Beneath the Surface

By KJ Philp and Tiffany Hopkins, Aug. 28, 2014.

If a photo is, in fact, worth a thousand words, then the collection of essays lining the walls of Brandon McGill’s Phoenix studio tell tales of imagination, heartache, vulnerability, triumph and fantasy, while celebrating light, color, contrast and individuality.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because McGill’s canvases are alive (even before his art is), they bring human elements to each project. From apprehensions about posing nude to personal stories and requests, each masterpiece is as unique as the person underneath the paint.

Butterfly Effect.

Surrounded by his visual resume, McGill recounts specifics of each experience — their goals going into the project, how the painting and photography process went and even the social media response to each — and it’s clear that he’s as connected to each and every model as he is to the creations they wear.


“When you paint someone a bond forms,” McGill explains in his documentary Beneath the Surface, “they typically forget that they are naked, let down their guard and give you their trust. And in return, I shield them with my art.”

Watching McGill turn brushstrokes into textures and human anatomy into landscapes, it is difficult to believe that the very first time he decorated a body with his work was less than two years ago.



According to McGill, his obsession with art started when he first learned how to hold a crayon. And, admittedly, he loves constantly growing with new creative endeavors — from drawing and canvas painting to costume design and photography.

“For me, body painting actually started as a fluke,” he said. “It was like an accidental new-found talent.”

In 2013, after completing a portrait on canvas, the model asked McGill to put paint on his face for fun. After posting a photo of his first face painting on Facebook, McGill received overwhelmingly positive and encouraging responses from friends telling him to pursue this new art form. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“In the beginning I was doing it just for fun, I had no expectations,” he said, “At that point, my friends believed in it more than I did.”

Since that a single request, McGill has decorated an estimated 150 bodies with acrylic colors, handcrafted costume materials and, in some cases, thoughtfully selected props.

“When I first began, I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said in Beneath the Surface. “I went through a number of paint brands and products, and through trial and error figured out what worked best.”

Feisty Green Prince Feisty Green Prince

McGill credits Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss for most of his inspiration — influences that are without a doubt reflected in his work.

“I try to make my paintings like outfits [of] bright colors. I just love the contrast of cold and warm,” he said. “To be honest, a lot of it is simply inspired by my own wacky aesthetics. I didn’t want to be that guy who just painted super heroes.”

Seven Deadly Sins and Twisted Fairy Tales are two of McGill’s collections that comprise multiple installments. In most cases, a key accessory, specific body language or a short teaser caption complete the sentiment each adaptation communicates.

Some of his work is literal (check out Space Cowboy, Kingdom Hearts and Nightingale), while other pieces are much more abstract (Fractured Identity, Sloth and Neon Dragon).

But, McGill says, the goal is always the same: He wants to help people, because so many people have helped him, and he sees each painting as a shared journey between himself and the models.

“I think my art is freeing,” he said, “I’ve had models tell me that being nude under body paint made them feel liberated.”

After three to seven hours of hard work from both parties, McGill said a special connection forms, and this is something he strives for.

“It’s a time for us to let our walls down, and just completely give ourselves to art,” he said.

Brandon McGill in his first self-painting, Cautiously Optimistic. - Photo by Brandon McGillBrandon McGill in his first self-painting, Cautiously Optimistic.

Branding Brandon

Because McGill doesn’t classify his creations as art “people would expect,” he said he’s surprised by the amount of support he’s received in Phoenix.“A lot of artists could only dream to have this much support from their community and be this active in doing what they are passionate about,” he said.

But the support wasn’t instant, and McGill said that initially the public didn’t understand why he created art in a medium that’s not permanent and so often misunderstood.

So, just a year into his journey as a body painter, McGill created a short, independent documentary to answer these questions and to share more about his craft. Beneath the Surface, starring Seth C. Powers, debuted at Phoenix Comicon in June 2014.

The five-minute documentary takes viewers through the entire process: meeting the model and discussing the project, completing the painting and affixing prosthetics and then photographing the model as they embody the character they’ve been transformed into. 

“Beyond the art itself, one of the biggest challenges is the networking,” he said in Beneath the Surface. “I spend a lot of time on different social media channels trying to nurture a following.”

And it seems as though he’s doing a find job getting his name out there. Since the debut of his documentary, not only has the Art by Brandon McGill Facebook fan page garnered a following of about 4,000, but McGill also seen an interest turn into a demand for his work within the LGBT community.

When McGill isn’t at his full-time job or painting in his studio, he’s been making appearances and conducting live paintings in conjunction with this year’s pride season. In July he participated in Gaymer X, an LGBT video game convention, in San Francisco, and recently announced that he’ll be returning to the Bay Area for Folsom Street Fair, the world’s biggest leather event.

“Ultimately, I’m trying to inspire others who are creative to push past the boundaries of traditional art,” he said. “The world is your canvas.”

Saying a photo is worth a thousand words has never seemed like such an understatement.

Art by Brandon McGill 848-200-2226;

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