Expressive Painting: Unlock Your Creative Voice | Laolu Senbanjo | Skillshare

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Expressive Painting: Unlock Your Creative Voice

teacher avatar Laolu Senbanjo, Artist, Activist & Attorney

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Getting Started


    • 3.

      Finding Inspiration


    • 4.

      Tapping Into Your Purpose


    • 5.

      Raising Your Voice


    • 6.

      Driving Change


    • 7.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

Creativity on your own terms is possible. Unlock inspiration and unleash your artistic voice with artist and activist Laolu Senbanjo!

As a human rights lawyer, musician, and visual artist working with icons like Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Nike, and Apple, Laolu Senbanjo (aka @laolunyc) is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of creativity and culture. In an intimate, inspiring class like no other, you’ll get a front row seat as Laolu shares the story behind his unique painting style, and provides a blueprint for stepping into your own power as an artist. If you've ever wondered how a self-taught artist becomes a powerhouse creator, grab your paintbrush, pencil, or stylus and step into Laolu’s Brooklyn studio.

Documentary-style lessons explore:

  • Breaking free from expectations to create the art you want to see in the world
  • Drawing from personal history and heritage to develop a unique voice and style
  • Working with different canvases, from shoes and clothing to the human body
  • The power of artistic expression to connect, advocate, and agitate for change

Plus, go inside The Sacred Art of the Ori, Laolu’s unique ritual for storytelling on the human body, and the subject of his hit TED talk. 

Whether you're looking to break out of an artistic rut, experiment with a new medium, or just sit back and soak in inspiration, this class will expand the bounds of your creativity. By the end, you'll understand one artist's path to creating unapologetically, and have the courage and confidence to do the same—whatever that looks like for you!


Though Laolu is primarily a painter, this class is designed for creatives of any medium and experience level. By sharing Laolu’s story, we hope to inspire you to tell your own. Sit back and watch, take notes, or use the ideas in the class to spark a new piece of work. 

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Laolu Senbanjo

Artist, Activist & Attorney


Laolu is a Nigerian bred, Brooklyn-based artist who's made the world his canvas, painting on clothes, walls and the human body. His work features distinct patterns and story-rich designs that draw heavily on his Yoruba heritage and ancient Nigerian symbols. He's become a big figure in pop culture and the art world, working with Angelique Kidjo, Kenneth Cole, Alicia Keys, Usher and most famously Beyoncé's Lemonade album, where his body art is featured throughout.

