Ryan Hewett imbues his portraits with pathos. Although the South African artist is reluctant to assign any intent or overt meaning into his works, they’re absolutely brimming with mood. It might be hard to say just what that mood is – given that familiar facades are obscured by swirled brushstrokes and layered texture – but it’s unmistakably there.
“I’d throw some paint and I’d start with a feature and some sort of reference, and just let it go. It’s kind of a subconscious sort of thing to do; I don’t really know how it’s going to turn out, it’s not like this is the image I have in my head,” Hewett says of his process. “It’s just the way I paint. I don’t really have the words for it, it’s just what I do on the canvas. It’s like writing your own sort of language; it’s a feeling.”
Where many artists might settle for similarities and caricatures, Hewett’s portrait work dispenses with simplicity in favor of nuance. Considering his status as a self-taught artist, Hewett’s already-stunning skills are made even more impressive by his singular accomplishments.
Despite dabbling in illustration when he was younger, the 38-year-old artist only began painting when he was 23.
“Throughout school I did a lot of realistic pencil drawings; very tight stuff,” Hewett shares. “I sort of took what I knew in drawing into painting, and I started off trying to paint photorealism sort of work. I came to a deadend with photorealism… and I started to break away from that into more abstract expressionism.”
For Hewett, the challenges of artistry didn’t lay in self-expression and renewal; as the development of his work shows, he’s quite comfortable with both.
“It’s hours on the canvas, I’ll come in and I’ll work from the morning to the evening, and sometimes I’ll even come in at night. From hours and hours at the canvas I’ve learned to work through mistakes and experiment and break,” Hewett says regarding his habitual artistic shakeups. “I’ll allow [my art] to change. If it doesn’t work I’ll wait for the paint to dry and I’ll mask over it. One thing leads on to the next with the latest body of work. I never really get bored doing it, so it just sort of evolves as I go along.”
With his remarkable talent and capacity for change already established, it would be breaking into a world dominated by connections and colleagues that would prove challenging.
“In my early twenties, social media wasn’t a big thing; there wasn’t Instagram. It was just getting connected at that stage, because I didn’t come out of an art school or anything of that sort. So I found myself quite isolated.”
Even with more eyes on his work than ever, Hewett has never quite left this isolation behind. Not one to read what others have to say about his art, Hewett is oftentimes one of his harshest critics, describing his self-assessments as “a continuous push and pull.”
“Within the day I’m up and then I’m down,” Hewett admits. “I’ll hit my highs on a piece that I’ll fall in love with, and it doesn’t happen all the time; it’s quite rare. A lot of my works in a show [that are considered] breakthrough works, they sometimes happen right near the end of the show when I’m trying to change things up or am trying to find something, and those are my favorite pieces most of the time. And then people go “Well why is that your favorite piece when the main catalog piece…”’
Even if he may disagree with them on the merits of his work, Hewett is grateful to have an audience to begin with. One of his first big breaks came in the form of Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, the pair behind London-based art gallery Unit London. The duo endorsed and propagated Hewett’s work, helping him to build a larger audience.
“Their vision sort of aligned with my vision, and they picked up on it,” Hewett says of the collaboration. “They opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of getting to the right base, doing solo shows. Before then I kept to myself… I wasn’t that interested in the business side of art at that stage; I wasn’t really putting myself out there.”
Hewett’s work is now in high-demand, freeing him to work and hone his craft in a manner unconstrained by commercial considerations. Looking back on his artistic arc, Hewett admits to being occasional bewildered by the direction of his career and his compositions.
“If I look back, some of the work does surprise me; where I’ve gone with my work, how it’s changed and evolved, even within two years,” Hewett observes. “Even how my studio’s changed… I approach the canvas differently. I used to… my studio was filthy, and you could see it in the paintings; the chaotic sort of brush strokes, these built up textures… my spaces have changed.”
Even with a cleaner studio, it’s possible that might not be the case for long; with Hewett, nothing is stagnant. According to Hewett, he hopes to continually regenerate and diversify his approach to art, as he’s unsettled by the prospect of a monotonous or repetitive style.
“I don’t really follow how people see my work; I’m always pushing myself within the studio… I get somewhere and I’m happy with it, happy with where I’m at, but I always know there’s something else there. When I walk into the studio the next day there’s always that drive to find something within painting,” Hewett says. “I feel like I’ve got to move on, I’ve got to keep changing things up; you’ve got to keep on challenging yourself moving forward and not getting sort of stuck in one sort of mindset. It’s a continuous struggle; I’m never really content.”