Jonathan Yeo, Portrait Artist

Go on this expedition to find out about Jonathan Yeo.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Twig World, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Jonathan Yeo by Twig World

Meet Jonathan Yeo, an artist who lives and works in London. 

Portrait sitting

Jonathan works mainly in oil paint and is known for painting portraits of well-known people such as peace activist Malala Yousafzai, comedian David Walliams and fellow artist Damien Hirst. 

This room is Jonathan’s main painting studio. It is where he paints his portrait subjects, such as his wife, who is posing for him here.

Jonathan Yeo

Jonathan has been an artist for nearly 25 years. He didn’t follow the traditional route of attending art school but instead taught himself how to paint by imitating other artists’ work in museums. He is a figurative artist. 

Portrait sitter

The sitter today is the artist’s wife, Shebah, who Jonathan has painted many times before. Artists often prefer to make portraits with the subject right in front of them, like how it is set up here.


In Jonathan’s studio there are many lamps of different strengths. Lighting is very important for painters. A light shone at a certain angle can create deep shadows and highlights, which can make a face look more three-dimensional.


An easel is an upright wooden support that adjusts to hold canvases of any size. Jonathan uses one easel to paint on. The second easel in the studio is being used to display paintings that are half finished, to check their progress. 

Artist’s Paint Palette

The palette is a surface used by artists to mix paint. Oil paint stays wet for a few days and then dries, so the mounds of paint are the result of a build up of wet on dry paint. 

Some artists use a wide spectrum of colors, but Jonathan prefers to use a small selection, which he mixes to make his own tones. He uses Indian yellow, crimson (red), ultramarine and Prussian blue, plus Titanium White, and burnt sienna (brown).


Artists often use oil paint because it’s easy to make changes as you go along, which is particularly useful for portrait painters. Oil paint been used for approximately 900 years and is made from colored pigment mixed with linseed oil.


Jonathan uses two types of brushes to create his paintings. Thick hog’s hair brushes are used to cover large areas of canvas with background color. Smaller, natural sable brushes are used to apply thin layers of paint to create depth and definition within the image.


Jonathan sometimes adds tiny quantities of clove oil to the oil paint in order to slow down the process of the paint drying. This allows him to make changes to the painting over a few days.

Preparation Area

This studio is where the making of a painting first starts. Jonathan uses this space to create the initial part of a painting, the background. You can see the abstract backdrop here, which he builds up with layers of color to create space and depth.

This helps him to establish the composition of the work when he begins to paint the figure over the top.

Stretched canvases

Canvas material is stretched over a wooden frame called a stretcher. Canvas is used with oil paint because the liquid linseed oil, used for diluting the paint, soaks into the canvas leaving just the pigment on the surface.

Canvas preparation

Some artists paint onto unprimed canvases, but others coats theirs with a layer of titanium white pigment first.  This layer of white paint adds texture to the surface of the canvas and is applied using a thick brush.

Archive of work

These shelves keep a stock of finished artworks, which are kept for archive purposes or have yet to be exhibited. There are several dozen paintings in storage at the studio. 

Artist’s Showroom

In here the finished, framed paintings are hung so anyone who needs to see the paintings before they leave the studio, such as people planning exhibitions, writing books, or collecting art, can. 

Paintings look very different on dark walls, as opposed to white, so the wall color in this room has been chosen specifically to relate to the gallery and museum spaces which show exhibitions of Jonathan’s work.


Frames can be made from a variety of different materials including wood, metal and plaster. Frames accentuate an artwork as well as protect them from damage. The corner samples on the table show each possible types of frame.


As part of any major exhibition a museum, or gallery, will want to publish a book. This acts partly as a record of the show, but also as a source of information on the artist and their work.


Ruben, Jonathan’s technician, photographs the paintings when they are finished. Lights highlight the texture of the painting, so you can see the surface detail in photo reproductions. These photographs are used for books, Jonathan’s website and social media.

Model for curating

Ahead of any exhibition an artist usually plans where their work will hang. Jonathan uses a scale model to test out different arrangements of the paintings. A curator will also help with the process of how the exhibition will look. 

Mock-up exhibition room 1

This image gives us an idea of how the paintings look in a gallery setting. You can guess from the details in the room that this is a traditional museum. When hanging the works the surrounding architecture has to be taken into account. 

The color of the walls is important and can be changed to make sure the pictures don’t clash with their surroundings.

Cara III (Café), 2016

All the paintings in this room are of the actress and model Cara Delevingne. Jonathan painted many portraits of her in a variety of poses. The series reflects how she has to constantly change how she looks for her job.

Cara IV (Selfie), 2015

Cara is also known for posting pictures of herself on social media. When we see images that we’re more used to seeing online, it invites us to compare contemporary portraiture, such as ‘selfies’, with traditional portraits found in museums.

Cara II (Yellow), 2015

In this painting the artist has left out some of the surrounding details, concentrating just on the face and hands, so we are forced to focus on the facial expression more closely.

Cara VI (Mirror), 2015

Jonathan uses props to add narrative to some of the portraits. Here Cara is holding a mirror, which splits the image of her face. This emphasizes the symmetry of her face, which is traditionally seen as a trait of beauty.

Mock up of exhibition room 2

The portraits in this room are of many different sitters, painted over a ten-year period. The portrait Jonathan painted of his wife Shebah, which we saw her sitting for in the studio, is hung in the salon hang amongst well-known people. 

Jonathan’s portrait exhibitions often have paintings of recognizable people in them, such as famous actors, political figures and other artists, as well as friends, family and less well-known people.

Salon hang

Displaying pictures side by side, above and below, is called a salon hang. Hanging portraits in this way encourages the viewer to compare the different faces and the various ways they were painted.

‘Damien Hirst’, 2013

This portrait is by an artist using traditional materials to paint another artist known for using non-traditional methods. Damien Hirst is shown wearing a chemical dry suit, which he uses when making his famous works of animals preserved in formaldehyde.

‘Girl Reading (Malala Yousafzai), 2013

Malala Yousafzai is depicted doing her homework, which is symbolic of her efforts as an education activist. It was painted just after she came to the UK after being shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girl’s rights to education.

‘Photo Booth Selfie’, 2014

This self-portrait is about the relationship between painting and photography and how the arrival of photography was seen at the time to threaten painting. The artist emerges from a photo-booth, a machine which has been largely replaced by camera phones.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps