You can feel the tension rising as the seconds tick away. 20 minutes is all the time given to contestants at LIMITS Digital Art Battle, and this is the final round of the World Grand Prix, a two-day event held at Shibuya Hikarie Hall on May 12th and 13th. It’s the end of the road for artists from all over the world who have come to test their skills against each other in this digital art tournament.
On stage, near the end of the second day, the two finalists race through their compositions. They are seated before oversized drawing tablets, deftly switching brush sizes, color palettes, and Photoshop layers.
Watch the World Grand Prix Final here
On the left, in the “blue corner,” is the reigning Japanese champion from the 2017 LIMITS competition, Aogachou. She looks as if she’s stepped out of her own art. True to her name–“blue goose” in Japanese–she made an elaborate entrance wearing a bird mask with a boa of black feathers trailing down either arm as she twirled onto stage, elegantly attired in a sleek and modern aqua-blue kimono that flowed around her.
The contender in the “red corner” is Ahmed Aldoori, who arrived at the World Grand Prix from the Los Angeles qualifying round. Ahmed appeared on stage and waved affably to the crowd wearing a casual air that was directly opposed to Aogachou’s more nuanced flourishes. Baseball cap turned backwards, he strode down stage, shook his opponent’s hand, and grabbed his seat. After that, though, the differences between the two was null; they both sat poised before their displays, styluses in hand, focused on the next 20 minutes.
As the clock moves under half a minute, and the final seconds slip away, both artists have set aside their styluses and are awaiting the final buzzer.
Sitting in a tiny coffee shop in the basement of a building near Shibuya station, the atmosphere couldn’t be more far removed from the LED displays and dizzyingly bright lights of the LIMITS stage. Dimly lit, wooden, and cozy, it feels removed even from Tokyo itself. The seconds tick away in a much different manner than they do on stage in front of hundreds of people.
That same casual poise that Ahmed emanated on stage is on display in the coffee shop as well. He relaxes and leans back in his chair, one elbow propped on the chair next to him, baseball cap turned backwards, a genuine smile on his face.
“I still need to process everything that just happened. It’s still a surreal dream.”
He’s charged with excitement whenever speaking about art, travel, and just experiencing life. When he gets deep into an answer, he leans forward, looks at the table, and chooses his words carefully. The Ohio-native spent most of his adult life in LA. He has the casual air of a Californian and the friendly openness of a Midwesterner all rolled into one.
When asked if he’s comfortable working under time constraints, like the one in the LIMITS competition, he says, “I’ve been known to work pretty quickly. When it came to painting this, if I was worrying about anything, it was about the concepts. Whatever it was, I could paint it. And I usually had a little bit of extra time for flourishes, so time pressure–there wasn’t much anxiety that I felt.”
Speed, of course, is one of the key elements to succeeding in the LIMITS Digital Art Battle, but beyond that the four judges are critiquing based on technique, idea, and visual storytelling. The attending audience also votes using a QR code inside of the guide book they each receive at the event. All of these scores are combined for the final result.
The artists construct their pieces based around a “battle theme.” Both artists choose from a scrolling list of words, so there is an element of randomness to the selection. The two words combined are the basis of the piece. Aogachou and Ahmed’s battle theme was “Nature” and “Moment.”
The themes are provided ahead of time for the participants, so they have time to plan out their ideas and prepare for the different combinations that could arise.
“I just gridded it out and wrote little prompts ahead of time for each one. I define each word and as I’m defining it, the idea will come to mind. Some of them I really wanted to do, but it just didn’t happen. I got the boring ones, I think,” Ahmed laughs.
Looking at Ahmed’s finished products, “boring” is definitely not the first word that would come to mind. Infused with a traditionally painterly technique and careful placement of lighting, his digital works are expressive and alive. Despite the time crunch, these elements are front and center in his LIMITS work as well.
“I sort of discover the painting as it happens,” Ahmed says. “Rather than having a plan ahead of time, it’s more of a discovery process. Especially with the 20-minute time limit, you can’t plan everything out.”
