Ahmed al Refaei, 32, is a Kuwaiti graphic designer and illustrator that grew up with a fascination with the world around him. Inspired by his environment, Ahmed was curious and interested in drawing characters from his own imagination. Along the years, this hobby transformed into a combination of design, illustration, and sketching. It took lots of time and effort to develop his own artistic style, which is clearly shown in his work.
With his wide imagination, he likes to take reality one step further. In his piece “Oldies Station”, Ahmed was fascinated with how the older generation listen to vintage radios pressed against their ears. “They love the radio very much that if they could get a chance, they would actually sit in it,” he said. So he illustrated a drawing of an old lady and old man sitting inside a radio with a pot of tea.
As Ahmed grew up in Kuwait and entered high school, he developed an interest in graphic design. He focused on getting his own clients for a while and neglected illustration to focus more on his newfound interest. Illustration and graphic design wasn’t something he saw merging together until about three years ago.
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After graduating from university, Ahmed joined a graphic design agency and began freelancing simultaneously for two years, describing it as harsh. “Back then, people don’t pay, or they don’t know what to expect. Being a freelancer is much more convenient now,” he said.
Once he felt he should move on from freelancing, Ahmed joined Studio AIO, a local design agency, as Art Director and has been in the position for the past 6 years. Ahmed works alongside the Creative Director to manage design for clients in an artistic way. Studio AIO provides clients with services such as packaging, printing, branding, illustrations, and photography.
Many clients that approach Studio AIO are restaurants, and Ahmed believes it can be challenging creating new concepts for clients in the same field. It can also be challenging when clients don’t have the vision or passion, or when they approach the studio with no clear concept, and therefore they are required to create an entire concept.
The artist is popularly known on Instagram as “owaikeo”, a word Ahmed created out of his own imagination with no significant meaning. He posts images of his artwork that present new ideas and approaches to once familiar symbols of culture. An example of this new approach is an image of “gummy bears” that have been changed to “gummy camels” and this type of art gives viewers a unique perspective of something so familiar to people who live in the Arab Gulf.
Once Ahmed is struck by an idea, he starts with a basic sketch on his iPad. “I’m inspired by everything around me,” he said. Ahmed then researches the topic to learn more, to get inspiration, to look at different visuals in order to create a comprehensive image. The final step is illustrating on the computer and then adding color. Sometimes, Ahmed spends hours figuring out what colors he wants and how they would work together.
Inspired by the Arab and Khaleeji culture, nostalgia, and folklore, Ahmed says “Arabic art is associated with camels, patterns, or the desert, but it’s so much more than that.” His art focuses on the past with a modern twist, it’s a breath of nostalgia with a slight change.
Ahmed has also created a series of artworks focusing on villains based on Emirati and Moroccan folklore. These are stories that parents used to tell their children that are purely based on mythical creatures and tales.
Involving himself in the local creative community, Ahmed teaches an online course at dawrat.com, an online Kuwait-based marketplace that provides users with courses, workshops, and seminars in various fields.“The course takes what you know and teaches you techniques I use to create artwork,” he said. The online course is for designers who are familiar with Adobe Illustrator, and want to further improve their artwork with Ahmed’s techniques.
Throughout Ahmed’s journey through illustration, his biggest challenge was when he decided to drop everything he knew and start over. When he first began designing during high school and college, his art was incredibly complex with painstaking details. He now wanted to create something completely different and to enjoy the minimalist process. His work is now simpler, with a mindset of less is more as he focuses less on the details, and more on the colors and overall look of the image.
Ahmed’s advice for aspiring designers is to love what you do, because that is the driving force that makes you better and shapes your career. He explains that if you pursue a career you’re not interested in, it will become difficult to succeed.
It’s important that aspiring designers challenge themselves, not blindly follow tutorials, and add their own artistic touch, according to Ahmed. “When I look at my artwork, I always think of ways that I can improve aspects of the illustration.”
“Creating designs and illustrations is a long journey- and never-ending. You should always be a student,” he said.
Words by Ghadeer Al-Aradi
Images Courtesy of Ahmed al Refaei