A Conversation with Omar Rayyan


(Omar Rayyan, Rounding the Bend, watercolor, 12 x 16″)

Omar Rayyan looks like he might have stepped out of another century. His paintings and illustrations have the look of a bygone era, as well — clearly inspired by and grounded in the work of the masters of the Renaissance, yet infused with a contemporary lightness and sense of humor. His subjects are frequently animals — rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs — dressed in breeches and weskits, or sumptuous silks.

Tea in the Tempest, watercolor, 13 x 18"

Tea in the Tempest, watercolor, 13 x 18″

Rayyan credits the “timeless scenarios” of Martha’s Vineyard with fueling his imagination and making it possible for him to forget what century he’s living in. He and his wife, Sheila, also an artist, exercise their horses on the dirt roads that wind through the woods surrounding their West Tisbury home, savoring the wide Island skies and salt air. Stone walls, scrub oaks, dune grasses, moss, and lichen find their way into much of Rayyan’s intricately detailed, narrative watercolors. A sense of belonging to the earth and to history is evident in all of his work — even the most lyrical and fantastic.

I had the pleasure of talking with Rayyan, and his answer to almost all of my questions began with “It’s all Sheila’s fault.” Whether I asked about his career path, his decision to make a permanent home on the Vineyard, or his daily work habits, his response, delivered with a lilt in his voice and a very clear sense of loving respect, was an immediate credit to his wife.

The two first came to Martha’s Vineyard straight out of Rhode Island School of Design in 1990. Sheila’s roommate suggested that Omar’s work might be a good fit for the (long since defunct) Wooden Tent Gallery in Vineyard Haven. His paintings were accepted into a show for non-residents there; the couple came to deliver them and simply decided to stay. After a few weeks of couch surfing, and a short stint in a chicken coop in a field in Chilmark, the Island real estate gods smiled on them and they lucked into a perfect, and nearly unheard of, situation — a year-round rental available at the height of summer.

Rayyan’s artistic journey has been a uniquely personal one. He has illustrated children’s books, provided original card art and concept work for the gaming market — most notably for Magic: The Gathering — and helped to create the look for the motion picture The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He has sold his work through galleries, an Etsy shop, and at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair — one of Rayyan’s illustrations was chosen to be the poster image for the 2014 Fair. He and Sheila travel extensively, showing and selling original paintings and prints at science fiction and fantasy conventions. Rayyan loves the immediacy these venues offer; the face-to-face, one-on-one contact with fans of his work, other artists, and the volunteers who coordinate the shows.

Sheila, who creates works in pencil, pyrography, and ceramics, handles much of the daily business of doing business for both Omar and herself. They are decidedly a team, and Rayyan makes it clear with every “It’s all Sheila’s fault” that he wouldn’t be where he is without her.

His First Visit, oil on panel, 8 x 10"

His First Visit, oil on panel, 8 x 10″

Susan Savory: In your artist’s statements, you mention looking to the great oil painters of the Northern Renaissance for inspiration and guidance. Are there particular artists from this era whose work speaks to you? What, specifically, is it about their work that informs your own?

Omar Rayyan: Northern Renaissance paintings of folks like van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, de Hooch, Metsu, ter Borch, Dürer, Bruegel, etc., offer peeks into a past that’s familiar yet different; not only in costume, but in mannerisms, style, and thought — and boy, could they paint! That distance of time and thought gives the images a frozen-dream quality that helps me to see and feel my own “from the corner of my mind” daydreams. This method of hunting through history naturally leads into the works and thinkings of the nineteenth century Romanticists and Symbolists, taking old ideas and craft as the launching point for a new, more personal narrative — painting silly little pictures and goofy ideas while trying to get and keep a firm hold on solid, historic, artistic traditions.

SS: I’m curious about your choice of watercolor as your medium. You handle the paint in what feels like a most untraditional way, creating many, many finely detailed layers. Did you begin with watercolor, or did you take a more circuitous route to the medium?

Contessa with Squid, oil on panel, 18 x 24"

Contessa with Squid, oil on panel, 18 x 24″

OR: I started with watercolor as my learning tool for color work because it’s easier and more straightforward than oil paint. Oil offers a lot of choices and freedoms, but for certain effects you need to plan things like drying times, paint thickness, brush strokes, glazes, oiling, varnishes. There are a lot of decisions to make when all you want is to get a silly idea down fast. Historically, watercolor was used for studies and quick sketches prior to executing the subject in oil. By the mid-nineteenth century it was being pushed and expanded into a viable final medium, with techniques employed to give weight and substance, to compete with oil paintings. In that way, my handling of watercolor is very traditional — I have been trying to follow in their brushstrokes . . . although, if an idea calls to be done in oil, then oil it is.

SS: There’s a deeply realized sense of story in your paintings. Steeped in narrative, quite often depicting fantastic, anthropomorphized animals in richly detailed settings. Has your work as an illustrator influenced your personal “just for show” pieces, or perhaps vice versa? Are there differences in your process when creating a work commissioned by a client, and a purely personal painting?

OR: Commission work — in particular, illustration . . . a field where I have been employed for a large part of my career — calls for doing “your thing” while satisfying someone else’s needs and ideas. Trying to dovetail your own world into someone else’s, all under deadline, is a trick in itself, so eventually you get called for work that more closely fits your approach. Illustration commissions or not, I like painting things that tell stories, so despite how you are led to a subject, trying to find the hidden narrative becomes the challenge.

SS: Whenever you speak about your trajectory, your life choices, and your influences, you invariably begin with “It’s all Sheila’s Fault.” You and your wife work well together; you present to the world as a really wonderful team. You share a home and studio space, you travel to conventions together, she’s responsible for your choice of the Island as a home base, and she deftly handles all of your public relations. Do you influence each other’s work? Does Sheila’s presence and energy manifest itself in your paintings?

OR: Major direction changes in my life can be traced to the presence of Sheila. Her creativity, smarts, and the right goofiness, along with her ability to handle all those other bits and pieces of studio life, help greatly in making a rewarding space in which to paint. When it comes to making art, we’re both quite solitary at the practice. Two artists under the same roof with differing visions can bump heads quite hard, so knowing when and how to help and when to give space is the trick. Get it right and the partnership can be very rewarding.

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