Connect with Laolu on Instagram and his website

See full profile

Related Skills

Art & Illustration Painting
Level: All Levels

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1. Introduction: Art helps us start a conversation. Arts can make you comfortable. I want to expose the genius of the people that I've come before and tell the world the stories so they can learn from it. Hi, my name is Laolu Senbanjo and I'm a visual artist, human rights attorney, musician, and also an activist. I'm about to take you into the journey of the process called the Sacred Art of the Ori. I take you through the ideas, the conceptualization, how I use patterns to tell stories, how I use patterns to show some of the ideas that I hold really dear to me. The major reason why I wanted to do this, is that it's important that we understand the why and also the wisdom behind a lot of the art that we see; the intelligence behind it, the promise behind it, the philosophy behind it. I just feel like a lot of times some of this is glazed over because it appears beautiful, but then to understand the meaning gives you a whole new level of appreciation for the art. I hope that by telling my story, I inspire you to tell yours. Everybody's art is valuable, everybody's story is valid. I hope by the time you're done with this class, you're inspired to make your voice heard through art. Let's go, step into my world. 2. Getting Started: Culture, I come from Yoruba culture, does a lot of storytelling, using patterns and using ideas and using philosophy from the culture. That is where all this comes together. This is my language, it's like a tool of how a Yoruba person would see the world, how they would interpret situations, how they are able to draw, for example, how they're able to talk about Black Lives Matter in America. One of my first influences is my grandmother. She used to paint herself to, and she had tattoos on her body. I was always fascinated by that. I wondered why. She told me a lot of stories about it, and I just fell in love with that style, the messaging behind it, and I think that was the bedrock for me. Taking a lot of the symbols from Yoruba art and Osogbo style as art and putting it on skin was a whole new level for me because I think what I did pretty much was move a lot of the ideas that I already had and take it from regular canvas to the skin. When I set out to practice this style, it's often very sacred in nature. That's why it's called the sacred art of the Ori. It's a connection with the person I'm painting. When we say Ori, Ori would mean your essence, your information, your vibe, your code in different things that make up your personality, your person. This is why I call it the sacred art of the Ori. Ori also, when you look at it, and there's Ori that is the part of you that you show the world, and there's Ori that is you when nobody else is looking at you, and then there's a third part which is when you're in alignment with your cause, why you are here, your why. That is when you are said to be living at your optimal level. That is what Yorubas actually believe, that we all should connect and find our Ori. Pretty much what I do is take all this information that I have and then turn it into art. I think one thing that stood out was using these bodies that we have as a voice, is something that is so loud. I started getting calls from people like Beyonce. How crazy is that? You just imagine, people almost immediately connect with it on a very surreal level. I think it's because of the melanin and using symbols on a skin in such a way where you literally isolate melanin with the white. Pretty much you're trapping that darkness in the lines and the shapes that you're creating on it, making it so vivid and stand out that you can't just but look at it. It's captivating. I think that's why we're doing this class is to be able to zero in on how these ideas come together and what some of these patterns mean. It's cathodic, it's like when they take on the art and they move around like that, they're the art and the art is them, they are one with it. It's 3D experience. You're looking at the art moving in real-time. I don't have roadmaps. I don't have templates. Every artwork that I create, I create a new template. It's nothing like anything I've ever done in terms of my career as an artist. 3. Finding Inspiration: Today I'm going to be working with Adesola. She's a model and she's also Nigerian as well as she's your robot. It makes it very interesting because her story is very similar to my story. As a lot of parallels, a lot of things I can relate with firsthand when she moved to New York three years ago. Her story is one of triumph and also persecution. She's been through a lot. She's very strong-willed that she made a plan and she stuck to it. Adesola, Ade means a crown. Adeyemi also means a crown like I'm worthy of the crown and worthy to be called the queen. Pretty much that's why you see the elements of the crown there. As a kid, I always wanted to draw something. Sometimes I would draw my teacher, I'll get into trouble for drawing the teacher. Or I will see different patterns in floors. We have like marble floors, this kind of floor also like all these cracks literally I could make up my own little town and city in just looking at the stones and shapes, that was annoying in my house, my dad and my mom. Yeah, this is cool, but it's not a career path. My dad is a lawyer, a traditional Nigerian man. His brother is a lawyer as well. The pressure was on, you had to please the parents. You had to be the good kid. You don't want to let down your family name. I listened to the word of wisdom and at that point had to decide. I just put a pause and I had put a pause on my music. I went to law school. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. Trust me. I'm happy I started law because it exposed me to a lot of things. Otherwise, probably I wouldn't know. What it also did was exposed me to my privileges as a male person, as a young male Nigerian in my country. Understanding that when I start working on the Human Rights because I did Human Rights. I worked at the Human Rights Commission working there, let me see that not everybody had it as good as I did. As bad as I felt. Somebody would kill to be my shoes. That just gives you a lot of perspective that girls are forced into marriages that they don't want to be in. They want to go to school, but they can't because some of these hominins are too poor. My whole orientation changed and I started drawing again, but they'll be the new approach with a new found sense of purpose, with a new sense of like, yeah, I want to talk about some of these issues. I want to raise awareness with some of these, consider them atrocities because otherwise nobody talking about these things, in this society we should talk about them. I worked at the National Human