Abdullah Ariff was born in Penang in 1904. He was a self-taught artist and was an art teacher at the Anglo-Chinese School,Penang (presently known as Methodist Boy's School). In the 1920s, there was no local art group and the only organised art group at that time consisted of expatriate Europeans (mostly English housewives ) who called themselves the " Penang Impressionists ". Asians were not allowed to join the exclusive group which was a reflection of the prevailing colonialistic imperialism then. However Abdullah Ariff was admitted into the group in the mid-30s because his services as an art instructor were needed. The " Penang Impressionists " disbanded before the beginning of the 2nd World War, never to be reformed.
Abdullah Ariff was acknowledged with Yong Mun Sen, as a pioneer of watercolour painting in Malaysia. He was especially well-known for his meticulous masterful handling of the medium. Compared to Mun Sen, his works are more 'European' in outlook and approach, and his paintings appear to have more crowded details. A dedicated teacher, he was well-respected amongst the artistic community in the northern states.
There was a break in his stay in Penang as he went to Kuala Lumpur in 1945 to work as a cartoonist for The Straits Echo. He returned to Penang in 1947 and became active in politics and was a committee member of UMNO. In 1955, he served as a city councillor and had the rare distinction of having a road in Penang named after him ( Jalan Abdullah Ariff ), an honour that no other artist in Malaysia has been accorded since. In 1955, he established the Ariff Advertising Agency.
In 1954, he held one-man shows at North Carolina, and the Mint Museum of Art at Charlotte, New York, U.S.A. In 1955, he participated in the "United Society of Artists" group exhibition at the galleries of the Royal Society of British Artists, London. There, he was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Art (F.R.S.A.) England.
In 1956, he was invited to take part in "Le Salon" of the Society of French Artist at the galleries at Grand Palai des Champs-Elysees, France.
In 1957,one of his paintings was chosen as a personal gift to be presented to Tungku Abdul Rahman,Malaysia's first Prime Minister on the occasion of the Merdeka (Independence) celebrations.
Abdullah Ariff passed away in 1962, leaving behind a legacy of excellent watercolour paintings. According to one of his ex-student, Tan Lye Hoe, Abdullah Ariff's philosophy of art is "Art knows no barriers"