“Apart from wanting to be a professional footballer, all I wanted to do was draw.”

Written by Charisse Kong, Amber Kwok, and Endria Tai


Artist-in-residence, Allan Ramsay, explains his fascination with faces.

From Monday, Jan. 21 to Friday, Jan. 25, Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay paid a visit to RCHK to hold a set of workshops on portraiture for both secondary and primary students. Ramsay received his formal art education at the Glasgow School of Art and Art Students’ League in New York, and has earned numerous exhibitions and awards, his work also appearing in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Throughout the week, Ramsay shared his portraiture experiences with the visual art students at the College. Following an inquiry on why he chose to pursue this art style in his career, he answered, “I always drew faces. I always have drawn faces, and I have been fascinated by faces from a young age.” With him he brought many of his own pieces, beautiful renderings of several of his friends, that were displayed throughout the week within the art room of Katherine Sparrow, head of visual arts in the secondary school. His passion was clear to us, and even more so to him--Ramsey even expressed that as a child, “apart from wanting to be a professional footballer, all I wanted to do was draw.”

Secondary students were given the opportunity to paint self-portraits under the guidance of the experienced artist, who provided his tutelage on basic portraiture techniques. Amber Kwok, a Year 11 visual arts student, explained that in her year group’s workshop they were taught how to paint portraits using black and white acrylic and a picture of themselves as reference. She stated that she “was allured by his natural knowledge in his demonstrations and advice,” remarking that “we really needed to challenge ourselves in painting realistically and with shadows, which I think was exacerbated by the fact that we were only using black and white paint.”

Allan Ramsay also gave advice to aspiring artists at the College. On Thursday, Jan. 24, the visual art scholars were out of class for the day in a workshop with Ramsay, wherein they were taught even more elaborate portraiture skills. Jayne Lee, a visual arts scholar, detailed the main topics that were covered, expressing that though he taught them skills at the beginning of the day, most of it was left for the artists to complete their pieces. She explained that they  “were taught how to paint portraits that were high in contrast and colour,” adding that it allowed them to “experiment with dark colours and light colours”, and gave advice on how to improve their overall technical skill. “It was a great experience and we had an opportunity to learn about the people we were painting,” stated Lee. The arts scholars were given three main lessons:

  1. Sketching and forming lines to match facial structure and head sizes;

  2. Mixing oil colours using oil thinners;

  3. Using parchment paper instead of a wooden palette when mixing colours;

  4. And finally, Ramsay’s way (and order) of laying out different colours in preparation for portrait painting.

Although he had taught many students to paint their own selves, and had admitted to winning a competition at a portrait gallery many years ago with a self portrait--one that, Ramsey admitted in jest, an art critic had described as ‘an ugly head atop a quasimodo-like body’--the artist expressed that as he grew older, it became harder to paint himself.

“It’s easier to paint a self portrait when you’re, perhaps, a young adult male because you’re more full of yourself, and as you get older, it’s harder to look at yourself,” he confided.

“When you grow older, you start to look more like your father...in more recent self-portraits, I even started to look like my grandfather,” he added, laughing. Despite these challenges, Ramsey continues to paint self portraits, though he says that “sometimes you don’t want to look at yourself in a painting … for a while, I didn’t want to do it.”

Ramsay also shared his personal advice to young artists and students within the classroom. He expressed his values on patience, perseverance, and passion. “There is an inherent satisfaction in constantly trying to develop,” he said. “Be addicted to what you do and be a lifelong learner. Enjoying becomes a part of it.” This does not only sway the mindsets of young artists, but every student alike. Being an artist requires a certain strength of character, he shared, saying that “the life of any artist is a life that requires a gamble on one’s skills and abilities.” When you’re creating art, Ramsey said, “you’re making something that perhaps has never existed before. So why should people buy one? Why should people want one. It’s a puzzle.”

Many budding artists expressed their frustration with artist’s block, but Ramsey maintained that you just need to do it, stating that “boredom is a fuel to imagination.” When he has similar experiences, he will continue to make art despite his displeasures, explaining that “As soon as you pick up a brush and start painting, everything becomes better!”