Posted in Derren's Posts

Posted by Derren Brown December 27, 2011 at 6:47 pm

‘Michael Sheen’ – acrylic on canvas 2011

I have known Michael for a little while, and recently went to see his Hamlet, directed by Ian Rickson and currently running at the New Vic. It’s phenomenal. Afterwards we had dinner and Michael spoke at length about what he and Ian had done with the play and why. A couple of weeks later we met again, I cooked an appalling piece of chicken and we asked him about his Passion, a mammoth modern unfurling of the Christ story spread across the streets and beaches of Port Talbot (an industrial port and market town where he grew up, and which has also produced Rob Brydon, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton). Michael is deeply energised about his work, and if the formula for success is TALENT + ENERGY (as noted by my manager, who added wisely that the formula for stardom is SUCCESS + ATTITUDE) then Michael radiates them powerfully. He’s surely one of the most extraordinary actors of our generation, and possesses a phenomenal creative drive without any of the exhausting ego that normally accompanies mere dull ambition.

So, as I tend to paint people that I know and find extraordinary, I asked if he would mind awfully. A bit over a week later, interrupted by Christmas of course, and tweeted in its various stages, the large (it’s five foot high) portrait above was completed. For those who do not tweet, or for those who do but who might like to see the sequence together, and above all for those who give a jot because they paint and are interested in the process, I shall set it out as best as I can. Here then, is how it came together:

I prefer to work from photographs, so wherever possible I take my own. I can create a makeshift photographic studio in my painting room, so I took a bunch of Michael to work from. Ultimately I decide on one, tweak it in Lightroom to look its best, and print it out large (I have an A2 printer which does the job very well). He’s looking rather shaggy at the moment because of the role which he undertakes every night (a far cry from his shiny Tony Blair), which I knew would make the picture more interesting.

I then began the portrait by sketching directly onto the canvas:

Next, I block in some colour to set a unifying tone for the picture. Orange is a good one for flesh, but it can be anything, depending on the palette that the photograph suggests. The idea is then to let this blocked colour peep through as the layers of colour are built up. You want to make sure that every inch of the picture is interesting. With a good painting, you can generally make a little tube with your hand and look through it at tiny, isolated areas of canvas and they will all be of interest. There’ll always be stuff going on. The way to do this is by building up layers of colour. So we begin with orange:

And just enough of the sketch is left showing through to work with as a guide. Black paint does the job better than pencil, but I’ve kind of gotten used to using pencil. But use black paint to sketch if you’re using this method (and obviously white to erase).

Then next I get the shape of the features in, and the areas of light and dark. This is about sculpting the face and also getting down some basic colour – all things which will keep showing through as I add layers. For this reason I paint thinly, or rather with a fairly dry brush. I don’t want to lose what’s behind the colour I’m adding. Later on I’ll use glazes (a small dash of colour with a larger amount of a transparent glazing medium) to the same effect – but for now, thin layers that keep the orange showing:

And I’ve started to get some colour into the background too. The orange will provide some unity – you want to make sure that the colours you’re using for the subject are also in the background, so the two relate to each other. Otherwise you can sometimes have a figure that fights uncomfortably with what’s behind it. The left side of the face (our left as we look at it) has a purply tone, whereas the right side is warmer, so I’ve started to get those colours in too.

The process is now largely one of alternating between detail and sculpting (and using fairly strong colours and contrasts to do so) and then pulling everything back by going over it all with some fleshy tones (pulled out from what I’m already using) that soften and unify. I also get some colour on the shirt, as I want to include the same colours in all areas. Again, because I’m working with fairly thin paint, it’s easy to do this: it’s best to use as few colours as possible on your palette and create others from mixing them: that way you keep a sense of overall unity, which is one of the qualities that will make it feel ‘real’. The purple, for example, that is appearing in his forehead will come to be used on the face, the shirt and the background.

