Paint Every Figure With the Power of a Portrait

First Bite, 17 x 16, 2009, oil painting. All works by Michael de Brito.
First Bite, 17 x 16, 2009, oil painting.
All works by Michael de Brito.
Courtesy Eleanor Ettinger Gallery.

Painting the people and places one sees every day can be either a mind-numbing trial or an impetus for creativity that just happens to be homeward bound. For New Jersey-based artist Michael de Brito—who has spent the last several years painting family members and friends in familiar surroundings, such as his grandmother’s kitchen—it is the latter.

In De Brito’s work, domesticity is not the stuff of clichéd gender roles or snapshot tedium. Instead, his scenes show the family matriarch caught in moments of arrested action or sitters sinking into introspection in the midst of a chattering group. Meals are readied or consumed, and conversations meander over a bottle of wine. The occasions are simple, but De Brito’s portrayals linger in the viewer’s mind as if they are our own memories, producing a rapport between us and the figures.

The artist’s ability to invest his paintings with such immediacy comes from his deep-seated connection to the figures he depicts. “The paintings are almost like a diary,” he says. “Each day is different—people age, and the place ages, too. I’m capturing them in the moment, so I won’t forget how they are. In some ways this allows me to know them better.” This personal connection also dovetails with the artist’s relish for the technical aspects of painting—drawing, composition, and the materiality of oil paint.

Sunday Guests, 17 x 21, 2009, oil painting.
Sunday Guests, 17 x 21, 2009, oil painting.
The Gathering, 29 x 39, 2006, oil painting.
The Gathering, 29 x 39, 2006, oil painting.

“I have my sketchbook with me all the time,” De Brito explains. “A good painting comes from a good drawing, so I make a small drawing to get a grasp of the composition before I do the actual painting.” From there, the artist creates a full-size charcoal sketch of the painting directly on the canvas. Once he’s satisfied with it, he sprays it with fixative. “Then I can focus on applying the paint as opposed to dealing with a figure’s hand that doesn’t look quite right,” he says.

Delving into the feel and look of the paint is an integral part of the painting process for De Brito. “The application of the paint and the way it feels is a major part of my process-and definitely the most appealing part,” he says. “I just love the lusciousness of the paint on the canvas.” The artist works wet-in-wet and doesn’t use glazes: “With wet-in-wet, you can create soft edges almost by accident, and subtle mistakes can still be used to create what you want. For me, glazing takes too long. I want to see it done quickly, and working wet-in-wet helps get me there.”

Conversation After Lunch, 12 x 16, 2005, oil painting.
Conversation After Lunch,
12 x 16, 2005, oil painting.

The immediacy and “in the moment” atmosphere of De Brito’s works can also be attributed to the fact that each figure is depicted with a level of detail that is usually reserved for a painted portrait. A grimace, searching glance, or slouching stance individualizes each figure and gives the viewer an inkling of who these people are. The depictions are not idealized, but they are honest, and there’s a dignity to them that makes the viewer feel like another guest instead of an intruder or voyeur.

De Brito doesn’t describe himself as a portraitist, but the figures in his paintings possess the poise and individuality that mark successfully painted portraits. To enhance your ability to capture a likeness and better understand the nuances of painting figures realistically, you may want to consider honing your photography skills. With the Photographer’s Create-and-Show Kit, you’ll come to improve your photo-taking skills and understand the secrets to good quality photos, all of which will help you when it comes time to use these as visual references in your painting. Enjoy!

P.S. For painting tools that are sure to help you with sizing, perspective, and more, discover the projectors and light boxes from Artograph, featured in the The Artist’s Magazine‘s Road Test in the March 2016 issue–available now!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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