Rights for a few years and then I quit. I thought my voice was aloud enough. I was a Senior Legal Officer in charge of women and children. I just felt like I could do more with my art than I was doing as an attorney. Also I felt like I was really good at drawing and I could just take all this message and I have learned. Also understanding, the more I learn, the more I'm learning about a lot of westernization and cultural colonization that I've been brought up on. I've been doing a lot of reading and understanding that even the language I speak it's from the colonizers. Now I'm learning more Yoruba. I'm understanding more about gender roles, what it means and I'm just blown away by how much work we really need to do. The best way to be able to do was through art. I just chose to be an artist and remain poor. My parents we're like when I quit my job it was a moment. A lot of my relatives was like say problem, are you okay? Like I needed help. Living in Brooklyn. It was the first time in my life that I introduced myself as an artist without having to say I'm a lawyer for the first time, but I didn't feel bad about it. Here I'm Loolu and I paint my face. I can do whatever I want. Nobody thinks I'm weird. I just exist. 4. Tapping Into Your Purpose: My art is not regular art. I go deep into culture. I go deep into mythology. I want to bring out things that people don't talk about. A lot of that was inspired also by my grandmother, which actually was very instrumental. As a child, she was one of the few people that was close to me, that was always reminding me of my Oriki and my Yoruba roots. I'm from Djibouti in Nigeria. She was unapologetic about her culture. An Oriki is a chant or a song of praise of the Yoruba. It just signifies some of the high points of your family; all the things that you've achieved and it just puts them to you that, listen, this is your bloodline. These are the people you have come from. This is the blood that runs through your veins. This is who you are. I think back to all the stories she used to tell me as a child, the Oriki that she kept on repeating over and over, I never learned it from my grandmother, but she said it so much that it was already in my mind. One day I just opened my mouth and it came out, like I didn't have to. I was like, "This is crazy." I can't remember. I called my brother I did that. He also remembers because she was always saying it and I was always trying to like, "Oh man, stop." It was too cultural. No, we don't want that. We just want this hip hop, that was it. But fast forward to 15 years later, 10 years later and now she's no more with us now. [inaudible] That's the Oriki, yes? Part of my Oriki is more like, my mom was like, my Oriki is supposed to come more from my father side but this is my mother side. This is my auntie telling me because my mom [inaudible] and she explains the rest. Desola explained her Oriki to me, which was recorded to her by her aunt, which is very spiritual. She comes from a line of warriors and people who never give up. Just high points of their life story and how she's not to be messed with. If you mess with anybody or anybody close to her, she will come for you. Her Oriki is badass. She told me certain things that I'm going to put up front and also some things at the back. Some of her positive like hopes, thing that she wants, and she wants to fulfill before [inaudible] is displaying. She talked about impact, love, future generations or make her story. Then the fears, loss, failure or trauma, all fulfillment, all that's going to be back. You are about culture, you never look back. This part water, circle of life, life force. When you look at the spiral, it talks about life. She tells me a lot about her association with water, and that is also one of the Yoruba pantheons which are called Yemoja, some call it Yemaja. It depends on where you are in the world. You're about culture. I mean, no thanks to slavery, the culture has moved everywhere: Argentina, Brazil, America, everywhere. It's not just West Africa. In West Africa we say Yemoja. Yemoja means yeye omo eja, mother whose children as many of the fishes of the ocean. She's a nurturer, she's a mother, she's a caregiver. When you gets to know the person you have a sketch pad, I have my pad I'm writing down things, looking up certain things. I also have my chart that I put things into. When they tell me certain experiences, I try to think about similar occurrences or similar stories that are found in my culture. [inaudible] It means if you don't have anybody to rely on. I got that patched. We look like we are lazy. [inaudible] I want to use a lot of art to elevate women. What I do is I put a lot of symbols and patterns that show strength, show her ability, show power. They are [inaudible] Putting more ticker symbol, some of all these different gods and goddess that we have, and putting those symbols in their bodies, thereby elevating them to that status and level of a goddess or god. They feel like invincible, untouchable, powerful. 5. Raising Your Voice: The style that I've been able to create evolved from my different experiences over time. I've always felt the need to tell, it's like a sense of justice type of thing. A lot of these stories are untold, and I feel why not. Why is our educational curriculum focused on teaching us about Eurocentric ideals and ideas rather than our own stories? Why did they spend so much time teaching us about the Greek mythology and not teaching us Yoruba mythology? Why so much emphasis on dressing like Europeans? When it's hot as hell where I come from, but we still have to dress up in suits. Why? Because it's colonialism. Now I feel the sense of urgency to tell people that who we are at the core is worth celebrating. Our culture is valid, and it can be center stage in the world, and people can come to learn from it. If you learn about Picasso, or you learn about whoever, I want you to also learn about me as an artist. I want you to see my viewpoints, learn my story, what I ate, school I went, not just generally that I come from a continent that you have no idea. I just feel there is so much gap that we need to bridge. Now understanding this, I think art helps us start a conversation. Art can shift gaze, so like, oh, wow, I didn't know that. How do you not know that Africa is not homogeneous? How do you not know that where I come from we have about 250 million people in the country? Is largest black population in the entire planet. A lot of people don't know. A lot of people don't know there are over 500 ethnicities in Nigeria, and each one has this amazing philosophy, ideas, arts that we're scratching the surface level. I just want to expose some of these ideas to the world and say that look, there's so much here you're not even looking at, there's so much here you and we all can tap from. All stereotypes to die-hard. The West