Next I added some detail around the eyes and threw in a bloody background. I often add the premature detail at this point to trick the eye into thinking it’s more complete than it is, and to give me more of a sense of where it is headed. The background was an idea I wanted to try, but I would eventually lose it. At the moment it works OK:

but I realised that I wanted to create some depth with the image, so the background would have to be less sharp and more muted. So with some glaze and a bit of white I brought the background back a bit and worked on the hair detail to put some distance between the two. I’m also continuing to add detail, and areas of colour, and then bring it all back with some unifying colour brushed over the top. That means that I can have, say, the purple in the right side of the nose, but still make it sit with the yellowy creaminess of that side by then brushing or glazing over with a flesh tone. The hair is quite fun to do.

It now has some definition.

Next, I start the shirt. By this point the purple has become very useful (and I could have used that rather than the orange to cover the canvas), so I’m sure to include it in the shirt. I’ve been mixing the purple with a burnt umber to get the darkest/black shade (you don’t want to use flat black, it is lifeless and just looks like a hole in the painting) and some grey mixed in. The result is the basis of a grey shirt, but it still occupies the same tonal world as everything else. I also work more on the hair and am continuing to work on detail. I also soften the nose to make sure that it feels like it’s sticking out of the canvas: it would be slightly out of focus (the photo is all rather sharp so I’m exaggerating the depth a little as I paint) so by softening it, it will lift itself from the face.

At this point, something is bothering me. It’s looking like an illustration rather than a painting. There’s something ‘drawn’ about it. This may be the hair, as whatever frames the face will provide a context for it, and as the hair looks rather cartoony, it’s making the whole thing feel less like a proper portrait. There’s something else too – the background isn’t helping. It’s too… distracting, making it all seem like a comic-book graphic rather than a portrait. So I decide to lose the background. I first get some colour blocked onto it…

And then white thinly over to move towards a light background (but one that will incorporate and reflect the colours of the face for the sake of unity). I’ve also lost the edges of the hair, which will mean I can re-do them with a softness that will help lose the cartoonish quality I don’t want. So now we have this:

And with the hair added, I’m happier. I’m painting ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ hair to get depth. The hair at the back is soft and purply, which blends it into the background a little, and then I pick out some individual, light-catching strands in the front.

The remaining process is principally now one of softening the background. I use a big brush and a lot of glaze. Here’s me working on a bit of hair detail at this point so you can get a sense of the scale.

Finally, I put a bit more work into the shirt (it was tempting to leave it in an unfinished state to draw more attention to the face) and soften the focus a little where necessary (by losing edges and working the background a little into the parts I want to soften). And there we are. It took about a week, but that’s a few hours here and there and stopping for Christmas… difficult to qualify exactly how many hours of painting time were involved, and it’s invaluable to leave a painting standing around and come back to it.

I hope you like it. To answer a few questions about it which came up on Twitter: no, I haven’t had any training; I use Liquitex Professional Acrylics (Heavy Body); and no, this isn’t for Michael, although I’ll do him a nice print if he wants one. Yes, I exhibit: The Rebecca Hossack Gallery in Charlotte St, London, looks after my work. Any time I have an exhibition, I publicise it here on the blog and on Twitter. As I generally get fairly little time to paint, it’s normally only one small exhibition a year. But I’ll always let you know. A recent post shows a couple of other portraits, and there are some older ones on the main site. There is also a book available of the caricatures I used to paint.

Michael’s coming over soon to view it – I’ll post a picture of him with it when he does.

There you are. Hope you’re all having lovely ones.

db x

December 27, 2011 at 6:50 pm
Eden Curtis says:

that is amazing!

December 27, 2011 at 6:53 pm

What I love about your art is the raw reality of them; they look remarkably lifelike without losing the touch of the artist

December 27, 2011 at 6:53 pm
Gary C says:

Simply incredible. Hugely talented and a joy to see things like this as well as the story behind it. Look forward to seeing Svengali in Glasgow in 2012. Best wishes.

December 27, 2011 at 6:54 pm
Tracey says:

Fantastic Derren, loved the blog explanation of all the stages too.

