Ken Orton


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Ken Orton

Ken Orton


I was born in 1951, the sixth of seven children in Yardley, Birmingham. I cannot remember a time when I did not paint. Most of my early paintings were imitations of my older brother Bill’s masterful renditions, who was naturally a very gifted artist. I was educated at Sheldon Heath Comprehensive School; and then Birmingham and Manchester Colleges of Art. Afterwards I taught Art in Birmingham for six years until I left for Spain, where for 20 years I was in charge of the Joan Miro Centro de Arte and the Baleares International School. In 1999 I moved to the USA and my new millennium dawned in New York. I currently split my time between the Catskill Mountains of New York and the Gulf Coast of Florida.

In recent years I have, I suppose, become a known prize winning artist. I have won a number of painting awards and several “best of shows” throughout the USA. I exhibit in prestigious galleries from Boston to Miami, Toronto to Whistler. Of the many prizes I have won in recent years I regard most fondly the Washington Square Painting Prize. This is New York Cities oldest art show and to follow in the footsteps of the many notable artists that have won this prize before me was, indeed, a cherished honour.

I have long been an “America fanatic” and I have always wanted to live in the USA. I have travelled to almost every state and am still enormously impressed by the sheer scale of the landscape and it’s enormous diversity. The American landscape is inspirational and the country’s paraphernalia such as old cars, old bars, old guitars and even the occasional naked arse have found there way onto my canvases. However my desire for the direction of my paintings have always been more academic. I sought a subject that in itself seemed to have little value, hoping that the values I imparted in the painting alone would form the point of attack on the senses of which I believe all great art comprises. This attack is visceral and totally lacking in sophistication. I often think of it in musical terms; rhythm, texture, colouration and tonal dynamics.

When I bought my house in the Catskills I found in the root cellar, case after case of pristine mason jars. I bought a few up into the kitchen and after studying them over breakfast for some days I began to see that this was a quite remarkable subject.

In painting glass one is attempting to render a surface that is composed entirely of either refracted of reflected light. The objects are rarely painted as an independent object. The raised lettering on the jars and bottles I paint have, by their prismatic nature, an ability to capture tone and colour from one side of the composition and pull it to the other. The rhythmic nature of this lettering provides a stave onto which the decaying patterns of colour, the tonal crescendos and the reflected counter melodies are written.

Through painting glass I have exposed an endless path of discoveries. I can paint photorealist images but also be more expressionistic whilst achieving what I believe to be powerful and engaging work of art.


More than anything else it seems it’s the tangle of human relationships that sets ideas going. Couples: talking, smiling together, being absorbed in themselves, kissing, enjoying their own company. Moods vary but generally ideas are optimistic, the future is bright, resolutions will be found. Narrative is often an intrinsic part of the picture, the paintings tell a story, a fragment of a scene leaving the viewer to continue the trace alone. And within these narratives women are frequently the most important.

Equally important and equally inspiring is the background against which the paintings evolve. Paris, with its distinctive cityscape of cafe and boulevard, provides a kind of close up setting where fragments of buildings, and the light within them, help create a particular atmosphere: a half lit brasserie, seen from rain-soaked streets, twilight times of darkening shadow and reflection. It’s a reflection of my long lived love affair with the city of artists.


work from my own photographs and consequently now have a large collection of glass. I even travel with a small collection and have recently photographed them on a Mississippi river bridge and way up in the Rockies at the point of the North American Continental Divide.

More normally the photos in preparation for a piece are taken in some rather strange ad hoc studios on in my kitchen or porch. I use mostly mono-directional natural light. More often than not I am looking directly into the light source and frequently obscure that light source in some part of the composition, whist letting the objects appear both against the light and the dark. This causes the raised lettering in the bottles to enjoy some strange tonal exchanges.

When I began to paint photorealist paintings I had to wait for Boots to get the prints done and would then use various photocopiers and eventually my own dark rooms to tease the image I wanted out of my photographs. I would work from the largest print I could make for the composition and the smaller original prints for colour information. Had I been more skilled as a photographer I might have been able to cut into this preparation time considerably.

However the digital art has changed all that. However I do still painting from one large print, which I grid up, and then the painting begins quite soon after establishing major centre lines and the major ellipses.

I am invariably working on multiple paintings as there are many procedures that require drying and over painting and consequently there might be weeks without a finished piece emerging from my studio and then a day when I put the final touches to three of four works.


spend most of my days painting in my back bedroom studio in my Victorian home on a quiet village street, enjoying it when it rain and preparing for my next set of travels.

I seldom start to paint before midday. The morning is mostly spent answering mail and arranging shows and sales. Much of my painting is more physical than philosophical and the days work generally begins with preparation of materials.

When everything is set to go I generally return to my computer to set up music for the day. I have always painted to the rhythms of Radio Four. There is most certainly a part of my brain that needs to be completely distracted by something other than my painting, as some part of me has to be removed entirely from the painting process in order to let the part that paints paint. Listening to music can make me anxious, but the Saturday Play, Sandi Toksvig and Nicholas Parsons all do a splendid job of baby sitting the angst ridden side of my temperament leaving the other side free to work.

I will often work for ten to twelve hours in any one day and have been known to work all day and then through the night when things seem exciting.

Weekends are a complete contrast to my weekly activities as most weekends in the year are taken up with some sort of promotional activity, either attending gallery openings or art festivals. As the United States is such a vast country I often begin travelling on Friday and I am seldom home before midnight on Sunday.