has always been portrayed, the arts have portrayed our bodies, the cultures of people from where I'm from as insignificant, like it doesn't matter. This is not novel. We've been doing this for thousands of years. But I've been able to recreate it in such a way where I have better tools, and I can see a lot more on this beautiful organ called the skin. Yoruba's believe that [inaudible] is more about your destiny is in your hands. Pretty much is whatever you make of it. It's so unfortunate that we still have to put messages on our skin like, we're human, we're here, don't kill us. It's crazy. When you live in America, you see all these things happen every day, and now I'm like, holy cow, I'm a black person in this country. Coming here I had to learn how to be black. Because we don't use that term often in Nigeria, nobody really like, black guy, white guy, no. It's just you're Yoruba, you're Igbo, you're Hausa. But when you're in America, you don't have that luxury. Nobody even gets to ask you that or you don't have the luxuries, oh I'm Nigerian, I'm Yoruba. No. I walk out this door, and I'm a black man in America. Every day that happens, I feel like there's more and more of a duty as an artist to speak more of the completeness of who we are as a culture, as a people. All these different things I mentioned it's very important because it affirms our completeness, it affirms who we are. Is not just about me. There are a lot of people like me everywhere, so it's like we connect something deeper. I don't see myself as just this artist, am like a bridge. I educate, I teach, I talk, I connect with people, I paint them, I put the stories on people's bodies, they feel powerful. They take it away. Nobody can take that feeling from them. It's theirs. I'm just a conduit like I said. I'm just doing what I need to do. 6. Driving Change: [inaudible] goes like this. My full name is [inaudible]. Every time I say it, I get very emotional because of what it carries. It means, and I'll break it down. My name means water together with the water, [inaudible] my full name is the blessing and the wealth of [inaudible] would say God or supreme energy. Life force [inaudible] means son of the clan, of [inaudible] like seven cities rolled into one. When I'm coming it's like a thunderstorm when I arrive. [inaudible] somebody that has something that the West does not have. Throughout my life now as an adult, anytime I wake up, I internalize it. I say to myself, if I'm going through anything that I don't really like or there's trouble or anything I say, you feel a certain energy when you say, It's like you feel goose bumps, you feel like you can do anything. It's just a feeling that nobody can take away from you. It's a connection to the roots of where a lot of us come from. Being an artist living in Brooklyn, I think one of the reasons why I do what I do is to be a connector, to be a bridge between what was lost and what can be found. The faces without the pupil are ancestors because I spoke to her, she told me about the grandparents on her mom side they are all late. Anytime she touches her skin or she also represents those people and those people commune with her. Yeah, we're done. Stephanie. It just gets to a point where I'm separated from me right now. I feel like this just exist as an entity on its own and it's living, breathing and moving 3D art. I'm happy she lent her skin to be a voice for our people, for the culture and for art. Round of applause for [inaudible] again. I don't believe we should say small. Why? It doesn't serve anybody. We're playing catch up already, so why play small? It's always been my philosophy and the mentality is that whatever opportunity you have, it's not just about me, it's about those coming behind. You know me doing that and went to Nigeria and I was speaking to students and when I tell them they can't do anything, I'm not just saying it, I've done it so you can't do it. They're like fired up and they see their culture now like a well of inspiration. Before, I didn't have someone like me to look up to. Now I'm just like being the person I would have loved to look up to you. We have this wealth of knowledge and ideas and art that we can tap from. Again, I will say this, I'm scratching the surface. There's so much philosophy, so much from where I'm coming from that I just want people to just open up a little bit more and see what is here. I don't know the verse. We've been learning about Western culture all my life, I'm speaking English to you. Nobody learns about us. I think it's time people start learning. Thank you. Oh, wow. [inaudible] I'm so happy. 7. Final Thoughts: I like that. I say, dope. Then a beautiful thing about it is that she internalizes, she says [inaudible] to herself. She prays about it, she meditates, and then she washes it away. Everything comes off eventually because the paint is temporary, is water-based. As cathodic, you now what I'm saying, it's almost like you embodied and then you let it go. She's in it, she's encapsulated. She says a prayer and then at the end she lets it go. I'm actually going through a ritual actually, it's for me, it's a big ritual and it's therapy on its own. The whole experience is for her because she's going to embody this whole art, the whole essence, whole being, the story, everything she said, the positive energy, everything she's embodied and take it to the next realm. I hope you are inspired. I hope you are able to learn from my journey. Also, I hope you learn a thing or two of how you can take inspiration from that, which is yours like a culture or something you value, and turn it into a language in which you can use to affect your environment or the world at large. If you have this drive and this push internal that nobody pressurizes you, you are your own motivation and that sense of purpose and drive, personal ambition. Then I think you should go for it and challenge all of us, change our minds. If you want us to see things different then you'd be about it, you go, you do it. You just make people see. I think, with passion and there's nothing we cannot accomplish. It's such a powerful tool. The mind and the will. That see your push, not the outcome, not the present circumstances you find yourself because those things will change over time. But inside here is more about the vibe, the motivation, the beauty to create and be an artist for example. It's inside, it's very internal and nobody can create that. Nobody can force that, is something you either have or you don't. I'd like you to share your personal projects if you've been inspired, share something that has inspired you to create this artwork. I like to see it. If you have any questions, feel free to ask because we're all learning, and is a journey, and just let's keep expanding our horizon. I want to thank you all for joining in and I can't wait to see what you create.