December 27, 2011 at 6:56 pm
Amadeus Xu says:

Hi Derren!

Love the paintings you’ve done – I’m studying A-Level art at school have been doing a series of portraits for it.
Anyway, I was just wondering if could be possible if you could upload some close ups? I would be interested to see the sort of brush strokes you use!

Thanks – have a lovely New Year!


December 27, 2011 at 6:58 pm

fascinating insight into process, physical and mental, thank you

December 27, 2011 at 7:01 pm
Julie says:

I love the posts about your paintings! Seeing the process is very inspiring!

December 27, 2011 at 7:01 pm
Mark says:

Well done Derren. Michael will be proud and no doubt looking for more than a print.. I’d want the painting. I like your painting clothes and especially how clean you’ve managed to keep them. I’d be covered in paint. Multiple talents make a happy man. Keep going X

December 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm
Cade says:

You are amazing. So talented.
I got your book of caricatures (you signed it, thank you so much) and I love it, as does my mum!
Keep up the amazing work, I look forward to seeing you on stage soon too!

December 27, 2011 at 7:06 pm
stéan says:

just wanted to say I really dig the painting, its very good… cheers Derren

December 27, 2011 at 7:06 pm
Lauren says:

There’s hope for us budding painters yet if you are self taught! Thanks for the tutorial, very enlightening πŸ™‚


December 27, 2011 at 7:08 pm
John Gill says:

Excellent portrait you have captured the man, thanks for letting us accompany you along the journey to the end!! John

December 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I had the pleasure to photograph ‘the Passion’ I have no words for how I felt driving home late Sunday night. Mr Keen is a legend, even better he is a Welsh Legend! Oh yeah great painting Derren

December 27, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Sheen even LOL@me

December 27, 2011 at 7:18 pm
Hollie Kavanagh says:

Wow Derren that is amazing πŸ˜€
you are so talented!

December 27, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Please try harder to be less talented. It’s becoming annoying and I’m developing a complex.

December 27, 2011 at 7:26 pm
Chris says:

Putting this post up about the process has been a great help thanks a lot . Are you planning a second book in the future.

December 27, 2011 at 7:29 pm
Hayley Gilks says:

Humblingly good, no formal training?? Come and do Svengali in France please.

December 27, 2011 at 7:33 pm
aa says:

Hi Derren.. You should have a look at Anthony Pallisers work, Large Heads. Fantasic portraiture, Paris based established Brittish artist. Anthonypalliser dot com… Enjoying your work, you’re developing wonderfully


December 27, 2011 at 7:39 pm
Abby Woolf says:

I think you might be my new hero

December 27, 2011 at 7:40 pm
maureen emmett says:

It’s almost has if you are looking at his soul.

December 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm
@LadyGauci says:

Absolutely brilliant! I wish I had such fantastic art skills! Both my dad and brother are brilliant artists and I’m so envious of such talents. I hope you continue with your passion for painting, I hate to see wasted talent! You and your family must be incredibly proud of you and everything you do. I hope you’ve had a lovely Christmas and wish you the utmost happiness for 2012. Take care xx

December 27, 2011 at 7:55 pm
Simona powell says:

Outstanding work Derren, some people are just too bloody talented πŸ™‚ it’s to make up for people like me… I bet you can even dance!

December 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm


Thank you for sharing the process of your artwork – invaluable! – and interesting that we both paint by ‘building up layers’. I love creating the illusion of depth. I’m also self-taught… and still learning with every piece.

It totally thrilled me that you paint as well as have mastery over illusion!

Wishing you all the very best for the New Year, and I hope to catch you in New York when you come over next year!


December 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm
George says:

If I keep reading Derren Browns painting blog posts I might end up trying my hand at painting to see if my school teachers were right about me taking English literature, Art and psychology rather than maths, physics and economics as I did. The process really resonates but the scale is intimidating! I’m looking forward to seeing some of your work on exhibition. Thank you for sharing.

December 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm
Liz says:

It’s so interesting how much it changes with each version and I can’t believe how quickly you completed it.

