Features / Graphic Design

Deconstructing Omar Aqil’s untamed oeuvre and his obsession with Picasso

From transforming Picasso’s portraits to decoding expressions, Omar Aqil’s work is a concoction of imagination and a bold visual aesthetic.

By Ritupriya Basu on 17 May

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Figurative Portraits II, a series by Omar Aqil that deconstructs facial expressions

Lahore-based Omar Aqil’s work is an impassioned dialogue of colours, textures and abstract shapes that come together to form compelling artworks. A master of hyper-realistic 3D visuals, Omar doesn’t shy away from challenges. For a recent project titled MIMIC II, he reimagined a series of portraits by Pablo Picasso, lending them a whole new dimension through his inter-looping and luminous 3D elements. Modernising such classical pieces of art was something no one had dared to do before. The project not only highlighted his nuanced understanding of art history and creative culture, but also emphasised his sensitivity in marrying the maestro’s work with his own visual style.

If one looks closely, you’ll see an undercurrent running through his work in his attempt to visualise the intangible. With MIMIC II and a two-part series Figurative Portraits, he decodes the complexity of expressions. In a recent commissioned project called The Flavours of World Cuisines, he envisions taste and synaesthesia.

Over a long chat, we take a deep dive into his work as Omar remembers his father and unfolds the ideas that push his intricately layered artworks.

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Character Illustrations inspired by Picasso's portraits

How did you develop an interest in visual design, typography and 3D renders?

I come from a home where the idea of art and design was always nurtured and that led me on to enter this world. I picked up my painting skills from my father; his work inspired me a lot. He was an artist and textile designer who worked on stylised still life with oil paint. His knowledge of art and large collection of books served as a springboard of inspiration. Painting with him taught me the patience to strive for details and achieve perfection.

When I hit my teenage years, technology was advancing rapidly and the computer had just arrived. I was very interested to explore this new avenue, so I decided to study visual communication design. While pursuing the degree, I explored multiple mediums and found a keen interest in typography. Experimenting with typefaces and letters started a sort of domino effect through which I began discovering new tools and sharpening my visual style. Through this route of exploration, I found 3D, and that stuck with me over the years. This was when I realised that the 3D medium was exactly what I was looking for and it became an integral part of my visual lexicon.

Did the visual culture of Lahore seep into your work in any way, if at all?

Yes it did. My early 3D design concepts reflect the cultural values that surround me, like architectural shapes and traditional motifs that I used subliminally in my work. I would turn the elements into simple, linear forms and then integrate them into the artworks. So the Mughal motifs and arches that are peppered around Lahore would pop into my work, sometimes without me being aware of it. But eventually, as I started making more work, I would pick up visual cues from cultures other than my own.

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Figurative Portraits highlights Omar's dexterity with juxtaposing disparate shapes and forms

What inspires your practice at large? Do you look outwards for inspiration or is your work more self-reflective in nature?

I dive into the work of other professionals for inspiration, and collect some of my favorite artist’s works for my visual library. This image bank is something I can always fall back upon to study, to dissect and to use as a guiding light. It helps me learn, but also understand what has already been done and the kind of work that I need to contribute to the global creative landscape. I mostly look outwards for inspiration, like the oeuvres of Peter Tarka, Rizon Parein and Chris Labrooy. Deconstructing their concepts and compositions is what challenges and furthers my creative horizons.

Your hyper-realistic renders are larger-than-life. When working with such a maximalist approach, how do you decide which elements to keep?

It depends on the concept which I choose to work on, and the research helps me define the shapes to add in. When I begin, I have a sketch in my mind that I then put down on paper. I do a lot of experimental work to get as close to the original idea as possible. Exclusivity is a skill you develop over time and immense practice. For almost every project that I have worked on, I have battled with myself about what to add or subtract and exactly how many elements I need to make the piece work. What is essential is to ensure that every element is in there for a reason.

In MIMIC II, Omar reimagines and modernises six portraits by Pablo Picasso

For your recent project MIMIC II, you reimagined six portraits by Pablo Picasso. What kind of sensitivity did it take to modernise such classical pieces of art?

This project was very difficult for me to recreate. Picasso is famous for his unique style in portraits - he used unusual shapes flavoured with an odd perspective to enrich the expression in a portrait. He had an amazing sense of decoding expressions. Understanding this skill is a crucial part when you take on the maestro’s work and add your own thoughts to it as well. I have tried to simplify the shapes in the most modern yet classic way; adding some drama to enhance its individual value and give extra importance to the character. To add another dimension to each portrait, I used medieval architectural elements in the background.

Tell me about your Figurative Portraits and the inspiration behind it. What is the most challenging and compelling aspect of deconstructing expressions through abstract elements?

The Figurative Portraits series was also inspired by Picasso’s work. It’s an exploration and experimentation of unusual expressions, using complex shapes and forms to create an exaggerated fusion of vibrant colours. I tried to show the expressions and movements of the figure through basic shapes, but this was the most difficult part to handle. Every shape had its own complexity, and while interacting with different shapes, it gave birth to new elements.

I’m addicted to the idea of juxtaposing geometric and organic forms. This exercise is a maze; every click of the mouse is a turn you make that charts unending possibilities. What I admire the most about Picasso is his dexterity in using abstract shapes to form expressive compositions. This is something I’d like to emulate and look at through a modern lens without losing its inherent beauty. I also love Salvador Dali’s work and would like to reimagine his work in the future.

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A piece from Figurative Portraits II

Three things that influence your work?

Art, history and cultural characters. History connects me with the past. I am keen to know about the beginnings of different regions, the way they lived, their cultural beliefs and their contributions to the world of art.

What advice would you give young designers setting out to explore the realm of 3D art?

Always start on paper first. In the pursuit of mastering the digital, never forget the importance of first visualising an idea on paper. While working with 3D, take some time out to understand the interplay of light and shadow on different forms. And lastly, never stop exploring. Inspiration is just a buzzword. What will help you succeed is good old hard work.

Give us a glimpse into the projects you’re currently working on.

Right now, I am working on some really crazy executions of my next MIMIC III series. But this time, I am looking at the work of another maestro. Watch this space!


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