Well I come from an artistic family. My father is one of the most well-known artists in the region. He has created portraits of some of the most prominent leaders and royalty on the planet from Queen Elizabeth of England to the late president of Iraq: Saddam Hussein himself. In most of the palaces in the region, you will find paintings or illustrations by him so my family name, Muharraqi is actually very well known in these parts. I do have four brothers, and although we are all in different fields, I am proud of every one of them. As an Arab family we grew close to each other.
Bahrain is an Arabic country in the middle of the Gulf, made up of a group of islands. It's name, Bahrain, means "the two seas" and that's because it is surrounded by the salty sea water, while the land has a lot of fresh water from the earth. It has a hot climate most of the time, and the people are known for their hospitality and their easy going and friendly personalities. In old times, it was considered the best place for pearl diving and for business in the gulf, but life is simple here and of course we're a late-comer in terms of technology. So thank God for the internet; otherwise I would be a CG artist stuck on an island.
With your talent, you could easily have continued with just Photoshop and been highly successful. What drew you into 3D work, specifically?
Thank you for saying that! I am a traditional artist originally. I used to sell my paintings -- and I do have 5 left that I will never sell since I don't have any more -- but I feel that 3D is just the next level for an artist. It gives me a different look at things; a bit like playing! With the sculpting ability today that ZBrush gives, I'm not sure how to explain this, but it almost feels that it is back to the basics as an artist again in a Matrix-like world somehow.
It's really interesting to view your galleries, since there's a huge dichotomy there. On the one hand we have these amazingly real architectural visualizations. On the other hand, there are some truly inspiring fantasy pieces. Could you talk about that split in your interests and works?
Yes sure. One I do because I love. One I do because it is a job. I wonder if you can guess which is which! Yes, I do a lot of architectural work for big projects in the region, and the thing to keep in mind is not that I do these projects, but the fact that I do it all on my own is what makes CG companies boggled.
People always ask me how did you do that all on your own?! Strange! One thing for sure is that I am good at solving puzzles like working with heavy data files with hundreds of textures, and thousands of shaders, and thousands of models with millions of polys. Just putting massive data together to make it all work towards a render or an animation requires a lot of planning and great juggling skills! I really only started this work about four to five years back and never looked at buildings before that, but I trained myself how to do it.
On the other hand the characters, stories, magical environments and worlds... that is the closest thing to my traditional art. Also, it relaxes me and sets me free. I can do a lot to express my emotions and thoughts, and with the type of technology we have today it makes my life as an artist even better. Flexibility, speed, accuracy, and choices are unlimited today. I just cant go back to a traditional medium, but I believe that it made me more solid in a sense.
Many of your personal projects have an epic feel to them. What inspires you, and how do you go about bringing these ideas to life in a way that really connects with the viewer?
Being a student of my father, I feel that I have inherited some of his style. I have his colors, his touches, and his lines. However, I get influenced by all good art and different styles as well as different people, stories, watching a film, or even a PS3 game. The sources are endless. I also love old school legendary artists like Frank Frazetta and I used to always look at his books in my father's gallery and admire his style. This was when I was 13, so that helped me a lot. Also being in the Middle East, which has a rich tradition of storytelling. Everything is different from the West: the temperature, the environment, the culture, and even the light which is so bright here and almost monochromatic -- all of that really effects how I see things. This combination of influences has affected the art I create and continues to evolve within me and my style of work.
You've described yourself as "an artist, first and foremost." Yet there is a certain bias in the public eye that digital art is not "real art". It's amazing how often people become dismissive as soon as they learn that something is digital, and I've even heard people respond with comments like, "Oh. The computer did it." What do you say to people like that?
Well I see them everyday, when I am on a project, they say, "Use the computer to get it done yesterday," and that's a real pisser! Well, I think these people are generally uneducated in this field and they need our help to educate them so maybe at first they would say that, but once you explain how it will happen they will soften down and understand more. Surely, oil paintings and digital oil paintings would feel different when they are on canvas, but the effort could be the same with any good artist. I feel that the value of a piece depends on the artist and what he values it at. And I would say if the person that would buy it does not know the value then just don't sell it to them. That's what I do all the time.
What do you see as being the main challenges facing digital fine artists? And how do you anticipate those challenges being overcome?
Keeping up! The technology is moving rapidly, and it is overwhelming at times. It's like a train that is moving fast. A few weeks or a few months could effect you being behind in the world of CG.
The traditional artist used to have to worry about one thing only: how to get his art to look better each time. Well with CG art today, not only your talent has to move up, but you have to train yourself on the second thing and that is the 3D applications and how to integrate and get a working bridge between all apps to get one final result. You upgrade yourself on a regular basis! That's pressure on the artist today, and it is not easy! But it's part of the fast-developing world we live in.
You've been using ZBrush for quite a long time now. At least two years, I'd say. What led you to it, and what were your first thoughts when you experienced ZBrush?
Yes you are right, Matthew. Actually, my brother showed me ZBrush like 4 years back. At the time ZB was a new concept and not too accepted by the 3D artists as a replacement to detailed modeling. But two years back I was looking at the illustrations done on ZBrush and I just had to try it. Once I did, I was hooked. It just takes you by surprise the first time. It was new, innovative, like painting in many ways... Just lovely! I must say that it is the best thing that happened to the CG artists since the beginning of 3D; really a huge jump and I'm not sure what can top this.
