Paint Oil Portraits | Michael De Brito

Michael De Brito paints oil portraits of his family and friends, giving bravura techniques of the masters his own contemporary spin.

By Rosemary Seidner

Family Table, Oil Painting by Michael De Brito, painting portraits, how to paint family portraits

“My objective in Family Table (oil, 23x31), ”says De Brito, “was to show all that’s going on when people eat at a kitchen table—the food cluttered across the table and the figures talking to each other. I wanted the viewer to feel as if this could be his or her own family eating dinner.”

In a world focused on youth and beauty, New Jersey figurative painter Michael De Brito takes his creative cue from all that is homely, comfortable and comforting—namely his Portuguese grandmother’s ever-open kitchen and welcoming table that come with a constantly reconfiguring, but full and fascinating, cast of characters.

Greatly influenced by 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, De Brito combines bravura and traditionalism to arrive at deftly crafted modern paintings depicting everyday moments of human interaction. His open-ended narratives engage the viewer with their complexity of composition and the subtly proffered challenge to further or complete the story.

Late Night Coffee, painting by Michael De Brito, portrait painting, how to paint a portrait

Even a simple composition can contain complexities. ”Although Late Night Coffee (oil, 17x23) depicts one main figure, the surrounding objects help the viewer’s eye move throughout the piece,” says De Brito.

Influenced by Master Painters

But for a suggestion by one of his sophomore-year teachers at Parsons the New School for Design, De Brito’s career might have lead him down a significantly different path. During high school the artist had focused on creating comics—not the fantastical, superhero type but rather the realistic, figurative, “detective in a trench coat” genre.

“At Parsons I was leaning toward illustration and was seriously looking into working for Marvel Comics,” says Michael, “but a teacher, Alan Reingold, said to me: ‘Before you commit, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—look at the work of John Singer Sargent.’”

“I spent hours looking at Sargent’s work,” De Brito says, “and saw what was possible, what could be accomplished. And all my plans changed. I felt that painters like Sargent and Degas were so connected to their souls and to their world. Velázquez, though, is my main influence.”

Although De Brito is now comfortable with his process and technique, he doesn’t ever want to feel that he’s mastered his craft. “I would get bored,” he says. His main objective is to use the techniques of the past and bring them into the present. And rather than just copying them, he combines all that have been useful to him and creates his own artistic identity. “Basically, I want to take it all in and blurt it all out!” he says. “All my study in museums has helped with technique and been an inspiration, but my subject matter really distinguishes my work.”

The Sausage Makers, painting by Michael De Brito, portrait painting, how to paint a portrait

Every year, De Brito’s grandmother and a friend make Portuguese sausage together. The artist used a large canvas for Sausage Makers (oil, 63x47) to capture the intensity of being present in the scene.

Learning How to Draw

De Brito’s process begins with sketches—lots of them, sometimes as many as 50 to 100. He’s never without his black, 8×11-inch sketchbook.

“I draw everywhere,” explains Michael, who feels that drawing is paramount to furthering an understanding of the human figure and improving his work. “We must always remember,” he says, “no matter what age we are as artists, we are always students of art.”

He recommends drawing on trains—and rides the New Jersey to New York PATH train at least once a week. “No one is posing, and you don’t know how long they’ll be there,” he says. “A lot of my earlier works were train scenes—as an artist you develop an emotional connection to your fellow travelers.”

Summer Supper, painting by Michael De Brito, painting, how to paint a portrait

The cropped figure in the foreground of Summer Supper (oil, 15x21) attracts the eye and puts the viewer right in the scene.

Painting What He Knows

With his current work focusing on the “ongoing soap opera” of the daily lunch-gathering at his grandmother’s—or Avo’s—table (avo is Portuguese for grandmother), the artist’s strong bond with his family is much in evidence in both his works and words.