As the ending buzzer sounds, Aogachou and Ahmed rise from their chairs and make their way to center stage. A time lapse of the two working on their pieces plays above the stage behind them as they each describe their thought processes in turn.
What the contestants see on their displays is projected for the audience on large screens, every stroke, color swap, and even technical problem. Unfortunately for Aogachou, Photoshop became unresponsive and had to be restarted by technicians, causing her to lose at least 5 minutes of progress, yet she still maintained her grace and poise under an unbelievably unlucky break.
The competition’s rules dictate that in the event of a technical issue, the timer continues. Aogachou took her misfortune in stride and soldiered on with her work with an impressive display of focus and speed.
Aogachou’s piece features a sea creature rising from the stormy waters, eyes alight, as two travellers in a boat beckon to the beast. Bits of animation such as fog on the water and falling rain give the piece further depth.
Ahmed chose to focus on a woman sitting on the back of what looks like a tree root, until you notice the snake head behind her and realize the tree is actually the body of the snake. Pink flowers sprout here and there, and a golden light illuminates the scene from somewhere off canvas, lending an ethereal glow to the green base that the composition was built on.
Meanwhile, the judges are tallying their scores. The audience vote is quietly calculated.
Connecting through art
LIMITS was Ahmed’s first large-scale competition. In the past, he had participated in online challenges and things of that sort, but nothing that put him on stage in a competitive space.
Ahmed started a YouTube channel way back in 2007 with a 3-minute clip titled simply “Digital Painting.” Set in double-speed, the video features no sound, just titles Ahmed wrote explaining his process as a digital painting comes to life. It would be 8 years before his next upload. In the intervening time, he began working for Thinkwell Group, then ArenaNet as a concept artist working on such titles as Guild Wars 2. He also spent time teaching at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
“Rather than having a plan ahead of time, it’s more of a discovery process. Especially with the 20-minute time limit, you can’t plan everything out.”
After returning to YouTube in 2015 and discovering the power of Patreon, he eventually began to sustain himself using those platforms.
Paul Tsuchiya, a coordinator for LIMITS Digital Art Battle, was the man who invited Ahmed to the competition. Paul immediately noticed the talent on display in Ahmed’s art, but it was Ahmed’s instructional and personality-driven YouTube videos that convinced him that Ahmed would be perfect for the competition.
“I wanted great ‘ambassadors’ to represent the USA at the world championships in Japan, as our vision is to build a truly global business,” Paul said in an email response.
See the future, feel the future
At the LIMITS finals, the point counts have been tallied. Those quick with math could have figured out the results from the numbers that appeared alongside the judges names and audience vote on the large screen above the stage. The final scores appear. Only one point separates the winner from the runner-up, but Ahmed edges out Aogachou 79 points to 78.
A look of surprise and joy writes itself across Ahmed’s features. The two competitor’s are extremely gracious to one another, immediately hugging after the results are revealed.
Paul was incredibly impressed with Ahmed’s attitude during the finals. “Despite his competitive nature, the way he gained the respect of his fellow competitors and the judges without being arrogant or cocky really makes Ahmed a great champion and a real example of how art can unite people of different cultures, languages, and religions.”
Back in the coffee shop, Ahmed contemplates that moment of victory and offers a small grin, “I still need to process everything that just happened. It’s still a surreal dream.”
When asked what his next steps are, he gazes again at the table top, taking his time to put his thoughts in order. “I want to keep teaching,” he says. “You have an opportunity to engage with actual students who have no idea what they’re doing. And by the end of it, it’s really rewarding to see they went from knowing nothing to, hey, they can do the thing. It’s heartwarming to see that.”
Ahmed continues his teaching through his Patreon account where he offers art lessons and talks one-on-one with his students primarily through the voice-over-Internet app, Discord. Whether it be teaching, art, or travel, he maintains that just taking the chance to try something is the key to success.
“As you engage in drawing or writing or whatever it might be. You have a choice of saying, Ok, I could mentally project into the future and be terrified of all the possibilities of failure. Or I could say, no to that, and just let whatever happens happen. Because taking that route, you’re under less pressure, less anxiety, and you perform better.”