Following on from our Anglo-Omani Society Art Competition celebrating Oman’s 50th National Day, we conducted interviews with the three talented winners to gain a deeper insight into their lives as artists and their esteemed artwork.
Our first-place winner, Arabella Dorman, is one of Britain’s leading portrait painters and an award-winning war artist. Arabella also holds the reputation of being a prominent public speaker and fundraiser.
Suffused in golden light, Arabella’s works capture the timeless beauty of Oman and its people, within an ever-changing world. In a dialogue between past and present, Arabella’s paintings are a testament to the Kingdom’s age-old traditions, historical architecture, and dramatic landscapes.
We had a catch up with Arabella to find out more about her prize-winning piece entitled ‘Animal Souk, Nizwa’ and her inspiring journey as an artist.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did your journey as an artist begin?
Since the age of 8 I wanted to be an artist. It is my first language in a way. I also do a lot of public speaking. I started primarily as a landscape painter now I am mainly a portrait painter. I am also a war artist, which has taken me to some of the most fascinating and pitiful parts of the world. It led me to a whole other journey of searching for the light in the darker corners of existence. My time in Oman opened the gates of the Middle East for me, leading to an enduring fascination and love for the region. I adore the Middle East, and Oman is a jewel in an otherwise quite troubled land. Every day I was there was one of discovery and revelation.
2. You mentioned you are a war artist, what is that like?
It is very emotional and emptying but despite all the horror and brutality of war and the terrible violence and the human suffering, underneath all of that there is something else that endures in the human spirit. Startling examples of immense courage, hope, love, and self-sacrifice. I am trying to find that glimmer of hope in the darkness. Within the horror of war, it can often reveal something more beautiful that human beings endure. It is a destination of life if you like. But yes, it is a very profound and emptying process but equally rewarding and profoundly humbling.
3. What led you to become a war artist?
I have always been fascinated in the ability of the still image being able to tell a story. I think art is, or should be, a mirror of our times. I do not think artists can escape being a mirror of our times because we live within our times. I felt compelled to document what is going on in the world today. Where else is best to see what it is like to be human than in the theatre of war. Why is it called a theatre? Perhaps it is a very heightened experience of life, the very worst but also the very best. I have seen such extraordinary examples of hope and courage and tenacity. I see it as my responsibility as an artist to portray something of that. Likewise, in Oman I felt it my joyful obligation to portray the beauty of the country.
4. You have spoken briefly about your love of Oman, what is your connection to the country?
I spent all my teenage years travelling with my paints in my backpack. It was one of many trips that I made during that time. My uncle, Stuart Laing, was the ambassador in Oman. He very kindly invited me out there to have a look, he thought I would love to paint there. That is how it all started. The minute I arrived I could not believe the light, the warmth of the people and the history of the region, it was intoxicating! I spent months there and returned the next year to work with Madame Susan Al Said at the Bait Muzna Gallery and had an exhibition at the end of it which pretty much sold out!
5. What inspired you to become a Public Speaker and what do you typically discuss?
It was my desire to share. Painting or art is a language, a form of communication to fellow human beings. I felt increasingly that I had a lot to share. What I had seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently all my work with refugees. At the height of the refugee crisis I went to Lesbos, having been interested in the status of a refugee and the vehicle by which they travel, ultimately being hope, which of course is where all my work comes back to. Nothing prepared me for the level of human tragedy I witnessed on those beaches. I felt that no one becomes a refugee by choice, yet they were being cast in such a bad light back home, a narrative of fear really. I became involved in campaigning for refugee status, specifically children who were not being allowed refuge or asylum in this country.
6. How does this piece (Animal Souk, Nizwa) reflect your connection with Oman?
I felt that it summed up everything I love about Oman. One of my first impressions of Oman was its timelessness. You are very much in a beautiful timeless world of human activity, the smells, the heat, the dust, the colours and the warmth. Much of which has not changed even now.
7. What was your creative process in making this piece and what was it based off?
I did a lot of field trips out into the desert, to Nizwa and up into the mountains. Wherever I went I would take my sketch book and do really quick sketches, figure studies to try and capture someone sitting under the trees or an old man moving a sheep, the elegant way the Omanis dress, so beautiful for an artist to convey.
It was very much based off real life. I sat on a wall under a tree in the Souk sketching it all. I went back and revisited. I found it completely intoxicating because of the timelessness, it very well could have been thousands of years ago but it was now- what makes us human does not really change. However, to compose a painting you have to pull out what you think will work in terms of: compositional harmonies and rhythms, colour harmonies, depths of fields, and all those more technical aspects.
8. What materials do you generally use?
I start off using water colour then I take it all back to the studio and start working it up into oil figure studies. The final painting is an oil on canvas. Most of my finished pieces are oil on canvas or charcoal drawings. Currently I am quite into pen and ink drawings too. Being an artist the opportunities and the ways to express oneself are just endless!
9. Who are your biggest artistic inspirations?
Velázquez, Manet, Picasso, Goya, and Lady Elizabeth Butler. I look at a lot of other artist works’ especially war artists and artists who are taking on the human condition.
10. What emotions does this piece evoke for you?
One of joy and history rolled into the present day, enduring traditions. Also, the beauty of a functioning, working, wrangling society. The colour and the life and human beings doing what they do- bartering, selling, gossiping- but with such intrigue and swagger. The whole panoply of human life, which is what I try and capture. It is our interdependent world.
Thank you so much Arabella for sharing your artistic journey and your amazing experiences with me. I am certain there will be many who will be truly inspired by your work. I wish you all the best on your future endeavours.
If you would like to see more of Arabella’s work, please click here or you can follow her on Instagram @arabelladorman.