Concerning his ties to family and traditions, he explains: “I feel that painting what I know helps me connect the viewer to my work—and there’s something very special about being around the table with my family. My grandmother is in her 80s, and this daily ritual keeps her going. I wish I’d had the opportunity to paint more of my late grandfather.” Describing the cuisine, he remarks, “Lunch is at 2 o’clock and the food served is Portuguese 80 percent of the time—much of it grown in my grandmother’s garden.”

Explaining his sense of belonging, he says: “I sketch—people don’t pay any attention to me anymore. The regulars are me, my father, sometimes my mother and the ladies upstairs. You’ll notice in my paintings that there’s usually an unoccupied place at the table—not many people know that’s me, my place.”

Serving Supper by Michael De Brito, how to paint a portrait, oil painting

Although the young boy in Serving Supper (oil, 25x29) depicts a relative and not De Brito himself, the artist considers the piece nostalgic—a reminder of his grandmother preparing food for him during his childhood.

Portrait Painting Process

In his Newark, New Jersey studio, De Brito’s paintings grow out of multiple sketches and drawings—and sometimes photographs—arranged, rearranged, compiled and composed.

“I work out all issues in the drawings so there’s no confusion when I get to the canvas,” he explains. For creating the final composition and the painting, he works without much natural light, preferring incandescent lighting so that every day is a good studio day, regardless of the weather.

“I prime a canvas four times (with Liquitex gesso),” he says. “It has to have the right balance between rough and smooth.” He primes on a flat surface because he’s learned that the medium dries more evenly that way. And he should know, because he writes down what he does each time so he can remember what works best.

The next step is mapping the sketch on the canvas using soft charcoal. “I start with the heads or whatever is the most difficult element of the composition—the anatomy or the perspective. With the sketching completed, he staples the canvas to plywood, leaving about 5 or 6 inches of wood beyond the canvas.

Then he’s ready to paint alla prima, with oil being his medium of choice. “It enables me to get a sculptural feeling with the paint,” he explains. “My favorite part of the painting process is loading the brush with paint and moving it across the canvas.”

Prima, painting by Michael De Brito, how to paint a portrait

"Prima" means cousin in Portuguese. The particular cousins in Prima (oil, 33x43) are regulars in De Brito’s grandmother’s kitchen—and are wonderful characters.

Organized Abstraction

“Up close, my works are a mishmash of strokes—almost abstract, but organized,” De Brito says. “When you back up, they come together.”

He implies what’s important by the positioning of people and objects—and he likes to include “a lot of stuff” in his works. “To me,” says De Brito, “the best works are those that offer you new insights each time you look at them, no matter how many times or how long you’ve looked at them. I try to paint works that I’d like to look at in a museum.”

De Brito’s paintings range in size considerably, from complex 4×4-inch compositions to 67×45 inches—his biggest work to date. Size is not in itself important to him: “I really don’t think I need to do a gigantic painting to explain what I’m trying to say.”

Afternoon Conversation, painting by Michael De Brito, how to paint a portrait

“I find figures in midgesture, such as those in Afternoon Conversation (oil, 21x29), intriguing,” says De Brito. “Usually, to portray a real kitchen, things must be happening and the figures must be moving.”

Things to Come

For the foreseeable future, De Brito will continue to be a regular guest at his grandmother’s table—and to paint the people who gather around it. The future, however, he feels may take him to the family homeland of beautiful southern Portugal—not to paint the landscape, but to absorb and paint the soul of its people.


Rosemary Barrett Seidner is a director of Miller Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a freelance writer.


With a bachelor of fine arts degree from Parsons the New School for Design and further study at the New York Academy of Art and the Salmagundi Art Club (both in New York City), Michael De Brito, at the age of 29, has the art world taking notice. He has received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and been awarded gold medals by the Allied Artists of America, Audubon Artists and the Society of Illustrators. His work has been included in exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. He’s represented by the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York (www.eegallery.com). Visit his website at www.michaeldebrito.com.


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