Matt Ryder is a Dubai-based award-winning British artist who specializes in classical portraiture, floral paintings and still life. However, he is better known for his incredibly realistic oil paintings of the UAE’s natural landscapes. What is even more impressive is he begins his pieces by taking the time to trek in the wilderness to paint on site to ensure that his depictions stay true to the source.
His soft brushstrokes masterfully capture the nuances of light and shadow, coupled with the right balance of realism and slight abstraction making his subjects come to life. Creativity Undefined spoke with Matt about his process, why the old practice of plein air painting is still relevant in our modern world of cell phone cameras, and his passion for keeping a visual record of the land.
Tell us about your artistic journey. Your work captures natural light in the outdoors with such realistic detail. Have you always painted in a classical realism style?
I’ve always enjoyed paintings that realistically depict a subject. My favourite paintings are those that combine elements of abstraction and areas of tight detail, this I think is what makes for more interesting imagery and paintings that you can enjoy for a lifetime. I’ve had a very indirect path to where I am now, but ultimately, I’ve always had a good understanding of how I wanted to paint, it’s the subject matter and skill level that has developed over the years, and what keeps me working hard to achieve those goals.
What brought you to Dubai? How did you become a full-time artist?
I initially came to Dubai in 2005 with my (then) partner to start a new adventure. I began working in construction recruitment and slowly over time rekindled my love for the arts after years of not picking up a brush. I eventually started a business doing illustration and caricature, and then gradually moved over to painting and once I started to paint outdoors, I fell in love with it and haven’t looked back. I now work full time as an artist, painting our beautiful country and teaching.
What is your favourite medium and why?
This is an easy one. Oils. I love the history associated with it and the different qualities that can be achieved with it. There’s not a medium in the world that comes close for me!
What do you love most about plein air painting? Why do you prefer to brave the desert heat painting on site versus simply snapping reference photos to bring back and paint in the comfort of your studio?
The main thing is you’re observing colour directly from the source. I’m not relying on the camera to capture everything as it simply can’t. The best cameras and lenses in the world can not capture light and colour the way our eyes do, so I paint plein air to get the colour and the ideas and then I come back to the studio and using my paintings along with photos taken at the location I come up with informed compositions for my studio work. I see plein air painting as a tool. I’m not trying to create a masterpiece; I’m trying to gather as much accurate information as possible.
Do you set a time limit for these outdoor sessions for the best work or lighting conditions?
No, I just paint for as long as I can before I melt.
What advice do you have for someone who is about to try plein air painting for the first time?
Don’t expect much from your first paintings, enjoy the process and know that the more you do it the better you will get. There is no faster way to learn than going to the source.
Where are your favourite spots for plein air painting?
There are so many spots around Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah, but my absolute favourite (at the moment) has to be Wadi Naqab. It’s just incredible. The quality of light and endless composition possibilities keep taking me back.
Looking back, what was your greatest achievement and your greatest challenge? Why?
Becoming a parent to my two beautiful daughters is certainly my proudest achievement. It’s amazing to see these little humans thrive and develop under the guidance of my wife and I. I don’t think anything will compare to that. This is absolutely my greatest challenge also!
Professionally, I think it’s the same answer for both. I have completely reinvented myself from HR professional to fine artist over the span of 15 years. I still have far to go to achieve my own goals but I do look back and am proud of what I’ve managed to achieve over that time. The challenges have been immense and there is still a lot that needs to change before realism is fully embraced in this region, but I feel (and hope) that I’m one of the artists here that’s really pushing that change.
Is there anything that you would’ve done differently or wished had happened differently? What? Why?
I sometimes wish that I had started my current trajectory earlier, but so many things happened in my life that led me to where I am now. I don’t think I would really want to change anything.
I do wish that there was a greater understanding and demand for realism here, seeing the resurgence and demand around the world, realism can sometimes be frustrating but I do see change coming here and it’s important not to lose focus of that.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Has that changed since the pandemic hit last year? Why?
I am always inspired by nature and the natural world. I did find a new love for painting flowers during the pandemic, so that’s certainly something I will take away from all of this.
Who would you jump at the chance to collaborate with, if given the chance? Why?
I have now painted in two of the protected areas of the UAE, Wadi Wurayya and around Jebel Hafeet as part of a project with the environmental agency. It was an amazing experience to see and paint these places that I previously wouldn’t have been able to access. I would like to do more of this to fully document this country’s unseen areas, and then have those paintings become a permanent part of the UAE’s cultural history as I feel it’s of significant importance to document these places before they change or disappear.
The pandemic’s had a lasting impact on everyone. What was the biggest adjustment that you’ve had to make?
As sales have slowed with the pandemic I have been teaching more and more. I have switched from in person workshops to online classes since the start of the pandemic, offering zoom workshops and most recently mentoring five artists all online. This has enabled me to take on students from all around the world so that’s been amazing.
Do you think that you’ll maintain any changes once things return to normal? If yes, what and why? If no, why?
I will keep up the online classes and mentorship for sure.
What shifts have you observed from creatives? Will these last beyond the pandemic? Why?
I think more people are embracing their creative side, looking for ways to express themselves during such a difficult time. I really hope this continues.
What are you currently working on?
A series of large landscapes mainly of Wadi Naqab that will form part of my next solo show.
In all the years you’ve been living and working as a full-time artist in the UAE, what developments have you observed in the arts community? What changes would you like to see?
I see trends come and go and I see artists pass through, but ultimately the core community is growing. I see lots of ways that the government is trying to encourage artists to the region and there’s always talk of building the creative community but ultimately talk has to lead somewhere and there needs to be a good understanding of what it takes to build a sustainable artist community, affordable visa options, affordable studio space (legally obtainable), more galleries, more artists and more people who want to invest in art for the love of art.
As a landscape artist keeping a visual record of the land, what do you hope people will take away from seeing your work? What do you hope people who have never been to the UAE will learn from your art?
There is so much beauty in the lands of the UAE, I just hope I can continue to capture it and share that with anyone who will take a minute to observe it. For the outside world, I hope to show that there’s more to this place than skyscrapers, sports cars and brunches.
What general advice would you share with anyone starting out that you wished someone had told you?
Create what you truly believe in, find what it is that really gets your fire burning and stick with it. If you believe in it, others eventually will too. I would also say to never stop learning.
What’s a goal that you hope to achieve, personally and professionally, in the next five years?
Professionally, I hope to be deep into a body of work that will leave a lasting legacy of my time in the UAE, that can serve as a comprehensive record of the country’s natural beauty (always have big goals).
Personally, I hope to be the best father and husband I can be to the ladies in my life.
To find out more about Matt, please visit www.ryderscanvas.com