Painting at Jebel Jais - Matt Ryder -
The artist painting at Jebel Jais

Matt Ryder is a British fine artist who has been living, working, and painting in Dubai, UAE, for over a decade. In this guest blog post, he takes us to the extreme terrain and tricky locations where he paints mountains that “sing with cadmium colors.”

Changing Perceptions of the Middle East, One Painting at a Time

By Matt Ryder

The first thing that comes to mind when you talk about the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular Dubai, is usually high-rise buildings, super cars, and searing heat, not something that would usually appeal to the discerning plein air painter. However, peel back the layers, head out of the city, and look a little further into this diverse country and you will find desert mountains that sing with cadmium colors, rocky undisturbed coast lines, desert trails that lead to untouched rock pools, and mountain canyons so vast that they wouldn’t be out of place in a Wild West movie. I find painting in this extreme terrain can be tricky, and the heat is certainly a factor in deciding whether to load up the 4×4 and head out into the desert, but the rewards of capturing that early morning light, or blinding reflection on rocks from the midday sun is unmatched.

Matt Ryder, “Jebel Jais Early Morning Light,” oil on canvas painting, 152cm x 103cm
Matt Ryder, “Jebel Jais Early Morning Light,” oil on canvas, 152cm x 103cm

Of all the locations to paint in the region, for me the most spectacular are the Jebel Jais Mountains of Ras Al Khaimah. After a four-hour drive from Dubai you are greeted at the base of the mountain range with an imposing sight, small tracks lead off in every direction. Follow any one and you will be welcomed by a great painting spot, some holding hidden pools of water, some to a large clearing with views up the range, and some blocked with huge boulders that demand to be painted. As long as you enjoy painting rocks, you are in a painter’s candy store.

Matt Ryder, “Jebel Jais Mountain Pass,” oil on canvas, 152cm x 122cm
Matt Ryder, “Jebel Jais Mountain Pass,” oil on canvas, 152cm x 122cm

The road up to the top of the mountain has been carved into the mountain and zigzags steeply, allowing you to drink in the views on the way. Once at the top, the distant mountain colors sing through purples with tints of cobalt blue, cadmium red, yellow ochre, and Naples yellow, a very distinct palette indeed.

Matt Ryder, “Low Sun at Jebel Hafeet,” oil on linen, 102cm x 76cm
Matt Ryder, “Low Sun at Jebel Hafeet,” oil on linen, 102cm x 76cm

During the winter months I will get out as much as possible to paint and collect the information I need to work on the larger studio pieces. I’ve learned to work quickly when outdoors and usually complete a study within an hour or two. Once that study comes back into the studio and I combine it with photo reference taken on location I will spend anywhere from two to four weeks upscaling to a studio piece that’s ready to head out to the gallery. For a good four months of the year we get an intense summer, and with temperatures reaching up to 50 degrees centigrade (122 F), getting outdoors to paint is impossible. It’s during that time I can really focus on the studio work.

On location at Fossil Rock, UAE
On location at Fossil Rock, UAE

Plein air painting really doesn’t have a long history in the UAE; however, the landscapes and scenes of the orientalists, usually depicting Bedouins traveling through the desert and market trading are familiar to the country. The art scene is, however, changing as quickly as the landscape itself and galleries that previously only showed conceptual work are now taking realism and landscape painting seriously.

Slowly a new movement of artists is emerging in the region and more and more painters are heading outdoors to capture the incredible scenery that’s around us. I have been running outdoor workshops to introduce artists to the joys of outdoor painting and had a successful solo show last year that was made up of plein air studies and large studio mountain- and seascapes. This summer I am working on a new body of studio pieces that will be ready for my new exhibition at the end of the year.

On location at Jebel Jais base
On location at Jebel Jais base

The UAE really is a fascinating place to be an artist, and as the country grows and develops its culture, I’m sure more and more artists will be drawn to its charm. So next time you see the glistening skyscrapers and million dollar cars, remember there is more to the place than meets the eye, and somewhere standing in the middle of the desert, shaded by a date palm there is a painter out there trying to capture it all.

Matt Ryder, “Jebel Hafeet Climb,” 100cm x 150cm
Matt Ryder, “Jebel Hafeet Climb,” 100cm x 150cm
Painting on location in Wadi Sidr, UAE
Painting on location in Wadi Sidr, UAE

About the Artist:
Matt Ryder is a lifelong painter inspired by the natural world, and the beauty of nature and wildlife. Committed to documenting the beauty of the land, sea, and sky and highlighting the changing landscapes around us, Matt has lived in the UAE for 12 years and has a solid connection to the area, witnessing firsthand the changes in the region. He had his first solo show in 2018, which opened to critical acclaim.

See more of Matt Ryder’s work:
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