Oman in water colour

GEORGINA BENISON –

Alan Reed is an artist from a very northern city in England, and so he was drawn to the hot, arid, rocky landscape of Oman and its rich architectural heritage.
Alan first came to Oman in 2007 with his wife Susan, and was captivated by its potential for watercolour. Very quickly a ‘phone call for a commission put him in touch with the British Embassy and soon his first two paintings of forts were produced. In 2010 HH Sayyida Susan Said, curator of Bait Muzna Gallery, set up an exhibition of his work which brought further interest in his subtle, intricate interpretations of Omani landmarks. The Diwan of the Royal Court commissioned 30 more works, including a deserted fort and village in Jebel Akhdar. One early scene, ‘Jebel Akhdar, Oman’, won Reed the 2013, ‘Artist’s Prize of the Royal Watercolour Society’ and was subsequently exhibited in a London gallery.

Alan Reed has portrayed buildings, forts and landscapes as diverse as Nakhal Springs, the shoreline in Qurm and near Shangri-La, Dhows in Sur, Barka fishermen, view of Bilad Sait, Qantab boatmen in twilight conversation, camels in Sharqiyah and traditional Omani doors and mosques. Non-commissioned watercolours have been of such differing subjects as the Royal Opera House, Muscat, the famous balconies at Muttrah Corniche, Making Barasti screens and fences in the interior, and one of Reed’s personal favourites – his 2010 canvas capturing the traditional Razha Dance of the Swords.
Born in Corbridge, Northumberland, Alan and Susan live in the small town of Ponteland, eight miles from Newcastle, where they have run their studio-gallery for 12 years. This week they came on their ninth visit to the Sultanate and are revisiting some favourite sites. So why Oman, and why has it taken an Englishman to recognise Oman’s painterly qualities and represent them in so iconic a form? One reason may be that the Reeds were attracted by the contrast from Northumberland’s wild scenery and enjoyed finding isolated spots where Omani hospitality and friendliness always attended their sittings.
Alan studied Art and Design at Newcastle, including elements of Architecture, which gave him the technique for depicting buildings which are credible and solid. Hence his considerable output of Forts, the Opera House and houses in Muttrah which carry convincing weight in their perfectly proportioned structures. But most importantly, watercolour is a quintessentially English School of Art – particularly developed in the east – and while this form has begun to spread and take root in other countries and styles, Alan has brought that unique interpretation here.
It is also possible that Omani painters may be reticent to include figurative work in their studies, particularly the fishermen, for cultural or religious reasons. It should be added that this perspective is shifting in Oman and women painters especially are showing a strong stylistic development as the decade progresses.
One delightful technique perfected by Alan is his use of oil on Gold Leaf, such as in the Arabian Dhows, Sur, and a captivating impression of the Grand Mosque, Muscat. Another fascinating aspect of his work is his sketching on location, making watercolour studies – no pencils in sight – in his special watercolour-paper sketchbooks.
These then serve as an aide memoire for his work, perhaps on a series of limited editions of full-sized canvasses, such as the Bilad Sait studies, back in his Northumberland studio. Rumour has it that two reproductions of these miniature gems have been presented to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of England on her 2010 visit to the Sultanate – and of course the other to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos himself.
As well as travelling and working in his own studio, Alan Reed has experience in teaching adults, ex-offenders in Britain and even in some prisons. He has worked in colleges such as in Teesside and mentoring on a one-to-one basis. Over past summers the couple has rented a villa in Umbria and accommodated up to 12 people on a painting holiday in the beautiful Italian countryside.
Similar ventures are in the pipeline, and they are considering setting up an artist camp in Oman – in the appropriate season. Alan pointed out that when you travel, you see things which perhaps locals would not notice or consider, and then when you return home you see your own backyard with fresh eyes. Let us hope that the Reeds do not return home too soon, after all, our season is just beginning.