Winner of the 2012 Sheikha Manal Young Artists Award in the Fine Arts category, 23-year-old artist Saif Mhaisen has a talent for painting portraits that are so realistic you double take before realizing they're not photographs. In 2014, he was selected by the Salma bint Hamdan Emerging Artists (SEAF) and completed their one-year program in Abu Dhabi. Saif is now being sent on scholarship to pursue a Masters degree in Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Olga Lobanova

Ayesha Islam: How did your interest change to painting while studying architecture?
Saif Mhaisen: Halfway through, I started doing a few painting courses and I realized that I liked it. I was more interested in the tactility of a drawing, it wasn’t the business of buildings I was into – it was more about the pencils and charcoal drawings and trying to understand what the author feels. My portfolio didn’t have any intricate digital work, I did try all those things but I was more interested in art, such as drawing Jumeirah with a pencil. When I graduated, I realized there's no demand for what I like about architecture and I saw that there are opportunities for me to pursue art full time.

Which artists have inspired you?
I started out by looking at Caravaggio, whose paintings are high in contrast and have dim tones. I saw myself as this dark person and that's how I wanted to paint. More recently, I’ve been looking at Chuck Close, an American painter who got famous doing photorealistic paintings in the 1960s. He also focused on studying color and used a grid on a really big canvas to then fill in the paint square by square, which is a very interesting technique. I would say he is my biggest inspiration.

How did this dark persona come into your work? Do you still see yourself as such?
It's a possible reason behind my early desire to paint black, dark images. I believe it was a combination of two things. Basic emotions such as anger, apathy, resentment, angst, and frustration. I found myself feeling these things aimlessly. This could be interpreted as leading to sombre looking, dark images. The second was a more visually oriented interest in high contrast. Chiaroscuro-influenced contrast in a range of hues and values which you can see in Self Portrait 8, Andy, and Self Portraits 3, 4, and 7. These ideas are more descriptive of the beginning of my career, which I feel has evolved since then.

You recently had your first solo exhibition ‘Work’ as part of Tashkeel in the AlFahidi district, can you tell us the inspiration behind it?
At first, I was afraid of doing a solo exhibition because I'm only 23 years old and thought it’s too soon to present my work as an artist. But the context of the solo was not overly extravagant, which made me feel more comfortable. Most of the show was work I have done in the past year with the exception of one project, titled ‘Pages’. It was a collection of 45 drawings from my sketchbooks I’ve owned over the past six years, which I stylize in black on a white background and increase the contrast till it looks like a floating object on the page.

Olga Lobanova

What are you currently working on?
I recently did three paintings where I was trying to involve myself in color and trying not to paint a portrait with a black background because it had become very consistent in my work, which I didn’t find reason to continue. I want to start painting people about what they do, what they are thinking and how they feel rather than just a face in the background. I see more context and emotion in my work in the near future.

Interview: Ayesha Islam
Images: Olga Lobanova

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