From rifle sketches on deployment, to sketchbook doodles on planes, Ben Pronk is finding his artistic feet, and a sense of meditative calm in the process of realistic drawing. Working predominantly in portraiture there is an intensity and often an intimacy in Ben's work which is visually compelling. Combined with a sense of fun as he plays with medium, colour and symbol, you sense the release he gets from his creative process, as well as his enthusiasm for making art. A trip through Ben's portfolio shows an artistic awakening that is going from strength to strength.
Army Art: What is your personal artistic journey?
Ben Pronk: I’d never really done any art at school or as a kid, however had always enjoyed doodling. I developed more of an interest in drawing during deployments – in down time I would keep a diary and do some sketches (I have sketched my rifle on every operational deployment I’ve been on). I’d always wanted to get into portraiture, but I guess I’d always thought that artistic skill was something that you were born with (and I certainly wasn’t), so hadn’t really pursued it. In my last job in the Army, I spent about half my life on planes and quickly ran out of movies to watch. Most of my work was classified and therefore I couldn’t really travel with it, so I had a lot of time to kill which was the perfect opportunity to get into drawing a little more. When I really committed to it, I was surprised at how technical it was, and really enjoyed the challenge of trying to get proportions and values right.
From a start point of working in pencil, I got into watercolours (also portable – I made up a little travel kit) and then got into some oils and acrylics, but I stayed with portraiture as a preferred style. Right now, I really enjoy ballpoint pen portraiture and am experimenting more with spray paint and stencils.
Many artists describe an apprehension with sharing their work. Did you feel anything like this when you first started to exhibit your art? How did you overcome it?
A little – you always tend to be hyper critical of your own stuff. This is particularly the case when you are going for realistic portraiture – it’s pretty easy for someone to look at a picture and assess very quickly whether it’s a good likeness of the subject or not. Probably for this reason, the first piece I showed (at Army Art!) was a drawing of a ram’s skull – it didn’t really matter that much if it wasn’t an exact likeness, it still looked like a skull! I also started posting stuff (albeit relatively anonymously) on Instagram, and was surprised at how much positive feedback I got, even pieces that I considered pretty lousy – it’s a pretty supportive community on there, and that has helped a lot in terms of confidence in showing work.
Who or what are the strongest influences on your art?
Really early in the piece, one of my biggest influences was CJ Hendry. I saw one of her pieces of a pig’s skull on the wall of Nomad restaurant in Surrey Hills and couldn’t stop looking at it (I asked a bunch of waiters and then the manager until I found out the story behind it and who had done it). My first proper work (the ram’s skull I mentioned previously) was pretty much a very poorly executed attempt to plagiarise this piece!
My strongest influence throughout has been Andy Quilty. I was lucky enough to do a workshop with him very early in the piece and was blown away. I had always loved the technical accuracy of realist and hyperrealist work, but found that it sometimes lacks passion – it’s kind of like a photograph rather than something a human has made. Andy’s ballpoint work blends amazing technical skill while still using an incredibly passionate approach of powerful mark making and an ability to let go of the need to ‘always draw within the lines’. I remain super inspired by his work and his innovation.
Describe your art practice, what does a typical day of creative work look like for you?
It’s pretty loose in terms of formal practice. I always have a large piece on the go on an easel in my home office and I chip away at this while I’m on boring phone calls or during gaps in my day. The absolute ease of set up and pack up of ballpoint work is a real advantage here.
I still draw lots on planes – now that I’m out of the Army, I can actually take work on planes which kind of sucks, but I still manage to squeeze in some drawing, particularly when you have to pack up the laptop for take off and landing.
What is the inspiration behind your current body of work?
I still love portraiture and am really inspired by my children and friends. I find it so much more powerful to draw someone you know well (rather than a celebrity or something like that), as I find you put something of your relationship with the subject into the work. In addition to my kids, I’ve done a number of pieces with my brother (another veteran) as subject – he’s got a pretty rough head that’s good to draw and obviously I know him inside out.
Army Art's theme for the 2018 Exhibition is Transition. Would you share how creativity and making art has helped you with an important life transition?
I think making art has definitely acted as a constant in my life for the last few years, which have been pretty turbulent. It’s also been a massively cathartic, de-stressing practice – it’s kind of meditative.
What is your experience of community arts programs that promote creativity and wellbeing?
I was a big fan of the Military Art Program and tried to support this through my last role in the military. Over and above my personal interest in art, it was obvious to me how much benefit this program provided a wide range of serving and ex-serving members.
What benefit do you see in arts participation for people who may not regard themselves as an artist?
For me, I’d always thought that you were either born an artist or you weren’t – and there wasn’t much you could do about it. By just committing to trying to improve for a while, I was staggered at how much you could progress by practice and learning from good teachers. I’d certainly advocate that for anyone with an interest in art (and particularly anyone who is looking for a way to de-stress a little), they should give it a go.
I encourage you to take the time to check out more of Ben's work here.