Tasmanian visual artist Tom O’Hern explains how he got ‘really bad at drawing’

Artist Tom O’Hern says he would likely make more money traveling to the Tasmanian wilderness with oils than his chosen artistic path.

Instead of mastering the landscape, he says he got good at drawing badly.

“I would love to be somewhere in the desert with a huge canvas slamming oil paints,” O’Hern told ABC Radio Hobart.

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

One of Tom O’Hern’s paintings from his current exhibition, Bum Steer.(Provided: Tom O’Hern)

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

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

“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 around Hobart.(Provided: Tom O’Hern)

Celebrate Imperfections

O’Hern thinks the world is too caught up in everything that needs to be perfect.

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

“Everything is printed by computers, everything is on 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.(Provided: 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 became aware of it. We get angry if something doesn’t look like a picture.

For O’Hern, drawing often feels like 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’s like a short hand,” he said. declared.

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

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

learn to draw, wrong

This past weekend, O’Hern hosted a workshop called How to Draw Really, Really Badly.


But, the participants were all good designers.

“For those who were just starting out, I said stop being precious about it,” he said.

“For the more experienced, it’s about the paradox of becoming experienced and you get all that experience and knowledge and it can block creativity because you come into it already knowing what the answer is.

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

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

“I seem to attack them in a totally different way, which I’m sure is freaking customers out,” he said.

Everyone is born an artist

O’Hern went to school at Geilston Bay High on the east coast of Hobart, then Rosny College before art school.

Since then, he has been making art.

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

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

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

Early in his career, he moved to Melbourne and learned to live very 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 each time he takes on a new mural.(Provided: 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 totally different thing that I was trying to do back then,” he said.

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

He said people seemed to appreciate the time it takes to do something.

“The very first thing people ask when I show art is how long something took, and I really feel like it doesn’t make it any better if it takes a long time,” did he declare.

“I try to push that back, sometimes things take me a long time and sometimes they don’t and often times it’s things done quickly that I think are best.”

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

Bum Steer

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

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

“It was a really good way to work. No sketches, nothing to fix, just see what happens.

More than half have sold, a feat that has not escaped an artist who has done the hard work.

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

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

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

Children know what to do

He thinks young children make the best drawing students.

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

“I don’t know when self-awareness sets in.

He takes great pleasure in seeing his daughter draw.

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

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

“It’s perfect.”

Briana R. Cross