A painter’s journey: The struggles and triumphs

Wednesday, November 9, 8:37AM

Salman Almeer

It gives me great pleasure to announce the 2011 Archibald prize and a cheque from ANZ for $50,000 is awarded to… Ben Quilty”, Mr Steven Lowy announced at the Art Gallery of NSW. A warm round of applause soon followed and a crowd of photographers rushed to capture Australia’s new star painter and his winning portrait, ‘Margaret Olley’. A predominantly brown and white palette portrait with a tint of dark green to showcase Olley’s striking eyes. Unfortunately, she past away only three months after the show aged 88. Her contribution to the development of art in Australia was recognised when she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest civilian honour. The influence she had on Australian artists such as Ben lives on, “I’m like an old tree dying and setting forth flowers as fast as it can, while it still can.” She once told Ben. The flowers were a metaphor for her paintings.

Ben quilty and Margaret Olley posing in front of media

Not so far away from the gallery, is the workplace of a struggling Sydney based painter. A growling 9–5 job in a cooperate bank at the heart of Sydney’s CBD. For him the journey as a painter is far from glorious.

David Bakunowicz, otherwise known as ‘Dkoons’ or ‘Koonsy’ by his close friends and fans, is an aspiring painter. He is not your average everyday painter. A finance officer by profession and a painter by nature, he is on a continuous struggle to balance his time between work and his real passion of painting. While it is often believed that some people are born as artists. It still takes lots of practice to nurture that talent and develop high levels of painting skill and technique. Only began painting in late 2012, time was very much against koonsy.

Many struggling painters dream about making their living as a painter. They work tirelessly in hope of ‘hitting the big time’ one day. Most of them fail because they don’t have the necessary funds to assist their painting habit. They get lost in all their dreams whilst forgetting about reality. For Koonsy, he quickly learned to acknowledge reality in order to keep his dream of becoming a successful painter alive and got himself a decent job.

It’s just a few days into spring. A cool evening has blessed Sydney’s southern suburbs. Parc Menai was the place to be in. Kids running around the playground, tent shops covered in dimmed tree lights, gentle acoustic music playing in the background. Springbound music and arts festival has finally arrived. An event organised for aspiring local artist to showcase their creative works. From hand drawn cards to hand-made leather bags and wallets, the talent on display was quite impressive. Yet that’s not what I was there for, I was interested in one particular painter many of my friends talked to me about, everybody called him ‘Koonsy’, quite an unusual nickname I thought.

Springbound music and arts festival

I immediately noticed his paintings form a distance. I spent sometime looking at the paintings while I was waiting for Koonsy to arrive. Surrounded by lots of intense looking portraits, their intimidating eyes followed me around.

His paintings on display at springbound music and arts festival

One particular painting caught my attention, a black and white portrait of ‘Picasso’. I stared for sometime and remembered what Koonsy said about this painting on one of his Instagram posts, “Picasso. I’ve painted this very face 4–5 times and it never seems to get old. Something about the strong features and the eyes that see right through you, straight to your soul”.

One of many Picasso portraits painted by Koonsy

Unaware of what Koonsy looked like, I was on the lookout for someone who resembled a “painter”, maybe an older looking man who had a beard, wore a funny looking hat and glasses. Just like the cartoons I used to watch as a child . Very quickly I found out that I couldn’t be more wrong.

Moderately tall and vey well built, his straight brown hair matched his brown eyes. He was wearing a blue business shirt with black pant and some brown leather shoes. His age… maybe 27 if I had to take a guess. He was right there the whole time, sitting on an old rusty orange couch. I walked up to him and we exchanged a firm shake of hands followed by a brief pause and a strong gust of wind. I introduced myself and gave him one or too compliments about his painting to ease the obvious tension. The longer we talked the more i noticed the way he spoke was so different, so eloquent and sophisticated in his speech. We sat on that old rusty orange couch and began a deep conversation.

Growing up in southwest Sydney, Koonsy had a reasonably normal life. His father was an engineer and his mother was a physiotherapist. He described his mother as “the artistic one”, however just like himself, balancing time between work and painting was also very difficult for her, “She would always spend most of her time looking after the four kids when she wasn’t working, so she didn’t have much time for herself” he explained. As a child he was very active and used to always climb trees and jump on the trampoline they had in the backyard.

Straight after graduating from high school, koonsy made the decision to learn his craft and study both law and the arts. His arts degree saw a specialisation in French language and culture, with a particular focus on the French Impressionists. He explained to me that painting “no longer was about realism and replication” and that Monet “opened the gates to a plethora of interpretive approaches”. I looked at him and nodded every few seconds maintaining eye contact the entire time, as though it all made sense to me. In all truth, I had no idea what he was talking about but his theory-based knowledge of art was rather impressive.

