By Ashley Naftule, October 2019 issue. Photos courtesy of Brandon McGill
With his wavy dark hair and beaming smile, Valley artist Brandon McGill isn’t exactly the spitting image of Salvador Dali. He lacks the mad Spaniard’s intense diamond-cracking stare and gravity-defying mustache, but the two men do share one thing in common: A warped perspective on the world.
“I feel like I have a very Salvador Dali-esque brain,” McGill says over the phone with a chuckle. “I like to exaggerate things,” McGill said. “Where I’ll be like, ‘Oh, let’s make these legs longer.’” Describing his personal aesthetic as equal parts Tim Burton and Salvador Dali, McGill’s visual art is bold, Surrealistic, and bursting with fantastical imagery. It’s also not entirely family-friendly, as one of McGill’s favorite surfaces to paint on is the human body itself.
If you’ve been to your fair share of underground shows, fashion events, or goth-friendly happenings over the years, you’ve probably seen McGill at work. The body painter is an old hand when it comes to painting live. And if you haven’t seen McGill at work, you’ve probably seen his canvases: Naked men and women transformed into satyrs, fauns, faeries, demons, succubi, aliens, snow queens, and all manners of things that looked like they emerged out of a Todd Haynes’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
McGill has received considerable acclaim for his work as a painter and makeup artist. Phoenix Magazine named him their best artist of 2018; his work has been featured in Out Magazine and The Advocate; his music video for "Dually Noted" won Music Video Of The Year by the Arizona Republic; and he's also received a Makeup Artist Of The Year award from RAW Artists.
“My creative journey has taken a lot of twists and turns,” McGill says, reflecting on his evolution as an artist. “I’ve done everything from music to deejaying to canvas art.” It was his love of working with 2-D art that led him to using skin as his muse and canvas. “One of my canvas models who I was painting on campus at the time asked me to paint him. We posted it online as a kind of joke, and then 900 body paintings later…”
It’s easy to find the idea of body painting risqué and titillating, but the truth is that it’s a very tricky process to master — and one that comes with a unique set of challenges. “For one thing, you have to deal with the fatigue of the model,” McGill explains. “Them being able to stand and be comfortable.” It’s one area where the canvas artists of the worlds have an advantage: You never have to worry about your Michael’s canvas cramping up in the midst of a watercolor session.
But the real challenge comes from dealing with a “material” that is as unique and individualistic as McGill’s artwork. “Everyone’s skin is different,” he says. “Some people are oilier; some paints stick differently to people depending on what’s going on with them.” Considering the wide gamut of shapes and sizes humans come in, keeping an open mind and adapting on the fly is a vital skill for any body painter.
“I take a chaotic approach that I kind of have to expect that anything that could go wrong will go wrong, so I have to be flexible and adapt because everyone’s bodies are different,” McGill says.
While many of the models in McGill’s portfolio have fairly sculpted, ready-for-the-boudoir physiques, the Valley painter stresses that he doesn’t have a “type” for his work. “I don’t have a specific criteria on what your body must look like,” McGill says. “Everyone is welcome in my studio.”
Among his proudest accomplishments is working with the disabled.
“I painted someone in Oregon during a naked bike ride where they wanted to participate but they were in a wheelchair, so they got one of those front-powered bikes and I painted them and they felt beautiful all painted out.”
McGill has created a variety of different thematic series for his body paintings, like the astonishing Neon City that features models in paints that make them glow like Tron characters. Or Heroes & Villains and Gods and Monsters, where McGill transforms his subjects into resplendent deities and cackling Gotham supervillains. The Tim Burton influence is particularly pronounced in his Alive In Wonderland series, where he recreates Lewis Carroll’s iconic characters with a dark, erotic energy that’s far more compelling and less off-putting than the giant-head/Johnny Deppification of Wonderland that Burton pulled off in his movies. He also used his fascination for Lewis Carroll’s work as inspiration for the music video he wrote and directed for Fairy Bones’ “Notes From Wonderland,” complementing the Valley rockers sound with his unique, fractured fairy tale visuals.
His current project is one of his most ambitious efforts yet. For his Tarot series, McGill plans to create his own tarot deck by transforming each of his subjects into one of the 78 major or minor arcana cards. He said he plans to print actual decks based on his art once the series is complete. McGill is currently taking applications for folks who are interested in being transformed into Tarot cards.
“I’m taking a page out of Avatar where I’m breaking it up into four elemental chapters: The swords sword is the wind element, so we’re doing swords right now. Previously I did cups, which is the water element. And then wands are fire and pentacles are earth.”
While McGill says he’s consulting the iconic Rider-Waite tarot deck for inspiration, he’s putting his own unique spin on the iconography of the Tarot. “Rider-Waite uses a lot of the colors that I don’t use,” McGill says. “They use a certain yellow that I just can’t stand…. And there’s some Christian imagery in those cards that I didn’t include because my deck is very LGBTQ focused.”
An avowed atheist (“since I was a small child”), McGill nevertheless is fascinated by mythology and spiritual energy. “Through my art I get to study different backgrounds and religions,” he muses. Like his spiritual ancestor, McGill’s Dali brain bends conventional occult imagery into strange and wild new shapes.
In addition to the tarot project, McGill is hard at work on a variety of side hustles. One of the most unusual of them being escape room design: McGill helped create a horror-themed setting for the Eludesions Escape Room. “The idea is that people are trapped in the paintings and you have to escape the room by solving this curse,” McGill says of the escape room project, marveling at the weird puzzles his Eludesions collaborators have come up. “There’s a scent puzzle in there, which I wasn’t expecting. There’s only one key in the entire room; everything else is all organic and wired puzzles. Like, if you put this candle on this mantle, it will do something- everything is electronically activating.”
Eager to talk shop, McGill expresses his love for color theory over the phone. While he hates the Rider-Waite yellows, he confesses a deep love for blue in all its permutations. “They started calling a blue that I use Brandon blue because I use it in just about everything,” he says. “I really metallic blues and teals … I love contrasts.”
It’s one thing to win awards and gain renown for your work; how many artists can claim to have a color named after him? That’s why Brandon McGill is a Valley artist worth watching. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves; he paints his on everyone else’s.