Tasmanian visual artist Tom O’Hern on how he became ‘good at drawing really badly’

Artist Tom O’Hern says he’d probably make more money heading out into Tasmania’s wild areas with some oils than the art path he has chosen.

Instead of mastering landscape, he said he’s become good at drawing badly.

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

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

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

The Hobart artist is a painter, drawer, 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 featuring at schools, in cafes, on boats, inside nightclubs, down alleys and of course — toilets.

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

“I would like to paint museums but I’ll take what I can get.”

a mural of a big face showing its teeth
Tom O’Hern’s murals are a familiar sight around Hobart.(Supplied: Tom O’Hern)

Celebrating imperfections

O’Hern believes the world is too caught up with everything having to be perfect.

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

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

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

It’s the mistakes and imperfections, he says, that make life interesting.

“Everyone has forgotten that drawing has been around forever and everyone should be able to do it.

“But at some point we got self conscious about it. We get upset if something doesn’t look like a photo.

For O’Hern drawing often feels like he is 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 feels like the beginnings of new hieroglyphics and I’m discovering some sort of written language that doesn’t exist yet.”

a man wearing a mask painting a mural on a wall
Murals make up a lot of Tom O’Hern’s commissioned work.(Supplied: Mell Schmeider)

Learning to draw, badly

Last weekend O’Hern ran a workshop titled How to draw really, really badly.

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But, the participants were all good drawers.

“For the ones who were starting out, I said to stop being precious about it,” he said.

“For the more experienced ones, it’s all about the paradox of becoming experienced and you get all this experience and knowledge and that can block creativity because you’re coming at it from already knowing what the answer is.

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

A lot of his work is public murals, and he approaches each one differently.

“I seem to attack them in totally different ways which I’m sure freaks out clients,” he said.

Everyone is born an artist

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

He’s been making art since then.

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

a man is standing on an orange cement truck with a scary face painted on the side of it
Tom O’Hern painted a cement truck for Terrapin Puppet Theater as part of Mona Foma festival.(Supplied: Terrapin Puppet Theater)

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

Early in his career he moved to Melbourne and learned to live very cheaply and worked out of 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 takes on a new mural.(Supplied: Nick Hanson)

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

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

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

He said people seemed to value how long something took to make.

“The very first thing people ask when I show some art is how long something took, and I really feel like it doesn’t make it better if it took ages,” he said.

“I’m trying to push back on that, sometimes things take me ages and sometimes they don’t and often it’s the things made quickly I think actually are better.”

He said that it can be hard to justify, but it’s taken him 20 years to work out the craft.

Boom Steer

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

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

“It was a really nice way of working. No skits, no fixing anything up, just see what happens.

More than half have sold, an achievement not lost on an artist who has done the hard yards.

“I’ve spent so much time in really cold studios flogging myself, when I could also just be on a beach taking it easy and going for a swim,” he said.

His other major project at the time is a commissioned public art piece for the Hobart City Council.

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

Kids know what to do

He believes younger children make the best drawing students.

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

“I don’t know when the self-consciousness settles in.

He takes great pleasure in seeing his daughter draw.

“I was just looking at a picture of an owl my daughter has drawn, and it’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” he 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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