a man wearing a puppet-like mask with dark eyebrows and hair stands in a room with a mural behind him

Tom has become ‘very, very bad’ at drawing and he is urging everyone to try

Artist Tom O’Hern says he would probably make more money if he took some oil to the wilds of Tasmania than with the art path he chose.

Instead of mastering the landscape, he said he’s gotten bad at drawing.

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

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

One of Tom O’Hern’s paintings from his current exhibition, Bum Steer.Delivered: 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 scribbling.

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

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

“I’d love to paint museums, but I’ll take what I can get.”

a mural of a large face showing his teeth
Tom O’Hern’s murals are a common sight around Hobart.Delivered: Tom O’Hern

Celebrating imperfections

O’Hern believes that the world is too preoccupied with everything that has to be perfect.

“Everyone looks for 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 create works for his exhibition.Delivered: Tom O’Hern

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

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

“But at some point we became self-conscious about it. We get angry when something doesn’t look like a picture.

For O’Hern, drawing often feels like he’s writing.

“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 beginning of new hieroglyphics and I’m discovering a kind of written language that doesn’t exist yet.”

a man in a mask painting a mural on a wall
Murals are a large part of Tom O’Hern’s commissioned work.Delivered: Mell Schmeider

Learning to draw, bad

Last weekend O’Hern gave a workshop entitled How to draw really, really bad.


But the participants were all good draftsmen.

“For those who started, I said not to be so precious about it anymore,” he said.

“For the more experienced, it’s all about the paradox of being experienced and you get all this experience and knowledge and that can block creativity because you come by 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 them all in a different way.

“I seem to attack them in completely different ways, which I’m sure will drive customers crazy,” he said.

Everyone is born an artist

O’Hern attended school at Geilston Bay High on the east coast of Hobart and then Rosny College for art school.

He has been making art ever since.

“Everyone really starts with art, but most people stop with art at some point,” he said.

a man is standing on an orange cement truck with a scary face painted on it
Tom O’Hern painted a cement car for Terrapin Puppet Theater as part of the Mona Foma festival.Delivered: 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 very cheaply, working 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.Delivered: Nick Hanson

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

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

a black painting of a skull, it's going on on a table outside
Tom O’Hern says he learned to work more directly than when he started out as an artist.Delivered: Tom O’Hern

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

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

“I try to cut that back. Sometimes things take a long time and sometimes they don’t, and often it’s the things that are made quickly that I think are actually better.”

He said that’s hard to justify, but it took him 20 years to flesh out the craft.

Bum Send

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

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

“It was a very nice way of working. No sketching, nothing refurbishing, just watching what happens.

More than half sold, an achievement not lost on an artist who did the hard work.

“I’ve spent so much time in really cold studios whipping 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 moment is a public artwork commissioned for the Hobart City Council.

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

Kids know what to do

He believes that younger 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 the self-consciousness settles down.

He loves to watch his daughter draw.

“I was just looking at a picture of an owl 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 doing something like that.

“It’s perfect.”

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