This self-taught Baguio artist’s portraits are crazy realistic


Before success found him, Emel Espiritu would sell pandesal and work as a delivery boy so he can buy art materials

ANCX Staff | Apr 02 2022

He’s never had an exhibit of his paintings but Emel Espiritu’s works are famous on social media for their astounding likeness to photographs. They’ve been featured in news sites and TV shows and were recently the subject of Julius Babao’s latest vlog.

Emel’s portrait of his own grandfather.

One might say the news anchor is Espiritu’s biggest fan: he has four of the artist’s hyperrealist portraits of old people. He’s posted his interview with the artist on his YouTube channel twice. He also recently found out he was the first official buyer of the Baguio artist’s works. It was Fernando Sena, the art teacher and mentor to Elmer Borlongan, who introduced Emel’s works to Babao.

Considering his impressive skills, it’s surprising to know Espiritu never had formal art training. He’s always loved drawing even when he was a kid, though — his father taught him how to draw, he tells Babao in his vlog. Later in life, however, his father would not approve of Emel pursuing a career in art, so he took up Fisheries instead as a college course.

Emel's portrait of “The Igorot Couple,” an oil on canvas work from 2017.
Emel’s portrait of “The Igorot Couple,” an oil on canvas work from 2017.

But the young man never stopped drawing and eventually, he would teach himself how to paint, thanks to YouTube tutorials. To buy materials, he would sell pandesal in their neighborhood while on a bike, and worked as a delivery boy in a factory. He only started painting, he told Babao, in 2013 but he worked day and night to improve his skills.

Beside “Old Woman's Shelter,” an oil on canvas work.
Beside “Old Woman’s Shelter,” an oil on canvas work.

It would usually take a month to finish a portrait, says Emel.
It would usually take a month to finish a portrait, says Emel.

Eventually, he got really good at his specialty — hyperrealist portraits. He’s done 30 so far, he says. He can finish a canvas in a month. He likes to paint old people because of the challenges their faces pose: the wrinkles, the folds, the moles, the age spots, the unkempt facial hair etc. He would capture them perfectly. Plakadong-plakado, as old timers might say, down to the years and, at times, down to the sadness in their eyes. When he painted a portrait of his lolo, the old man was not pleased. “Nainis siya, ”Emel told Julius, laughing. The artist’s fault: he showed everything.

All photos courtesy of Emel Espiritu.

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