December 27, 2011 at 8:12 pm
Mel says:

Well, fairdo’s.. I hope MS enjoys his piece as much as you’ve enjoyed putting it together. I’ll look forward to that final photo to end the series. Thanks πŸ˜€ xx

December 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm
Twittwat says:

I bloody love you – you mind meddler

December 27, 2011 at 8:30 pm
chris says:

excellent, a genius at everything…..what more can i say

December 27, 2011 at 8:41 pm
Shaun Banks says:

Derren: First of all – Merry xmas.

What a fantastic and honest insight into your painting technique and the end result is excellent. I agree that in the early stages it did have a drawn look to it which you have dealt with very well.

I am a bit of a keen photographer, (glad to see you use Lightroom) and handling detail in photographs can be very tricky in that sometimes either through excellent optics or over perfection through contrast control & sharpening etc an image can end up looking too brilliant where the outline of the shapes, forms & details distract the viewers eye from the actual subject matter resulting in an almost engraved effect. Perhaps your attention to detail is creating similar issues with the drawn appearance emerging at times. I am no painting expert – Just a thought

December 27, 2011 at 8:42 pm
Vix says:

Thank you so much for detailing your technique, apart from an amazing result, it’s even more impressive knowing how it happened layer by layer. An excellent and very confident piece of work!
Have you ever got halfway through painting something and decided it’ll just never work and then just not know how to continue?

December 27, 2011 at 9:02 pm
Lisa says:

Its difficult to believe you’ve had no training! Your paintings are amazing.

December 27, 2011 at 9:13 pm
Elise says:

Wow! The detail is amazing! If I were older I think I’d be afraid of you painting me. Terrified of seeing every speck, line and wrinkle, aaargh! Lol. But yeah, it’s awesome…..just like you are. πŸ˜€ x

December 27, 2011 at 9:19 pm
Shaun Banks says:

Derren: Just had a quick look at your old images which are online which are also very good. The one of your father still remains one of my favourites as there is great warmth and depth in those eyes and subject to their depth they balance well with the detail of his facial features. I can also see in some of the non caricature paintings that various lines depicting the facial features can seem a little too sharp & as such are very slightly distracting from the eyes. Perhaps though Derren the actual photos used on the website have been over sharpened.

What is clear though is that you are progressing quite rapidly as I much prefer your more recent paintings.

Also my wife is from near port talbot so can you ask Martin if he is up for doing a nativity play for my son – obviously only joking

December 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm
Stephen says:

It’s always a pleasure to enjoy the creative process that you share; there’s a great depth of personality to the capture of Michael Sheen, I am sure that it will attract great interest from art appreciators and fans of your work alike. Thank you for sharing this with us!

December 27, 2011 at 10:04 pm
Ivy says:

Good lord. I work in acrylics and I am astounded by the detail and depth you achieve. Also, it seems I have completely underestimated Liquitex, lol. Great work!

December 27, 2011 at 10:20 pm
Godbluff says:

The way you make your portraits quite illustrative without looking like a load of tricks is really impressive. You also give the medium of acrylic a lot of life without resorting to contrived ‘spontaneous’ flourish. Just honest rendering. I love the way you have become more naturalistic without looking like a dreary academic too. Kind of hyper-real. A lot of successful artists do this with much less sensitivity and insight. Great stuff.

December 27, 2011 at 10:28 pm
Jo Joseph says:

Isn’t it fascinating how a painting reveals aspects of a face which seem to go undetected in a photograph. Michael’s eyes are so different …. a portrait painter must end up feeling like they really ‘know ‘their subject.

December 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm
Stevie says:

You are amazing. It’s funny, with most things, I’ll look at something and think – I could do that if I practised enough. But with art and painting, I know I couldn’t do it – it’s like the most incredible magic to me – just mind bending.

Thank you so much for giving us an insight into how this magic is created. If you could do this with future portraits that would be incredible.

Thanks again.

December 27, 2011 at 11:43 pm

It’s absolutely gorgeous, as always. Thank you for sharing it with us!

