Rakan Kurdi: the Saudi artist with muscle atrophy who's painted portraits of Sheikh Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman

The painter, 29, takes orders worth up to 50,000 Saudi riyals per artwork

Rakan Kurdi sits in his studio surrounded by awards and art supplies. To the left hangs a digitally printed painting of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father.

"It took me one month to finish it and now I'm offering it for sale for 10,000 Saudi riyals ($2,666)," he tells The National.

The Saudi artist, 29, is in a wheelchair as he has muscle atrophy, but he finds his disability has only fuelled him in carving out an illustrious career.

“I was in a challenge against myself, and I won this challenge,” he says. “Maybe a normal person can draw easily, but for me, with my illness, it is hard.”

Kurdi first started drawing when he was 8, attending the Disabled Children's Association, a specialised school for people with disabilities in Saudi Arabia. It was one of his teachers there who first discovered his talent. "She told me I have an eye for art and encouraged me to keep going."

He still remembers the advice she gave him: “Rakan, you must work on your talent, learn more at home and keep practising to develop your skills.”

Rakan Abdulaziz Kurdi, A "professional" Saudi painter and designer. Photo: Rakan twitter account

Since then, he’s been drawing for at least two hours every day and has become a well-known professional in the region’s art world.

These days, Kurdi takes orders worth SAR50,000 per painting, with prices starting from about SAR5,000, depending on the size of the work. Inspired by the work of Leonardo da Vinci – “we both belong to the same school of art” – he specialises in portraits and sometimes nature landscapes.

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I always try to draw people in the most beautiful way possible

"The portraits attract me because I first need to understand and study the character of whom I'm drawing, then try to represent that along with their feelings.”

His attention to detail is astounding; each painting looks like a photograph. It’s the “precision” that make his pieces stand out, he says.

"I love precision in my work. I always aim to finish my paintings in a precise [way] and at high quality. And I always try to draw people in the most beautiful way possible.”

He’s painted plenty of high-profile personalities, from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to classical singer Talal Maddah. One of his most famous pieces is of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from 2018, which received more than one million views in fewer than 19 hours on social media, according to Kurdi.

Social media is integral to his work. He has nearly 300,000 followers across Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and he says he receives all of his orders via these platforms. So far, he has painted about 2,500 pieces since turning professional.

"I got my first order in 2013. I sold that portrait for SAR600.”

It’s been a long journey to get where he is today, however. "I faced many challenges, as anyone does starting something new in public.

"There were no orders and no encouragement from people [at first], but I persisted, and I continued and continued. I used to draw, paint and showcase my work on my social accounts.”

While initially this didn’t get him orders, he did benefit from the critique he received on his work.

"My followers used to give me comments, ‘edit this, fix that’, so I learnt and enhanced."

Kurdi also later expanded his skill set to include digital drawing.

"It doesn't matter whether I'm drawing an oil painting or digital one, it is the tools that are different.”

He’s even installed his own printing facility in his house, on which he prints his digital works.

Rakan Abdulaziz Kurdi, A "professional" Saudi painter and designer. Photo: Rakan twitter account

"When I die, I want people to say this person gave to the art scene something new, gave value for art.

"I don't to be someone who just passed by and that is it. I want my art to say: Rakan was here."