Ken Knight

Ken Knight

Born in Sydney, 1956
Lives and works in NSW

Ken Knight
Summer Landscape
Oil on board
108 x 103 cm

“In his depictions of the Australian bush Ken follows in the footsteps of the great Australian Impressionists of yesteryear, most notably Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, whose sun-drenched landscapes are seminal works in the canon of Australian art. While Knight employs a similar high-key palette and shows a deftness for depicting the heat haze and arid tones of the bush, he does so with a panache and emotional immediacy that sets his work apart as decidedly contemporary. It is as though Streeton veered out of his lane and collided head-on with Willem de Kooning.

The tools he employs are as unconventional as his approach to painting. Ken masses in large blocks of turpentine-thinned color with a fan brush or with a one-inch house brush, quickly establishing the major shapes, balancing a bold, intuitive approach with careful attention to composition, tone and pleasing color relationships. “Lose your tone, and you lose everything,” he cautions. He is more concerned with convincing color relationships than with accurate color. To that end he’ll push the atmospheric perspective, blurring the distant hills, or increase the contrast between the bank and water, for example. Again, by painting a scene multiple times he is freed from the constraint of matching the landscape tone-for-tone, color-for-color.

Once the block in is established he’ll alternate between brushes, a palette knife, and a large paint scraper, building up paint and scraping it back, juxtaposing thin and thick paint, teasing in a few edges to define the planes. Knight doesn’t so much describe form as he evokes it, deftly treading the line between naturalism and abstraction. “Happy accidents seem to occur when the paint is flowing freely, and the brain is thinking laterally.” Or, as Cezanne once put it, “Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.”

Sometimes an overload of sensations, a confusing tangle of trees along the far bank of a waterhole, ever changing light, or even midday heat, can overwhelm and distract an artist. One of the challenges to painting outside, Ken explains, is to not be “overly influenced by 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 rather than trying to render it faithfully.” It is vitally important to “reduce the amount of detail so that the painting has more impact.” Toward the end of a painting session, Ken steps back to appraise the work. He approaches the final touches with deliberate patience, a touch here, an edge softened there, all in consideration of the visual flow of the painting. “It’s these little notations, the horizontals, the verticals, that give the painting dynamism,” he explains. When pushing a landscape to the brink of abstraction, subtle refinements become vitally important, as there is scant detail to hide behind.

Finally, he’ll make a few indications of elements that he’ll add back in the studio when the painting has dried, a mark that will become a sheep grazing near the shore, or a few indications of tree branches, for example. Stepping back from a painting, he declares, “It’s got impact. It just needs a bit of subtlety now.”

That subtlety is achieved in the studio, generally after leaving the paintings to dry over a few months. Paintings are stacked against the wall, face in, so that when Ken puts them up on the easel, they feel fresh again. Sometimes he’ll cut out little swatches from magazines in the right color and tone as he thinks a passage in the painting needs. It’s a way to test out ideas before making final adjustments, a sort of old-school Photoshop technique.

The other essential tool is a saw. He jokes that “I always have a brush in one hand, and a saw in the other.” Cropping is a vital part of the process. Sometimes a section of the original painting is more evocative than the whole. In our phone conversation Ken told me how, at his old studio, he would toss the offcuts in a garbage bin alongside the studio. That is, until he realized a neighbor was rifling though the bin and taking the offcuts home. “They were lined up along the kitchen wall,” he says with a laugh. Now, if he needs to discard an old painting or an offcut, it gets set aside for the burn pile.

When I asked Ken about whether he considers photography useful, he laughed. “Do you remember a band called The Pet Shop Boys?” he asked. “I was out painting one day years ago, and I heard this line, ‘learn to ignore what the photographer saw.’ It struck me as both simple and profound. Painting from a photograph is a bit like shaking hands with gloves on. There’s a real loss of sensory information. We don’t see the world so much as we perceive the world. When we talk to a person, we don’t even see the color of wallpaper behind them. Our depth of field is so acute and narrow. The photograph denies the artist that selective vision and sensory experience that makes us uniquely human. If you’re standing on the beach, and there’s the smell of seaweed, the smell of salt air, there’s seagulls, there’s that sense of freedom that you have on the beach. I think all that comes through to some extent.”

Most importantly, his reverence for nature keeps him exploring the backroads of Australia in search of the next motif. “

Aaron Schuerr

Extract from “Landscape Redux” Artist Magazine, May 2019 (Golden Peak Media,Cincinnati.USA)