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Ali Dunnell is an artist, photographer, and teacher who travels the world recording images of people and life in sketchbooks, on canvases, and online.

She is never without her camera or a sketchbook and pen. Ali uses her day-to-day experiences and travel journals as inspiration for her artwork.

How did it all start for you, and when did you realize that traveling is the main source of inspiration for your artworks?

Ali: As far back as I can remember I kept a journal whenever I went on holiday. My mother encouraged me to record what I had done that day in words and pictures, probably to keep me out of mischief. I suppose the habit of keeping a travel journal stayed with me. After studying Art and Art History at university I took a gap year to travel around the world and kept a written and visual daily record of my experiences. Because I was a solo independent traveler my journal became a good way to share my travels with family and friends back home. There were so many things that fascinated me about the different places I was seeing; the people, the landscape, the food, the culture, the nature, the religion, and the general overload on my senses. Wanderlust became the inspiration for my art.

A field of rapeseed

I Love your series “The dead cities of Syria”. Could you tell me more about this experience?

Ali: In 2002 I took a teaching job at the British Council in Damascus, Syria. As this was before the war had started I had the freedom to move around this historic country. While visiting Aleppo in the north, I heard about the Dead Cities of Syria. I was immediately curious about the mysterious name and wanted to visit them. These cities are made up of 700 abandoned settlements where people lived between the 1st and 7th centuries. Apart from the taxi driver who had driven me to the cities, there was no one in this rugged desert terrain, but the ruins of churches, monasteries, houses, meeting places, and bathhouses. After a while, however, some children came by from neighboring villages, no doubt as curious in me as I was in them. These children sat by me while I did some sketches of the forgotten Byzantine buildings.

Children coming back from school, via one of the dead cities in Syria.

What are some of the stories behind your work?

Ali: In my artwork, every picture literally tells a real story. I have always tried to capture a particular moment in one shot. Paintings and photographs have been inspired by busy markets, lively city streets, tucked away cafes, cultural festivals, religious experiences,  vast never-ending landscapes, curious rock formations, and the flora and fauna which is synonymous with countries and climates. When I arrive at somewhere new I walk around for a bit, trying to go off the beaten track a little, to get a feel for the place. While doing this in my head I start to plan photographs or paintings. I then return to these places and wait for an interesting moment to happen – a person walking by, a vehicle passing, an interesting shadow, some bright clothes.

Blossom against blue sky

Describe a real-life situation that inspired your artwork?

Ali: Here are the stories behind two of my paintings

“Dadas at Kivokoni Fish Market in Dar Es Salaam” – The Kivukoni Fish Market in Dar Es Salaam is always busy. Both inside and outside the market walls there are scores of people; inside fishermen and traders huddle together around the many different catches of the day, outside house dadas (housekeepers) dressed in brightly printed kangas effortlessly balance buckets of fish on the heads, while they navigate the Tanzanian traffic jams of bejajs, piki-pikis, buses, taxis, bicycles, and yet more people.

“Abstract Salar Salt Flats 02” – If you ever wondered what it feels like to walk on the clouds then you should visit the Salar de Uyuni. Located in the southwest corner of Bolivia, the Salar is a blindingly white salt flat, which stretches for more than 4,500 square miles. The landscape is punctuated by towering dormant volcanoes and is bright, endless, and surreal. This is my abstract interpretation of it.

The Salar salt flats in Bolivia

What are some of the tools you use to create your distinct style of artwork?

Ali: I use a combination of materials for my paintings including acrylic paint, oil paint, inks, soft pastels, charcoal, and watercolors. I paint on canvases and on thick paper. For my sketches, I use pencils, ink, pens, charcoal, aqua pencils, and watercolors.  For my photography, I use an SLR camera and a mobile phone with a good quality camera.

Could you walk us through your process? How much planning do you do before you jump into a painting? If you do, what are you trying to solve at each stage of it?

Ali: Before I do a painting I have already imagined the scene or the moment I want to capture. I then draw a sketch in a sketchbook, where I think about the composition of the painting and where everything will be positioned. Next, I add color to my sketch, usually using soft pastel as they are quick to use and bright in color. From here I put my work onto canvas, adding the lines and shapes with soft pastels. Once I start painting I do the background colors first then as the picture develops I build up the colors usually in blocks. Sometimes I scratch through the paint layers to see the color below. Finally, I add the details, patterns, and some sweeping dark lines.

Women carrying water from Pushkar Lake – India

What was the most recent piece you’ve enjoyed working on, (photo or painting) and why?

Ali: I recently worked on a piece called “Morning Commute in Dar es Salaam”.  I am now living in Stockholm, Sweden, and working on this painting took me instantly back to the moment in Tanzania where I was sitting on the ferry in Dar Es Salaam on my way to work. I distinctly remember this woman sat near me waiting patiently amidst all the chaos of the daily commute. I love the evocative feeling I get when I am creating my paintings.

How has your art evolved over the years?

Ali: My paintings have become brighter and bolder in texture, style, and color. I have grown more confident with how I apply the paint, adding thick layered paint and dark outlines. My sketchbooks have stayed relatively simple in style and have not really changed so much.

Smoking shisha at Jabri House in Damascus

What are you trying to communicate with your art?

Ali: I try to communicate the evocative feeling of a place and the essence of a fleeting moment. I want people to feel like they are looking through a window into a different place.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

Ali: People love the colors of my work and say that the images are bold and powerful. Often if someone has visited one of the places in my artwork they say have an immediate affinity for my work. Once I remember someone responding to my work by saying that they had been to the place in the painting and that I had captured the essence of the place perfectly.

Endless Abstract Land, Serengeti

What’s next on the horizon?

Ali: I am currently busy building up my portfolio and at the same time teaching art at a school in Stockholm. I am making contacts and clients,  have sold a number of paintings, and am taking commissions for new paintings. I hope this will lead to an exhibition or a book of my travel-inspired artwork.

Travels with my art sketchbooks

To find out more about Ali and her art, please check:




Thank you!

4 Replies to “Interview with Ali Dunnell”

  1. I fell in love with the “Morning Commute in Dar es Salaam” when I first saw it. It was something with the contrast and coloring that got me. And today it has a prime spot at my home. It is a pice that many say they love and I’m so glad that I get to enjoy it every day.

  2. Great read! I know the children in art class were very inspired by your work. And the way you decorated the pillars with art. Magic!

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