December 28, 2011 at 12:06 am
Clare says:


December 28, 2011 at 12:08 am
Mark says:

Seeing someone bringing art to life is very humbling. It’s a gift you obviously enjoy, and love to share. Wonderful.

December 28, 2011 at 3:14 am
Ritchie says:

Absolutely FANTASTIC! Mr Brown, a man of many talents……Utterly Amazing πŸ™‚

December 28, 2011 at 6:02 am
Phil Baines says:

Thanks for sharing this. Truly inspiring and interesting with it. What a talent. I particularly liked your portrait of Bertrand Russell too. Any chance that an exhibition of your portraits might go on tour of the Uk?

December 28, 2011 at 9:59 am

Astonishing! I’m a huge fan Darren and only discovered your paintings a couple of years ago. Your style is truly amazing – if I ever win the lottery I’ll commission you to paint me!
Thank you for the pleasure and all round enjoyment you give the world. Such hard work and talent….

December 28, 2011 at 11:50 am
judith grove says:

Thank you for walking us through your process. You have great ability to analzye your what your eye sees and translate it. What it interested me throughout this was how really it was a complete painting at so many times and yet you still refined your minds vision.
I think it’s a wonderful painting. I truly loved it also when it was a bit more raw. With more Orange showing and more texture. It’s as if you had something different to say then. Again,amazing and thank you for sharing the process.

December 28, 2011 at 11:51 am
@jefferrs says:

I have followed your tweets over the Christmas period with great interest and admiration.

It was a joy to watch like the joy i get when listening to my daughter play piano.


@Jefferrs (not artistic, not musical but appreciative).

December 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm
satin says:

thank you best pictures

December 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Wonderful painting, Derren. I find it incredibly interesting and fascinating at all that goes into the finished work.
I really do think that the fact you know the subject you’re painting makes all the difference as to how they’re represented on canvas.

Extraordinary work, well done.

LC x

December 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Paint Along With Derren πŸ™‚

December 28, 2011 at 5:36 pm
Lauren K says:

Thank you for sharing how you come to create such wonderfully detailed and professional looking portraits. I’m no painter but I found this blog article really accessible and fascinating to read. The end result is incredible. It’s hard to believe that it took you less than a week and that you’ve never been trained before!

Truly inspirational :0) X

December 28, 2011 at 6:22 pm

I like how the red that is fighting against the face gradually disappears. again an inspiration! Love your portrait of Dawkins

December 28, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Wonderful !! it is really amazing and much more fantastic than i have ever expected.
Keep up the Good work !!

December 29, 2011 at 2:25 am

Wonderful work Derren, you never cease to amaze me with your skill as an Artist. Michael will be very pleased I’m sure. Have a splendid New Year and Best wishes, Doc.

December 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm
Jo Wales says:

Amazing – what a masterpiece!

December 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm
Chris Thorburn says:

Darren. I have read, with total fascination, how you have built up the
picture of Michael. Absorbing; technical; creative. I have nothing other
than total admiration for both your thinking process and execution of
this portrait which provides an insight into the character of Michael as
Hamlet, yet also the personna of the man.
Regretably, words are insufficient to correctly and purposefully
describe that which is presented here!

December 30, 2011 at 6:31 pm
cindy christian says:

Brilliant! Derren your art work is coming together now, I love the detail of the eyes and hair.Well done matey! I would love to see your art work when you next exhibit,please let us know when that will be.And a Happy New year to you and everyone on this Blog.xx

December 30, 2011 at 8:39 pm
Anne says:

Another fantastic portrait! Michael Sheen looks very contemplative there. A good portrait reveals the personality of the subject, which this one certainly does.

Best wishes for the New Year, Derren!. Hope 2012 is good for you.

December 31, 2011 at 2:18 am
Thistooshallpass says:

Amazing portrait Derren and watching how each stage of the process comes together is incredible, just wish I had the ability to create something so beautiful. Hope you had a lovely Christmas and I wish you and your loved ones a very happy new year. x

December 31, 2011 at 2:54 am

So who’s the guy painting? Really doesn’t look like you! Did someone shave your head during the festivities?

