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Tasmanian visual artist Tom O’Hern on how he got “good at drawing really bad”

Artist Tom O’Hern says he would likely make more money by going to the wilds of Tasmania with some oils than the artistic path he chose.

Instead of mastering the landscape, he said he became good at drawing badly.

“I’d love to be out in the wild somewhere with a huge canvas slapping oil paints,” O’Hern told ABC Radio Hobart.

“But I keep trying and it doesn’t really work.”

a black and white painting sitting on the grass with a bucket of water with brushes sitting next to it
One of Tom O’Hern’s paintings from his current exhibition, Bum Steer.(Features: Tom O’Hern)

The Hobart artist is a painter, draftsman, muralist, and even animator – think Mambo meets Where the Wild Things Are combined with some good old-fashioned doodling.

Over the past 15 years, the 37-year-old’s work has become prolific around Hobart, with his quirky murals in schools, cafes, boats, nightclubs, alleyways and, of course, bathrooms.

“I think I’ve painted 30 toilets around Hobart, probably more. So many toilets,” he said.

“I would like to paint museums, but I take what I can.”

a mural of a large face showing its teeth
Tom O’Hern’s murals are a familiar sight in Hobart.(Features: Tom O’Hern)

Celebrating imperfections

O’Hern believes the world is too busy being perfect.

“Everyone looks at perfect things all the time,” he said.

“Everything is printed by computers, everything is on one screen and flat.”

a black and white drawing of a wooden house
Tom O’Hern spent a month on an island producing works for his exhibition.(Features: Tom O’Hern)

It is mistakes and imperfections, he says, that make life interesting.

“Everyone has forgotten that drawing has always existed and everyone should be able to do it.

“But at some point we got embarrassed. We get angry if something doesn’t look like a photo.

For O’Hern, drawing often seems to be writing.

“Like when I draw a bird or something, it’s not like I’m trying to draw a realistic bird and get every feather right, it feels like a short hand,” he said.

“It looks like the beginning of new hieroglyphs and I’m discovering a kind of written language that doesn’t exist yet.”

a man wearing a mask painting a mural on a wall
The murals make up a large part of the work commissioned by Tom O’Hern.(Included: Mell Schmeider)

Learn to draw, badly

Last weekend O’Hern held a seminar called How to Draw Really, Really Bad.

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But the participants were all good designers.

“For those who were starting out, I said stop being valuable,” he said.

“For the more experienced, it’s the paradox of becoming an expert and you get all this experience and knowledge and that can block creativity because you get there from already knowing what the answer is.

“But it’s better to be open and not know what the answer is.”

Much of his work is public murals and he approaches each one differently.

“I seem to attack them in completely different ways that I’m sure scare customers,” he said.

Everyone is born an artist

O’Hern went to school at Geilston Bay High on Hobart’s east bank and then Rosny College before art school.

Since then he has been making art.

“Everyone really starts in art, it’s just that most people stop interested in art at some point,” he said.

a man is standing on an orange concrete truck with a scary face painted to one side
Tom O’Hern painted a concrete truck for the Terrapin Puppet Theater as part of the Mona Foma festival.(Equipment: Terrapin puppet theater)

He said that “compulsion and an unhealthy addiction to drawing” kept him going.

Early in his career he moved to Melbourne and learned to live cheaply and work in cold, leaky warehouses.

A wide shot of a man standing in front of a large colorful mural in a warehouse
He says he takes a different approach every time he tackles a new mural.(Featuring: Nick Hanson)

His first exhibition was in 2005 in Hobart with other artists and was based on graffiti and street art using stencils and spray paint.

“It was a completely different thing that I was trying to do then,” he said.

a black painting of a scull, is in progress on a table outside
Tom O’Hern says he learned to work more immediately than when he started as an artist.(Features: Tom O’Hern)

He said people seemed to appreciate how long it took to get something done.

“The first thing people ask when I show a work of art is how long it took something, and I really feel it doesn’t make things better if it took years,” he said.

“I’m trying to push it away, sometimes things take years and sometimes they don’t and often it’s the things done quickly that I think are actually better.”

He said it can be hard to justify, but it took him 20 years to come up with the craft.

Dark Beef

O’Hern’s current solo show, Bum Steer, at the Bett Gallery, features works he has produced on a “secret island” over the span of a month.

“I did one drawing a day, sometimes two,” he said.

“It was a really nice way to work. No sketches, no tweaks, just see what happens.

More than half have sold, a milestone not lost for an artist who has done the hard construction sites.

“I spent so much time in very cold studios whipping myself, when I could just as well be on a beach taking it easy and going for a swim,” she said.

His other major project at the moment is a public artwork commissioned for the Hobart City Council.

A man in a plastic suit holding a paintbrush on a pole is painting an orange mural on a wall
This mural was part of the Junction Arts Festival.(Included: Mell Schmeider)

Children know what to do

Tom O'Hern stands with his arms crossed in front of his entrance to the Ramsay Art Prize, a collection of mosaic cartoons
Tom O’Hern, with his entry into the Ramsay Art Prize Drawings from the End of the World in 2020, says everyone should draw.(ABC Arts: Both Duff)

He believes that younger children are the best drawing students.

“You don’t really need to tell them anything, they already know what to do,” she said.

“I don’t know when self-awareness will be established.

He takes great pleasure in seeing his daughter draw.

“I was just looking at the picture of an owl my daughter drew, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” she said.

“It’s just a big free owl that I’ll spend all day working myself into something like that.

“It’s perfect.”

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