Equestrian portraits are not necessarily the obvious choice for architect turned Dubai artist Michael Arnold, having found local renown mostly for his distinctive depictions of some of the UAE’s most famous buildings. Yet his new, much-anticipated series on horses is a stunning study of these majestic animals, and it’s precisely this impeccable eye for detail that has resulted in a beautiful body of work.
From his studio, tucked away down the labyrinthine alleyways of Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, Dubai artist Arnold blends a keen understanding and passion for horses, with an appreciation for their place at the very heart of local culture.
“I have always had a connection with horses. Living and working in Dubai has brought me even closer to them in all settings – race tracks, polo fields and in the desert. They have a maverick quality about them – a sense that their will cannot be denied even when bridled. When the rider is in the same mindset, the horse and rider become one, that combined spirit is beautiful. I try to capture these moments in my polo and racing works, ” says Arnold.
For the new series, the artist applies his signature monoprint technique to a variety of genres within the subject, including polo and horse racing. For the monoprints, Arnold starts off with a sketch of the horse before using layers of foil and oil paint to complete unique versions of the original. This allows him to capture intriguing variations of each subject. It is very much a labour of love, as he returns to a theme he loved as a child.
The Dubai artist says: “Whether racing freely over the dunes of the empty quarter or on the rolling green fields and hills of a Kentucky farm, whether racing head-to-head at Meydan or competitively challenging each other on the polo pitch, a horse embodies and symbolises the energy of free spirit.
“They are beautiful, strong, graceful animals, magnificent in form, structure and complexity. Since my early childhood, I have always had a fascination with horses, specifically horses in motion. There was a connection that I felt to their seemingly wild and uncontrollable energy, to their wildness and free-spirited attitudes.
“I can remember at the age of seven being mesmerised by paintings of the great masters depicting horses in battle. I can remember those scenes to this day from the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and often return to visit those same paintings even now. ”
Turning that early fascination into a finished series that depicts each line and movement of a horse has however taken hard work and many hours of research to refine. Arnold explains: “I enjoy the process and challenge of studying the horse, I start with the physical – the musculature, the movements, the body position, leg positions. Then I move to the head and I study the expressions and angles. I observe the focus of the eyes and the position of the ears and try to understand the intentions of the horse. I then set the mood through a variety of sun lighting angles accentuating the position and motion of the horse in an attempt to create drama, and the connection between horse, rider and the setting. I put all of this together in my paintings to create a complete picture of a powerful animal in perpetual motion.”
“The most challenging aspect is feeling and capturing a moment in a horse’s burst of energy. First, you have to see and select the moment. As a horse is in continuous motion, the challenge is to capture the spirit of the movement and then to freeze it in time. Then you have to take that frozen moment and translate the mental image onto canvas or paper, in the appropriate scale, the perspective of motion and proportion of structure. Doing that in a way that captures the spirit of both the horse and rider is key. ”
There is also a big difference in the approach depending on the style used, and Arnold adapted his technique to capture horses in both oils and monoprint.
He says: “Paintings are carefully built up studies of the horse’s form and captured movement; a layering of light and shadow tones, a constant refinement of paint and brush strokes depicting shapes, values, colour and light. From the first few brush strokes and tones, through to the final layer of highlights and tonal values in light and shadow.”
“By contrast, the monoprint process is not as carefully planned or executed as an oil painting. In monoprinting, there is an initial pencil sketch transferring pressure impressions on paper that are then transferred, through the oil paint, onto foil on glass with layered paper. This creates a single positive and negative print, delivering an immediate image of colour interplay between random shapes and colours. I am attempting to capture a flashing moment to create an image during a continuous burst of the horse’s energy.”