slightly rearranged, to produce a uniquely patterned functional item.

For whom or what occasion was it made?  This design depicts the brilliance of Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve.  He has caught the midnight fireworks display and the stunning effects as the silvery gold sparks fall to the water below.

NYE-FireworkSydney_celebration_6A close up of the Sydney Opera House section shows how minimalist his style is but also how effective.  The shapes, lines and arrangement here provide the viewer with instant recognition of this icon.

Note: Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks are televised around the world and millions of people tune in.  With that always in mind, and having a marvellous Aussie spirit, Sydney authorities spend a huge amount of effort, money and manpower ensuring we maintain this presence.  Being in the midst of our summer it is a time when tourists are in full flood with many planning their visit to coincide with NYE so they have the opportunity to share in the excitement.

Many, many people flock to the harbour foreshores and especially onto boats.  The water is ablaze with lights streaming from both the fireworks and water-craft.  Ken Done has demonstrated, in graphic style and fully saturated colour, the reflections in the water, the explosions lighting up the buildings and the hundreds of boats anchored within sight of some of the most distinguishable landmarks in the world.  There is no subtlety here.  A drama is being played out and the contrast between the dense black background and the busy bright images only heightens the sense of thrill and theatrics – for that is what it is: a theatrical production in full force.

His use of directional line-work, especially when considering the positioning of boats and their reflections, brings a depth that enables the viewer to easily recognise the subtleties between foreground and background images.  Although the Sydney Harbour Bridge sits behind much of the rest it remains the focal point due to its colour, more precise drawing style and the surrounding brilliance of the exploding fireworks.  The eye is drawn first to the top left hand side of the painting due to the dynamic colour use.  Follow this across towards the right and the energy and excitement is maintained as you discover the bridge and the high-rise buildings across the water.  You can’t help but to continue down and take in the rippling surface, shining green from the fireworks above.  This then leads the viewer to the well-lit boats, up to the Opera House and down the left-hand foreshore.  I don’t profess to be any sort of art critic but I find the composition pleasing, balanced and sufficiently engaging throughout.

The piece is typical of his style and he has painted images of these places before, and since, as they are a mainstay of his practice.

Was it made for a particular market or social group?  Ken Done has always been considered a commercial artist and has never been taken seriously (that is just starting to change slightly) by the art world.  He built quite an empire with his drawings and paintings and this served to promote Australia around the world and his imagery and style became internationally recognisable.  He has made a good living from his work and is not ashamed to sell well and adapt his designs to other surfaces than the canvas, if other items for sale can be produced.

Many of his designs can be seen on scarves, boxer shorts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, umbrellas, table mats, napkins, cushion covers, yardage, posters and postcards, ceramics, etc..  Even though there are messages within some of his art pieces much of it revolves around the enjoyment of what he sees around him – the view from his studio, sights around Sydney, local flora and fauna and the like.  The tourist market, both Australians and overseas visitors, are very taken with these and his gallery is busy with both face-to-face sales and shipping orders.

Over recent years he has closed all of his worldwide shops and outlets and now solely concentrates on his gallery at The Rocks in Sydney.  The closures were for several reasons, health issues and a feeling of having moved away from his love of painting and the time he could devote to it because of running a huge business not the least of them.

At the gallery last week I was extremely fortunate to be shown this Sydney Celebration umbrella because the original and all others produced have been sold and it is no longer in production.  I can find no reference whatsoever to it anywhere, not in publications or on the internet.  Despite a considerable search there is no published photograph that I can source – except mine above (and the store lighting wasn’t great).  In my discussion with the gallery staff a throwaway remark was made “Oh, would you like to look at Sydney Celebration because it was made into an umbrella?  I think I might even have one in the back but it’s not for sale as they’ve all gone“.  It seems it is the last one and there doesn’t appear to be much cataloguing for it.  It makes me wonder just how much art work disappears without a trace.

KD-PHM.The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has a large Ken Done collection including this umbrella from his Barrier Reef design.  In 1993 he was commissioned by the museum to create a completely new and original theme for their Garden Restaurant.  It was a place without much light and he transformed it into a bright and enchanting space capturing the spirit of his own studio view which he loves so much.   The restaurant opened in March 1994, completely revamped and even sported his designs on the tableware.  Photos of this can be viewed here.  It remained until the next refurbishment in 2002.

Ken Done’s work has no political or propaganda value, it is the result of his life and experiences mixed with a desire to make a living and promote his art to whomever may be interested.


Janet McKenzie, The Art of Ken Done, Published by Fine Art Publishing, Sydney, 2002.  ISBN 1-877004-23-5.

Images: – photo of fireworks – Photo of Sydney Celebration

Sydney Celebration umbrella photo by Claire Brach.


About Claire B

I am a passionate printmaker, paper maker and book artist. I'm a 'forever' student and frequently attend courses and workshops to extend and improve my creative skills.
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4 Responses to Assignment 4 – Project 2: Stage 2 – Ken Done Analytical Study

  1. Phil says:

    I like Ken Done, He managed to combine being an artist and a successful business man.

  2. fibresofbeing says:

    I used to have a Ken Done Barrier Reef umbrella and loved the way it brightened up rainy days.
    Interesting comment about politics and propaganda. Only this morning I was reading in Ai Wei Wei’s comments including “Art needs to stand for something.” and ” Chinese art is merely a product: it avoids any meaningful engagement.” (found following an OCA student discussion thread Totally different political situation – but then what about proppaNOW?
    I like Ken Done’s work (obviously, since I bought a little bit). We need some joy and beauty and fun in the world.

    • Claire B says:

      What happened to your umbrella? Sure to be worth a mint when he passes away!!
      Ai Wei Wei’s comments are extremely interesting, not only in the context of Chinese art but also to the question of the role art plays. Does it always have to stand for something, push a message or be a protest? Can it not be an outlet for whatever the creator desires? Certainly in the case of Tracey Emin (who I have been absorbed with lately) her message is always the same and is portrayed over and over: her self-absorption. She displays a clear narration, in more ways than one. However, looking at Lucienne Day fabric designs a completely different outcome is evident. She has produced artworks for mass production with influences from flora, fauna and structures at the core. There is no angst, no heartfelt message. Does this make her less of an artist, or is this where the difference in definition between an artist and designer comes into play? Would Lucienne Day be described as a ‘commercial artist’ in the world of today, as Ken Done is?
      And what about all those contemporary artworks we see in exhibitions marked “Untitled”, “Untitled I”, “Untitled II”, etc.? Where do they fit within the meaningful engagement debate? It’s hard to understand how some things are classed as art and others, not dissimilar, are thrown on the scrap-heap.

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