Q&A with artist Ken Knight


Peter: Thanks for taking the time to do this. I know you’re working on some new works for our Martin Place gallery so I’ll keep this relatively brief.

Peter: When did you first realise you had a talent for painting?

Ken: My recollections as a child always seemed to involve painting and drawing and this interest started early, perhaps at eight or nine years of age. Picking up a pencil and drawing was second nature to me . I also remember being passionate about the outdoors from an early age. Camping trips with my Dad and family to the countryside,spending hours fishing on the rocks or along a river, and fossicking for shells on the beach...there was something that drew me to nature and the excitement of the outdoors.

Peter: Can you remember your first painting?

Ken: Yes I can I remember it very clearly. My Dad drove me to the Georges River and I did a small water colour painting. I sat on the grass and put a sketchbook on my knee while Dad read the paper in the car. I had no idea really of what I was doing. I remember the excitement and frustration of doing a little painting outside. I might have been 10 years of age at the time ... I remember that I was still in primary school. It's interesting...nothing much has changed ! There appears always to be a disparity between your mental image and what you would like to get out of the subject and your ability to render it. I think this little water colour sketch was quite good at one stage but I continued to work on it too long and it became overworked.
 
Peter: What happened to that first water colour?

Mmm... I’m sure it was discarded fairly quickly after that painting session... I hate failures, so I probably put it in the bin.

Peter: When did you have your first exhibition?

Ken: My first exhibition was in 1979.
 
Peter : Was it successful?

Ken: I remember I was very nervous and apprehensive about the whole thing. Thankfully, it was very successful. I think everything sold! Mind you ...the most expensive painting was $250. (laugh)
 
Peter: If you walked around that exhibition today, as an observer, what would you think of the work?

Ken: Oh, the thought of doing that is a bit scary. I think there was a lot of searching and experimenting in those early days... attempting to find my own visual language and trying to find my own way of painting. I think I would view the paintings now as fresh and probably a little awkward...being influenced too much by the subject rather than design and structure considerations. However, I would applaud any young artist who paints outside trying to capture the essence of the landscape.

Peter: As an artist, how would you describe your technique?

Ken: A Landscape artist can choose any number of techniques in responding to his subject. I favour the plein air approach. I find that this pure contact with nature allows a directness of vision and facilitates freshness, excitement and passion. There is something elemental and powerful about responding directly from nature. All senses are on overload. There is an honesty and strength about the works produced outside, and these paintings have an openness and freedom that can easily be recognised. 

Peter: Have you always painted outside?

Ken: Yes, absolutely ... picture making is not only about painting what you see but importantly what you feel. I find painting from photographs devoid of emotion and the resulting works often lack spontaneity and integrity. It is always challenging when one paints in situ; you look around and there is so much information that surrounds you ...it can be overwhelming. I sometimes describe to people that I close one eye and blur the other when I paint. The justification for this approach is simple ...to remove initially the often small and distracting details that can compromise the big picture.

Ken Knight painting en plein air in Venice during the Biennale

Ken Knight painting en plein air in Venice during the Biennale

Peter: I'm guessing painting outside presents a lot of difficulties?

Ken: Well yes of course. The weather changes very quickly and this can cause challenges in itself. And If you're painting around Sydney harbour or somewhere where there are lots of people, you always seem to attract a crowd. This year I travelled to Venice to paint for two weeks. As it turned out, this coincided with  the Venice Biennale ,which attracts enormous crowds from all over the world. I’m sure people sometimes mistook me for an exhibit or some type of interactive installation... I would look around behind me and there were 20 people watching me. You become very self-conscious when you're painting outside. I sometimes feel that I'm naked and people are there checking me out. You feel very vulnerable.

 

Peter: So when you paint outside, what’s the goal? - do you try to faithfully render what you see?

Ken: Imagination can be highlighted by the visual stimulation of being out in the open. Depending upon the weather, subject and your response, the painting can be audacious or sensitive, as there is an ever-changing dialogue between the artist and his work.

I paint both what I see and what I feel ...this emotional response can give a painting an energy or bravura that cannot be gained by painting in the studio. One of the contradictions of painting outside is for the artist not to be over influenced by the motif. It's not what you look at that's important but what you see. I try to use the subject as a springboard for my imagination more than trying to render it faithfully. Of course, it will depend upon the natural layout of the subject and how much rearranging is required to achieve a pleasing painting based on structure and design.

Peter: Which artists have influenced you?

Ken: I remember the very first time I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and I stood  in front of "Spring frost" by (Elioth) Gruner... It blew me away. I think I was 19 at the time. Obviously (Arthur) Streeton is an artist who I admire greatly, particularly his early work. I met Michael Shannon, Rubery Bennett and Arthur Boyd, who were  all generous in their time and support. I actually did a collaboration with Arthur Boyd when I stayed in Riversdale on the Shoalhaven River for the first time in 1996.

Monet, Diebenkorn and Turner are international artist who I admire...and are all very different.
 
Peter: They certainly are different. Was art the only option for you?

Ken: Well that ‘s an interesting question! You see, I spent four years at Sydney University, training to be a social science teacher. I originally tried to enrol in Fine Arts, but I didn’t select Art in my senior years at High School, opting instead for economics....thinking that this would be of greater benefit than Art in my vocation as a male. Consequently, I was unable to pursue this at Uni.. After three and a bit years, I resigned  from permanent teaching to pursue my great passion...painting. Looking back on all that now, a gift from my parents when I finished school opened up a whole new world for me ... They gave me a small selection of oil paints, and some brushes... and that changed everything!

Peter: I can't imagine the Australian art landscape without thinking about your work and I know I'm not the only one. What can you tell us about your next show with us?

Ken: I have been saving works for the second exhibition at Wentworth Gallery for a few years now. The recent paintings of Venice will feature ...also some favourite locations around  Sydney Harbour and landscapes around Yass. I have also been experimenting with some slightly more abstracted landscapes recently... I might put some of these in as well!