Ken Searle grew up around the Cooks River, in the south-west suburbs of Sydney, where he still lives. He is best known for his large paintings in oil on canvas, depicting the suburban and industrial areas of a number of Australian cities. As well, he has painted the landscapes of the Western Desert and of the southern coastline. He has worked with author Nadia Wheatley on two main projects to produce the multi-award winning Papunya School Book of Country and History, Going Bush and Australians All. A self-taught artist, in the mid 1970s Ken Searle began regularly exhibiting works at Watters Gallery in Sydney, where he has held fifteen solo exhibitions.
During the period 1998-2001 Ken Searle and Nadia Wheatley worked as consultants at the school at Papunya (an Aboriginal community in the Western Desert, Northern Territory). As part of their work, they helped forty Indigenous staff and students produce the multi-award winning Papunya School Book of Country and History. Ken was the designer for the book, and contributed some of the illustrations.
In 2005 Ken Searle and Nadia Wheatley developed an innovative Harmony project with children from Muslim, Catholic and state schools in Sydney's south-west. Examples of the students' writing and art are included in the picture book Going Bush, which is illustrated and designed by Ken and has a narrative text by Nadia.
How do you paint your pictures?
My method is to walk into a painting. I try to let the place tell me what to say. Over a period of months I explore an area of the city or the bush. In this time I collect maps, research local history, and try to get a feel of the community by talking to people. I keep a notebook and jot down ideas as they come to me. As I explore, I paint and sketch on site, producing dozens of finished sketches in oil paint, crayon, pencil and charcoal. When I have gathered enough information about my subject, I go back to my studio and start composing on paper. In the final stage of my work, I transcribe in oil paint on canvas the information from both the composition sketch and the works done on site.
How did you start making picture books?
It happened by accident. While Nadia and I were working in Papunya, we started making books with the staff and students at the school. These weren't for publication and sale in shops. We just put together a few copies on the photocopier. One of these books was the Papunya School Book of Country and History. After a while, the Anangu teachers decided they would like to tell this story to other people around Australia. So Nadia and I went back to Papunya to make the book again, in a way that it could be commercially published. I did some of the pictures for the book, and I designed how the words and illustrations would fit into the pages. After that, I was invited to work as an illustrator and designer on other books.
What has been your most rewarding experience with picture books?
After the Papunya School Book was finished, I was privileged to work with one of my friends from Papunya on an inspirational book. In When I was Little, Like You, Mary Malbunka tells the story of her childhood in words and pictures. To make the book, Mary and an elder named Emma came and stayed in Sydney with Nadia and me. Nadia had to get Mary's spoken words into a written story, and then it was my job to work out how the story would fit onto the pages of the book.
Do you have any tips for young artists?
If you take a photo of something, you only have a split second of memory of that place or that event in your head. However, if you sit down for about twenty minutes and do a sketch, you will store up a great deal of information about smells and sounds and all sorts of things. When my two children were young and we went camping, I'd always get out the sketch books and pencils. I'd say to my kids: 'Just put down what you want to remember.' When I look at those pictures now, I find that they say a lot more than the photos that we took. .