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Melding the real and virtual worlds
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 03 - 04 - 2013

Molouk Y. Ba-Isa
Saudi Gazette
An unusual art show opens tonight at Desert Designs ( in Al Khobar. Called “Digital Sand,” the exhibit is a display of the “digital fantasies” of Saudi artist Mohammed Al Shnefey. It is Al Shnefey's first show and he is bursting with excitement as he looks forward to sharing with the public the artwork he has been creating over the last four years.
Before anyone gets the idea that this is some sort of sci-fi art exhibition, it's essential to explain that Al Shnefey paints the digital images using a Wacom graphics tablet. However, the subjects of the artwork are mainly scenes that in some way show the traditional lifestyle and nature of Saudi Arabia. Once Al Shnefey completes the painting on the screen, he prints it on canvas and then it may be hung on the wall, the same as more traditionally created artwork.
“This is my first solo exhibit and I am so excited and so nervous, too,” said Al Shnefey. “Each of these paintings has taken two to three months of my life to create. At the show, for the first time, I will be allowing other people to see them and comment on them. I have every confidence in my skill and my talent, but in the Kingdom digitally created art doesn't get the respect it deserves. I have to thank Desert Designs for being willing to take a chance in helping me to put on this exhibition.”
Al Shnefey is a classically educated artist. He painted throughout his teenage years and studied art at King Saud University in Riyadh, graduating in 2001. But after graduation he wasn't happy working with traditional media, such as oil or acrylic. In general, he felt very dissatisfied with the tools he had been taught to use at the university.
“How can it be that we are living in a time when everything is becoming more modern, but as painters we are still tied to using little brushes to dab color onto canvas. I felt so stifled, “ Al Shnefey said. “What saved me as an artist was that I discovered the computer.”
Actually what he discovered was Adobe Photoshop. Using Photoshop and a mouse, he began to draw.
“It was so difficult at first,” he explained. “Using the mouse to draw and later paint on the monitor screen is not comfortable, especially after years of holding a brush. But I persevered. Day by day I improved my technique and after a few years I was able to paint very competently with the mouse. But I was still dissatisfied. Maybe because I didn't use a computer as a child, the mouse wasn't a natural extension of my hand. Somehow, I couldn't get exactly what was in my mind onto the screen.”
Then one day in 2007, a friend told him about the Wacom graphics tablet. Al Shnefey immediately went online and through a YouTube video, saw the tablet in use. He was fascinated. The tablet wasn't sold in Saudi Arabia, so Al Shnefey brought one from the USA. It was a SR10,000 investment that became a life changing experience for the artist. He taught himself how to use the tablet by watching online videos and through trial and error.
“Within a month of picking up the Wacom's stylus, I created what I think is one of my best drawings ever,” remarked Al Shnefey. “My experience with Photoshop and my traditional art education helped me. Whatever the media, an artist needs to understand issues related to light such as perspective and illumination. I have one painting called ‘Al Ruwaida,' which shows a scene from Najd. I have painted that same scene three times. First with a brush, then again with a mouse and finally with a stylus. I like it better each time.”
Despite his pleasure while painting digitally, Al Shnefey is disturbed by his knowledge that the art community in Saudi Arabia doesn't consider him to be a “real” artist. He noted that the attitude here is very different to that of the European or American art communities, where experimentation and the introduction of new media and techniques is expected. One of the goals of his show is to change the public's thinking about digitally created art.
He wants people to understand that his paintings done with the graphics tablet are his expression of his thoughts and feelings. They are drawn by his hand, not a compilation of clip art or a collage of images cut and pasted from the Internet.
“I did one painting for the exhibit just to show technique. It's called ‘Battle,' and in the painting there is a draped piece of fabric, along with a bird, snake and butterfly,” explained Al Shnefey. “I drew every tiny, wispy line that makes up the fabric. Shadows give a hint of what's beyond the painting. There are many different patterns within the animals. The painting is not beautiful but the individual portions of it are very difficult to draw — whether using a stylus, a pencil or a brush. I want people who view it to notice all the different elements and think of the skill that went into creating them.”
Some of the paintings in the “Digital Sand” exhibition are for sale. At this time Al Shnefey is also willing to sign over to purchasers the rights to both the digital creation of the image and the canvas on the wall. This would allow the purchaser to print and reproduce the image on other materials - fabric, glass, plastic - the choices are endless. Al Shnefey thinks that by releasing the digital rights, his artwork will receive more exposure, and that means his name will be better known.
“Sometimes an artist must make sacrifices,” concluded Al Shnefey. “By signing over the rights to the digital creation of the work, I want to show that I am willing to give up a small piece of my creative self as any artist does when he entrusts his work to someone else.”

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