Dirham-sized sketches make Emirati illustrator Mariam Abbas an Instagram star
The illustrations that Mariam Abbas creates are so tiny that the first question she is often asked is: “do you use a magnifying glass to make them?”
“No,” says the 32-year-old Emirati, with a laugh. “I just stick my face really close to the paper and work where there is plenty of sunlight.”
Made using pencils, a rubber and fine brushes, the drawings are sometimes no bigger than a one-dirham coin. The full-time artist, from Dubai, uses a combination of sketching, watercolours and pointillism to represent a mix of popular and UAE culture in her art.
Her impressive work caught the attention of Instagram’s community team recently and was featured on its official page. An intricate sketch of the Al Farooq Omar Ibn Al Khattab mosque in Old Dubai – with a paper clip beside it for a sense of scale – has received more than a million “likes” on the social-media site.
“Being featured by Instagram has definitely put my miniature art in the spotlight,” says Abbas, who began creating her tiny pictures a year ago.
She says her larger pointillism pieces had become very time consuming. She is one of a relatively small number of artists who still practices pointillism, a technique in which small, distinct dots of colour are used to form an image. A single pointillism portrait can take her up to 130 hours to finish.
“It takes too long to create those big pieces and I don’t have time with my kids,” says the mother of three. “Miniature art was actually easier to slot into my routine. I still do bigger pieces but when I have less time, I do miniatures.”
Abbas has three ongoing miniature series on Instagram. One of her most popular themes is UAE mosques.
“I have planned to work on a whole series of mosques in the UAE,” she says. “Sometimes I struggle with that because I can’t find the names of the mosques. I also find it hard to take pictures of some.”
Abbas showcased her mosques series at World Art Dubai this year, and sold drawings of Jumeirah Mosque and Al Farooq Mosque to a British art collector in Dubai. Her miniature portrait of Sheikh Zayed Mosque was bought by an Emirati collector in Abu Dhabi.
The challenges of illustrating mosques prompted her to create the dirham series, images of UAE currency, and another based on junk food, featuring the likes of Chips Oman and Walkers crisps. She is now focusing on expanding these series for future exhibitions. She also created a special mini portrait of The National.
A stop-motion video of her drawing a miniature Heinz Ketchup bottle has been watched 15,698 times on Instagram and a Vimto bottle image, which she made during Ramadan, has thousands of “likes”.
Abbas comes from a family of artists, so becoming an illustrator was a natural choice. “My mother is a painter, my father used to paint and all my aunts are artists too,” she says. Abbas studied visual communication at the American University of Sharjah, where she mastered pencil and pen sketching, and recently started dabbling in watercolour.
“I used to struggle with watercolour because I never practised it at university,” she says. “So now I’m teaching myself watercolour.”
As for her miniature art, Abbas is methodical in her approach.
“Miniature art is all about good tools and lighting,” she says. “I don’t draw in the evening because I can’t use strong lights as it casts a lot of shadows.”
Her workstation faces a window and the table top has a range of brushes that go all the way down to the tiny size 0000. A coin-size image can take between eight to 12 hours to create.
“I begin with a pencil drawing and put down some details – not all, so that I can erase easily – and then I fill it in with a brush. There are different brush tips, from thick to very fine with very few bristles. So I use a combination for the shading.”
Abbas, who is inspired by the work of South African artist Lorraine Loots, says she thought she would struggle with the scale of the drawings at first.
“I thought it would be quite difficult to do, but I realised that it’s not difficult. You have to just have really sharp pencils and fine brushes. The more you work on it, the better you get.”
Updated: August 28, 2016 04:00 AM