What were your experiences with learning ZBrush? Was it easy for you? Did you have a certain "eureka!" moment with the app, and if so, what was it?
ZBrush was a delight and a joy from day one. Even before I started reading about it, I bought a "get into ZBrush" DVD to speed up the process and it took me about one day to start doing work. The main issue that I was having a problem with was how to link it with my other applications, like LightWave and Modo. There wasn't any proper documentation on the bridging, so you never knew what was the best way. But I was on the right track and once I got it, it was great! Especially now with 3.1 everything is in there and more. Easy to understand features, common sense and straight-forward, it's just very well designed for the artist's needs.
How does ZBrush fit into your personal work today?
Perfectly. As a matter of fact, now I even use it for environment textures, like walls, tiles, trees, etc. It is just becoming more useful and a must-have in everything I do.
Did you find that ZBrush 3 inspired you to try new things or push the limits of what you'd previously thought was possible?
It certainly did! I feel that the newer ZBrush (3.1) is just sharper and more rugged. It gives me the feeling of a new age vehicle. I have a lot of tools that fit my needs. It works just right to fit my imagination when I am working. And that shadow effect in there; it gave that extra "oomph" that I was craving all this time.
What would you say is your favorite feature in ZBrush, and how do you use it on a day-to-day basis?
Hard question! Only one? Ha! Well, the most amazing bit to me is when I ask ZB to calculate the displacement map or the normal map to use with other applications. It looks perfect! I just don't believe how clear and clean it is! I'm always amazed to see that even after so many time of doing it.
Do you have any tips or tricks that you could share with the ZBC community?
Here's a way to get better tiling textures: Import a tiled texture image into ZBrush's Alpha palette from a photo application like Photoshop, then make a square object. Make sure that you have UV's. Divide it, but make sure that Tool>Geometry>Smt is off to retain the outer shape as a square. Now go to the displacement menu and move the intensity slider to the level that you like, then click Apply Dispmap. You will see the effect of the texture bumped into 3D, and now can create normal maps that look perfect. You can then edit the normal map in Photoshop to be seamless.
You are extremely well known for your architectural work -- something that people don't normally expect to find ZBrush being used on. Yet in one of your ZBC posts you shared an architectural animation, and it turned out that there was a lot of ZBrushing! Could you talk more about your use of ZBrush in architecture?
Sure. A while back I used to use ZB for only my character development. Today I have used it in fabric effects -- like on one of the recent projects when I needed a flag, so I got perfect folds to be applied in a normal map from ZB. It worked perfectly with my cloth simulations in LightWave. I also build all my trees with displacement and normal maps, and that looks really good. Finally, I am now using it for the tiling textures. They look more extruded then ever before, and this gave my images another edge that I was looking for!
One of the things that we're seeing a lot of these days is the prototyping of 3D models. It's pretty cool to be able to hold one of your creations in your hand! Yet what you do with architectural modeling is on a completely different scale. Have you ever had the opportunity to visit the sites that you've visualized? If so, what was that experience like?
Yes I have, but most of them are not finished yet. You could say that on the Durrat project I was amazed to see the land reclamation 3 years after I had done the renders, and to think that it look like my texture painting years ago. I was always amazed to see that, especially on Google Earth. And to think that thousands of people are using image references that I created to use as an example on how they should look still blows me away. Also, a lot of our projects are not even public yet, so I can't display them on our site
. But hopefully soon!
You've often said that you'd like to make a movie, and have mentioned that you've been working on one for some time. How is that coming along? Is there anything you can share about it?
Yes I have said that, and we're still in the making unfortunately. I need to do that full time, but never got the chance yet to completely do it 100%. It is still in the works, but I haven't yet shown any elements because I still haven't gotten it to a level that is presentable. Bits an pieces here and there! I believe that times are changing and everything I do prepares me for it. So as the tools are getting better, I am also fine tuning my style to get to what I want. I will update you on that project for sure, and ZBrush will be the main application that will get me there.
What is on the horizon for you? And what are your long term goals?
I can't tell. The thing is that I am evolving over time, with what I do and what I would like to do. But it is heading in the right direction for sure, or where I want to be. My goal is to get to a level that I am proud of what I've achieved, both personally and also helping this lovely community to move to it's peak -- I love helping others and learn from others' experiences and ideas. In the end, I always love to be on top of technology and help developers to get their products to be the best they could be by interacting and using and getting products out there to show the potential of the work.
Is there anything else you'd like to share while you've got our attention?
Big thanks for giving me this opportunity to talk to the community. What I would like to say to Pixologic: Thank you for these amazing tools. Thanks for creating the future of digital art. We need more people like you that help us the artists to get closer to art, and remove all sorts of technical boundaries. ZBrush makes me think about the art work -- not how to use the tool -- and that's what the artists have been waiting a long time for. Keep up the great work!
I also want to say that this is one of the most helpful and friendly forums and I want to encourage all the users at all levels to continue to help each other to raise the bar even higher! A big thanks to all of you out there!
And many thanks from us to Khalid for having taken the time to provide such an in-depth interview!
Be sure to also check out our many past interviews, which can be found in the ZBrush Artist Interviews forum.