Updated: Dec 27, 2020
'Artists can speak volumes without saying a word, through their unique vision, turn the simple and mundane into objects of beauty, and enhance the spaces we live in and intensify the experience of life.'
Sally Ryan is a classical realist painter working from a studio she now shares with her artist son, Ben, in Sydney Australia.
What is the focus of your practice?
I am a classical realist painter and work full time from my studio which is located in Mt Kuring-Gai, Sydney. Much of my work in recent years has been portraiture but I also enjoy painting still life and interiors.
As a classical painter, one of the most important aspects of my practice is to paint from life. This means I paint all my still life from life and I regularly have models who sit for me so I can maintain this skill. Sadly, this is not something that is valued as universally as it once was. It is my philosophy, however, that working (and teaching) from life is the only valid way of coming to real understandings about the human form and it is therefore essential.
This is also the philosophy of the Julian Ashton Art School where I trained and have been teaching in recent years. Stepping into JAAS 12 years ago was a turning point in my life. It is a unique art school in Australia that, for over 100 years, has been teaching traditional drawing and painting techniques full time. I was hooked from the first class I attended and highly value the skills that I gained from this institution. Since then I have continued my study overseas with Studio Escalier, the Grand Central Academy, NY and recently in Spain with Nick Alm.
Studio life can be isolating, how do you address this?
Post student days, painting in my studio can be an isolating and lonely experience at times. I need and value time to myself and often don’t want distractions, especially when I am considering a new composition. However, I also enjoy and need company, so I balance the aloneness by teaching regularly and by gathering like-minded artist friends in my studio to paint the model from life. I am really fortunate to have a studio large enough to accommodate doing this and I am a great believer in sharing or passing on art knowledge.
My studio is in an industrial unit and I am currently renovating it to enable my son, Ben (@ben.ryan.art), to also work there and so we can run some small group classes together. We have put a lot of time into planning the space and one of the most difficult things we have had to consider is lighting. Ben and I believe we have very good setup now and are looking forward to artists coming to join us for painting days and lessons in the weeks ahead.
Do you have a particular mantra?
A year ago, I attended the Portrait Society of America conference in Atlanta Georgia where they awarded me Signature Status for my portrait painting. While there, I met the American artist, Max Ginsburg, and a few things he said about his work resonated with me and one statement in particular, has become something of a mantra.
It is, ‘realism is truth, truth is beauty’. (Perhaps he was inspired by Keats).
It seems that it is not fashionable to talk about ‘beauty’ in art today, but for me beauty matters. The world around me can feel chaotic and ugly at times and, to an extent, this is motivation enough to seek it out. It is not the subject of the painting that has to be beautiful but rather the execution- such as design and mastery. Simple everyday objects and the daily activities of people provide constant interest and inspiration and it is the artist’s vision that turns them into an artwork that can be admired.
I choose to be a realist painter as this is the way I feel I can best express my ideas and thoughts. At the moment my goal is to continue to improve my skills as a realist painter but cannot say if my artwork will eventually evolve into another style. Perhaps change will be inevitable with age, but no doubt it will take its course as it should.
Does your work respond to social trends?
Maintaining integrity by pursuing a style of painting and drawing that I respect and admire is very important to me. As such, I do not respond to social trends with my art, perhaps to my detriment if popularity was my goal. Social media can be a great asset for circulating my artwork, but it can also be unhelpful noise. Similarly, art prizes can do the same. Artists can have many different motivations for making art but for me it is simply the joy and challenge of being able to represent everyday life around me. While I know not everyone will like my paintings I would ultimately like to be taken seriously as an artist and this is perhaps one of the challenges of being an artist today.
Nature versus nurture, do you believe you have inherited abilities?
People sometimes ask if anyone can learn to draw or do you have to have an innate talent. My answer to this is yes to both. Everyone can be taught to see more than they think they do and seeing is essential to drawing. Natural talent is helpful, but it is not the whole story. Everyone can enjoy artistic pursuits on various levels of interest, but the right guidance can be enormously helpful along this journey. Achieving proficiency in anything takes dedication and to be a good realist painter takes years of study and practice. Understandably, not everyone wants to or can take such a pursuit to an extreme level.
Can you describe some challenges and highlights?
Being an artist has its ups and downs. I have been painting full time for 10 years and in this time have had artworks accepted into many art prizes in Australia and internationally. I have my work hanging in various institutions including the Victorian Parliament and Newcastle University and have recently been commissioned to paint the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP. All of these things, along with painting Dr Catherine Hamlin AC for the 2013 Archibald and receiving Signature Status from the Portrait Society of America, I consider highlights.
If I have any regrets, it is that I didn’t start painting when I was much younger. There is still so much I wish to achieve with perhaps not enough years left to do it all in. If I could talk to my younger self, I would say go and learn at a school like the Julian Ashton Art School or travel to an atelier overseas to study realist drawing and painting intensively. I would encourage my young self to get out to galleries and look at great art.
What would be your advice to young artists?
To any young artist I would say get the foundations first, such as observation, colour theory, drawing and painting and then go and explore ideas and concepts. Ideas can come from many places, but skills are gained through excellent tuition and experiencing great art. You can have a good concept but that does not necessarily make it good art.