December 31, 2011 at 2:53 pm
John says:

When you give up your day job, will living in the countryside with several cats and many canvases be the way ahead?

Absolutely amazing. It’s a shame you don’t live on Venus, as 1 Venus day is 243 Earth days, thus, you could have more time to paint and we’d have more of a portfolio to look at.

December 31, 2011 at 7:31 pm
Anna says:

Love this! I do wonder, though, what the problem is with leaving it looking like an illustration. I quite like how it looked at that stage (with the hair and the red background). Do you only like creating proper Portraits?

January 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm
arinola says:

i like it πŸ™‚

January 2, 2012 at 7:00 pm
Mark Behm says:

Nice to see some of your art here -especially progressions.

January 2, 2012 at 11:40 pm
Paul says:

Hi Derren,

Great Technique. You would probably make a great photographer if you picked up a camera and learnt photoshop. Your understanding of colour, depth and sense of reality give you real style. But hey – you’re already a great performer. Have a good one as well.


January 3, 2012 at 12:35 am
Juan says:

You are amazing… This is amazing…..

January 4, 2012 at 12:14 am
Mike Lane says:

Holy crap. I didn’t know you could paint too, and man can you paint! Amazing.

January 4, 2012 at 3:26 pm
alan says:

The odd thing is, they appear more real than the real. Is that because were they real, one would not feel entitled to inspect them so intimately?

January 9, 2012 at 11:22 am
Julie says:

Just….amazing. Thank you so much for sharing x

January 13, 2012 at 12:03 am
Mark M says:

Is there nowt you can’t do…?


January 14, 2012 at 12:11 am
Louise says:

A very beautiful painting and such incredible detail but I have a challenge for you: when I studied art our teacher asked us not to work from photographs but to paint directly on to canvas from a live model. This way we had to learn to read the light and the way it fell ourself – I wasn’t a fan of this at first but came to see how much it improved our eye. Can’t wait to see more of your work πŸ™‚

January 14, 2012 at 8:31 am
eileen keelan says:

First time seeing you work and it is brilliant! I love this portrait and how you show us all the stages of painting it. The sitter will be so pleased with the result!

January 18, 2012 at 4:34 pm
Beth says:

Mr. Brown,

I- I- How? How can anyone be this good? Well, obviously you can, but us ordinary people with no noted or found talent, excluding the act of living, are jealous. Just saying.

May be able to go to your show in the Waterfront, Belfast, during the dates 25-28 March. The task at the moment is persuading my mother to buy the tickets for me, which may be hard as she isn’t a fan of anything except Elvis, nor does she understand any of my obsessions.


Beth. x

January 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm
alison mckay says:

I didn’t know you could paint. This is just beautiful.
When I see you on TV now I really don’t think I’ll be so quick to turn over πŸ™‚
Any exhibitions on the go ?

January 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm
simplerachel11 says:

this is beautiful Mr. Brown. Amazed by you multi talent. πŸ˜€

January 30, 2012 at 9:26 am
Tami says:

Wow, I think having a portrait done by Derren may just have to be a new goal of mine.

Let’s see how we go.

February 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm
Tony Sale says:

Absolutely fantastic! I just dont get how anyone can paint so well, a fantastic tallent indeed

February 25, 2012 at 9:39 pm
Anna Davis says:

I went to see Svengali in High Wycombe the other week where Derren did an amazing painting of Johnny Depp. I would like to know if this will go on sale as it was amazing??!!

March 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm
Oscar says:

My word Derren! I never knew you could paint and fabulously might I add! The portrait you have painted of Martin Sheen is magnificent, I love it. You really are a genius. Thank you so much for showing the different stages too. I can’t wait to go and see your new show.

March 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm
Oscar says:

Oops! I did mean Micheal Sheen! Showing my age by automatically typing in Martin. Sorry about that! πŸ™‚