Creativity, empathy, and mastery of performance are required to inhabit entirely new people, to co-create them with the script and director, and to make audiences believe in and feel the emotions of a character.
It is no surprise, then, that many actors are also painters. Both disciplines are, each in their own way, physical. But they also require you to bring different sets of skills to the table, and that broadening of one’s artistic repertoire is no doubt a major appeal of painting for many screen performers.
However, seeing how actors spend so much time behind the mask of theater and character roles, expressing themselves through painting or visual art can give us, and possibly also the actors themselves, some insight into their true persona.
While Hollywood provides for a ready-made audience, a few actors have seized the opportunity to share their inner lives with the world. We also might ask, is their work notable because it is good or because the painter is a celebrity? We’ll let you decide…
Lucy Liu, made famous by roles in Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels, is a very accomplished painter and mixed media artist. Her many many series incorporates a wide variety of themes and employs several techniques, including collage and silkscreen. She is even a sculptor working in multiple three-dimensional mediums.
Her painting is sometimes cerebral, though it always incorporates active strokes and dynamic composition, keeping its energy high. Her oeuvre is exploratory and insatiably curious, keeping us on our toes as we look for what she will do next.
There seems to be little doubt that if Liu never starred in major Hollywood productions, she would find herself at home in the world of fine art. Intricate series like Velocity and the meditative minimalism of Totem point to her wide range of interest and well-honed capabilities in the studio.
Known for his iconic, tough-guy roles in Rocky and Rambo, you might be surprised to learn that Sylvester Stallone is also a painter. In fact, his painting practice started around the same time his acting did.
His work is mainly made up of resplendent abstract artworks that focus on exuberant lines and bright colors. Though his paintings can also be more emotive and contemplative, as in Death of a Friend (1977). This shows an entirely new side to the actor, whose impressive physique belies a sensitivity underneath.
While he will always remain the hypertrophic hero in our minds, his paintings do give us a new appreciation. That he has continued painting for so long points to a deep need in him to express himself this way, allowing us to see the humanity inside the stoic exterior.
Jim Carrey’s comedic performances are over-the-top dives into hilarious mayhem. And his paintings are just as full throttle, maximalist and unapologetic. He only came to painting in 2011, during a depressive episode brought on by a break-up — as he put it, he “needed color.”
His often large paintings take on a Fauvist approach to color, with so much frenetic energy that there is little time for detail or carefully rendered line work. Although, his series of Jesus paintings do sometimes rise to the occasion.
Overall, Carrey will always be known more as an actor than a painter. And while his paintings would likely not make waves without his almost universal name recognition, they do have an infectious elan.
Billy Dee Williams
Before appearing in the legendary role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, before ever stepping foot on a film set, Billy Dee Williams attended the National Academy of Fine Art and Design. That’s right, he was a painter first.
His paintings often play with soft lines and heavy blacks — as in At the Club-Jungle Love (1993). This creates a buoyant, bubbly world that recalls the post-impressionists though never falls into all too familiar territory.
Even without major cinematic roles raising his profile, Williams could no doubt have succeeded in the world of fine art. While his style is at times anachronistic, the feeling and mastery serve the scenes well and bring his subjects to life.
Made internationally recognizable by his leading role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen is also a painter, photographer, and poet. His paintings are highly sophisticated abstract works, using deft control of color and ghostly composition. He also incorporates pieces of his writing on many of his canvases.
As a celebrity painter, Mortensen gets away from his reputation and has earned his long, global list of gallery appearances. Mixed media pieces like Mother memory (1997) show a capacity for creating atmosphere, while serene pieces like After Darkly Noon (2002) reveal an appreciation of the process.
Mortensen’s many artistic loves might seem to allow no single discipline to thrive. But he appears to be able to bring together all of these pursuits in balance, each informing the other. The work, in the end, speaks for itself.
For moviegoers, Sir Anthony Hopkins will always remain Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs fame. His paintings give us a broader view of the actor as a human being, but few will be surprised that his creations are rather imposing and bleak, all arriving through brooding palettes with plenty of hard blacks to go around.
His creations are reminiscent of Francis Bacon, if the notorious artist worked in the realm of naive art. It is alive, dark, surprising, and even contemplative — often with clear reverence for the work of expressionist painters.
Hopkins’ paintings follow no rigid genre constraints, but his consistent approach and striking point of view always come through. It isn’t refined, but at times, it’s powerful.
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