'Artists can say very interesting things, usually when we stop trying so hard to say very interesting things.'
Ben Ryan is a classically-trained artist who is based in Mt Kuring-Gai, NSW. He currently shares a wonderful studio and teaching space with his artist mother, Sally Ryan.
What is your favourite/ least favourite part of the creative process?
Favourite is probably when it’s mid-morning and the coffee’s kicked in and the sunlight’s stopped shining at that annoying angle through my window and the picture’s in some incunabular state and I’m feeling in-the-pocket and the paint’s flowing and there’s some Russian Romantic bashing out a piano prelude through the speakers and there’s still that glimmer of hope that maybe this picture will really be something.
Least favourite is probably when you finish a picture and you have to explain to someone – for an art prize or whatever – why you bothered painting such a thing in the first place.
Do you prefer to work in silence or does certain music inspire you?
I sometimes work in silence but often I become too conscious of it and stick something on. If it’s music it’s got to be congruent with my mood, which can be fairly turbulent when I paint. Music that’s too placid tends to give me the shits. I can’t understand people who think that painting is a relaxing activity.
But while the lockdown was in full swing this year, I really got into listening to AM radio while I painted. There was something nice about hearing the stories of people’s everyday. It helped through the loneliness of it all. I could sit there listening to some old bloke talk for 15 minutes about what a magpie did in his garden that morning and it was just the nicest bloody thing.
Nature versus nurture- do you believe you have inherited abilities from creative parents, do you have creative siblings? Can you identify environmental factors or influences which led to your choices or directions?
My mother is an artist, which of course had an influence, and both my parents have always been very supportive of anything creative I wanted to do. I think having people in your corner like that is important. I grew up with pictures around and I always enjoyed a bit of drawing, just took me a while to decide it was worth pursuing.
I don’t know to what extent it’s a nature thing – I’m sure people have natural inclinations that make something like painting an easier or harder thing to learn. But I think it can all be learned if you’re willing and able to put your whole self into it. I certainly don’t think I wowed anyone on my first day at art school, and in truth I still don’t think I’ve really scratched the surface of what I’d like to achieve with my work. Conversely, I’ve seen a number of talented people come into an art classes and get really demoralised, even break down completely, because it’s far harder than they think it will be. Learning to paint (classically, anyway) is slow and painful, and maybe it helps to be a masochist to some extent. Maybe I have a gene for that.
What do you hope to convey through your work?
I don’t consciously try to convey anything in my work. To me, art is inherently expressive and something of your nature will always be contained in what you make. The way we see colour, make marks, how you compose a picture, and the rest of it, is dependent on your entire lived experience to that moment. Which is why if you get a line-up of artists with roughly the same ability or training to all stand in front of the same apple and paint it exactly as they see it, each picture is entirely different. It’s not because each artist has some profoundly unique idea about apples, but because they’re humans and not robots. I find this the most interesting thing in painting – understanding something of a person’s character by the way they use marks to explain what they’re seeing. That being said, I have no problem with art having a message, or being motivated by something external. But in the end a picture has to work as a picture, and to me it’s only a success if I’d want to keep going back to look at it, regardless of what it’s trying to represent.
Do you have a personal mantra or quote which serves to motivate you?
I don’t have one specific mantra that motivates me. But there are a few things that teachers used to say to me that tumble around in my head while I work. Mainly little questions that I now subconsciously ask myself – little experiments I run constantly to try and figure out why my painting doesn’t look like the thing in front of me. One thing I’m always telling myself is to just ‘see less’. It’s something I always tell my students as well. Beginners have a tendency to equate detail with good painting, when it’s really about seeing the big picture. The greatest artworks, to me, are sophisticated simplifications of life, not those where we’re shown every pore, follicle, zit and all the rest of that gruesome minutiae.
How has your style evolved and what contributed to the changes?
I think my marks have become looser as I’ve gone on, which I think is a result of becoming more confident in drawing with paint. I used to feel like I had to do a careful preparatory drawing and make sure I stuck between the lines when I painted it. Whereas now I’m pretty happy to lob off a limb or scrape off a face with faith that I’ll be able to get the drawing back when I need to. I also feel like these days I’m more open to the idea that the process is fluid and a picture might not end up looking how I originally envisaged it and that that might not be a bad thing.