That Unguarded Moment

“At 18, Heimans used the $2500 he had won for the National Art Award to set off for Europe.

“I was absolutely dedicated to becoming an artist.”

he recalls,

“And there was a whole range of skills I needed, which I thought I’d learn overseas. But I just could not find anywhere teaching traditional techniques.”

The great art schools of Europe, he discovered, were in the grip of a new philosophy.

“I remember going to the Royal Academy in London, and they told me they rarely used the life drawing room, and there was no painting instruction!” Heimans is not a man who looks judgmental, but if he were, he would look judgmental now. “It was all about self-expression!”

Returning to Australia, he enrolled in art history and pure math at the University of Sydney and drawing classes at Julian Ashton Art School. He did so well at math—chaos theory—that they asked him to stay on to do a master’s. “I’d moved to Paris by then—I lived there for 11 years before moving to London—and it was a kind of sliding-doors moment. But the truth was, I was never going to be a mathematician.”

What he was going to be, in fact, was a Venetian painter of the 16th century. Here in Bondi (he, Bokey, and their two daughters moved back to Australia during COVID), Ben Kingsley’s vivid face emerges from a warm red haze like a man out of a dust storm. This haze is the red imprimatura, or base layer, that forms part of the classical Renaissance technique of artists like Titian and Tintoretto.

Heimans, obviously, did eventually find someone to teach him traditional skills: a mercurial Polish refugee he met as a student. “I mean, some of what he’d tell me was…” Heimans pauses. “He’d say, ‘This is a secret Rubens would teach people, but you’re not ready for this secret, so we’ll start with a smaller secret.’ ” He slightly rolls his eyes, grinning. “Or he’d tell me to prime my canvases with gelatin and honey, then they’d all get eaten by ants. But it was very much a master-pupil relationship, and it was a beautiful way to learn.””

Ralph’s forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia is taking place from March 15th to May 27th, 2024. They’re bringing a number of large-scale works from all over the world, so if you happen to be in Sydney over those dates, do attend.

Ralph Heimans has been a Privity FZ LLE portfolio partner since 2004.