Behind the Scenes: Hamley Studio

Artists Sally Ryan and Ben Ryan of Hamley Studio at Mt Kuring-Gai north of Sydney run art classes for students, from beginners to advanced, with a focus on classical drawing and painting from life – portraiture, still life and figurative compositions.

Their enterprise is inspired by a shared ‘desire to create the kind of space that we would want to paint in as students,’ says Sally, who is a contemporary realist painter with a penchant for portraiture. Sally’s classical training in painting and drawing has instilled in her the skills to produce meticulously executed representations of her subjects. While Ben, who studied drawing and painting at the Julian Ashton Art School and the Florence Academy of Art, has also developed an interest in classical portraiture.

Sally is drawn to ‘the challenge of representing the subtlety of the human form in a painting or drawing. The challenge of achieving a likeness, especially when working from life, excites me every time I start a new painting. Brett Whiteley described painting as a ‘difficult pleasure’; I think that pretty much nails it. Humanity has a commonality to it, but it is the differences between people, perhaps as a result of life experiences, that makes it interesting to me. Each portrait is a new story to tell and a new compositional challenge to solve.’

Courtesy Hamley Studio, Sydney

How did Hamley Studio come about?

I’ve been at Hamley Studio for a number of years, and recently my son Ben and I have been making art in the space. In October 2020, we renovated the studio and opened it up as a teaching practice. Ben and I have taught at art schools around Sydney, and we’re passionate about sharing the tradition. As teachers, we’ve had to bend what we do to the limitations of the spaces in which we’ve worked. At Hamley Studio we’ve set things up so that the layout, lighting, materials and everything else are optimal for the kind of work we do.

Have there been any challenges along the way? What does it take to run an art studio?

We had a pretty clear vision of what we wanted our teaching practice to look like. As classical painters we share common values about process, such as working from life. We are mother and son, but also pretty good mates, which helps when formulating and communicating ideas. The challenges have mostly been the physical aspects of setting up the space in the way we envisaged it and in continuing to improve on it. To ensure the quality of our teaching, we keep class sizes limited, so admin has never been overwhelming.

Courtesy Hamley Studio, Sydney

What do your classes offer, and how do you accommodate all levels of artistic ability?

We offer a genuine atelier environment, in that, the space is both the working studio of professional artists and a teaching practice. Our classes have a big demonstration element – both Ben and I paint alongside our students; showing how we work and explaining really helps to reinforce certain concepts. The fact that our works, both finished and in progress, are around the studio can be helpful in explaining our process. Each day has its own focus. We work with students individually to create a structure that will help them to reach their own goals. There’s something nice about advanced and beginning artists working in the same space, learning from and supporting each other’s journeys.

Courtesy Hamley Studio, Sydney

Can you elaborate on the studio’s philosophy of ‘learning to see’?

When we say, ‘learning to see’, what we mean is learning to look at an object with a level of scrutiny that is usually alien to people at first. Classical artists learn to look intensively at the elements of an object or person that really explain how that object is sitting in space. We need to be asking ourselves: ‘What are the visual elements of that object that are making my brain understand that it’s three dimensional, that it’s closer to me than that other object, that it’s below my eye-line etc.? We want to feel like we could reach out and touch it, or step into the painting and walk around in it.’

What are the highlights of working with students in the studio?

We’ve loved working with the students. Everyone has made genuine progress, which is really satisfying. Many people are looking to take their drawing and painting to another level. Our aim is to always show our students respect as artists; to give them our most honest feedback when looking at their work.


Kirsty Francis is an arts writer based in Sydney.

Hamley Studio
Unit 18, 4 Hamley Road
Mount Kuring-Gai NSW 2080