While he was always passionate about painting, it was not until late 2012 after a trip to Europe that he’s painting journey officially began. “That trip kind of sparked my love for painting and basically got me hooked,” he said. He told me about some of his fond memories in berlin. With a reflective tone, he began to recall vividly:

“I was living in a light-filled apartment in the North of the city in a place called ‘Pankow’. It was a reasonably calm city, my mornings were generally spent walking to cafes and visiting historical and cultural sites and in the evening I would go into painting lockdown, German beer in one hand, and paintbrush in the other. I’d paint until I’d fall asleep”.

For koonsy, his visit to berlin was not smooth sailing all the way. After an art studio deal fell through due to “miscommunication” according to him, he was left with nowhere to paint and ultimately was forced to use his apartment as an art studio. He found himself experimenting with a variety of different colour palettes to get the right tone, it took many long late nights to get familiar with mixing acrylic paint and this “led to a lot of frustration” he said.

Koonsy starting on a new portrait

Ben Quilty had somewhat of a similar beginning to his journey as a painter when compared to Koonsy’s journey, “I did a degree in painting and then went out and started a long long path of finding day jobs to support my habit. You need money, you can’t do it from abject poverty”, Ben explained in an interview with ArtsCareer. His journey as a painter didn’t have the best of starts. He lived a wild party lifestyle during his late teenage years, lots of drugs and heavy drinking over the weekends. He subsequently failed his year 12 art subject. Some of his best works now are inspired by his dark past. A 2003 painting of his teenage car, ‘Frog Torana’, was sold for a record $81,000 at a Menzies auction in December of 2011. His paintings are slowly becoming more expensive as his profile as a painter continues to increase.

Frog Torana

I asked Koonsy about the price range of his paintings, he hesitantly said, “prices of my artwork vary from hundreds of dollars to thousands.” His strong ego defiantly influenced his answer, “yeah right” I said to myself. So what makes a painting valuable? Why is there such a large disparity between what painters are getting paid for?

In the BBC Documentary, ‘The World’s Most Expensive Paintings’, English art critic Alistair sooke spoke about the odd nature of painting, “just with the way you move a brush something that has no practical purpose, a worthless scrap of canvass covered with inexpensive pigment can become this priceless object” he said. A view that most people in the general public would agree on. So why are some paintings so expensive?

One of the biggest factors that affect the price of a painting is a term known in the art world as ‘provenance’. Which basically means who has owned the painting in the past. For example, Mark Rothko’s painting ‘white centre’ was owned by the Rockefellers, one of most wealthiest and powerful dynasties in America. In 1960, David Rockefeller paid less than $10,000 for ‘white centre’; half a century later it was sold for more than $72 million. An extreme example of how provenance can significantly increase the value of a painting. In Koonsy’s case, provenance is not something that’s applicable right now. His artwork is only sold to unknown private buyers through social media messaging. On the other hand, Ben Quilty had some of his artwork on display at various well-known art galleries around the country. For example, his painting ‘Insignia 4’ was on display in the Jan Murphy Gallery. The price of the painting is now estimated to be upwards of $40,000.

Mark Rothko’s painting ‘white centre’

Value is not always linked to quality in painting. World-renowned art dealer Arne Glimcher explained in the BBC documentary “The whole thing of art and money is ridiculous, the value of a painting at an auction is not necessarily the value of the painting, it’s the value of two people bidding against each other”. For painters, having their artwork auctioned out is an opportunity that can result in great triumphs as in Ben’s case. With just over 21 thousand followers on Instagram, Koonsy hopes that soon his following will land him that opportunity, “Instagram has been a very important part in creating an online public forum for viewing and enquiring about my work” he said. It’s been about 4 years since the start of his painting journey, and I think its safe to say that koonsy is a name Australia will be hearing more about in the near future. For now the grind doesn’t stop, working 9–5 whilst producing more quality works.

A painter’s journey is a long path filled with obstacles and struggles. Only those who persist and have a strong sense of self belief in both there work and dream will reach the end of that path, where success awaits them and the struggles they faced slowly become a distant memory. The journey of a painter somewhat resembles the journey of a painting, koonsy told me in a passionate tone, “Painting is a unique experience that will take you on a journey of emotions i feel. It’s one of the most difficult things to do: knowing how to start, persisting when things look dire, and somehow knowing when an artwork is done.”