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'I believe that anyone with an interest can be taught how to paint'

Published 12/05/2016

Artist Dermot Cavanagh
Artist Dermot Cavanagh
Artist Dermot Cavanagh teaching technique to a class
Dermott Cavanagh
Artist Dermott

Dermot Cavanagh started out as an electrician, until his hobby began to take over his life. He tells Una Brankin of the joy he gets from teaching others.

Dermot Cavanagh has made artists out of many celebrities over the years, on his highly rated BBC series Awash With Colour.

And for the Co Armagh watercolourist, one of his most memorable students on screen was the late Gerry Anderson.

"Gerry was a great person and very artistic, but he'd had a bad experience at school," Dermot recalls. "He said a teacher told him, he was so bad, he was special. That teacher knocked the confidence out of him. In my book, there's no such thing as a bad pupil, but there are bad teachers.

"Gerry was initially very shy and afraid to make a mistake, but he had the ability to take instruction well and he was a great speaker," he continues. "I took him through it step-by-step and showed him how to mix colours, and his confidence grew as the day wore on. I taught him how to paint the sky, in Inishowen, and how to paint a reflection with one brush stroke. He was amazed that he could do it.

"He jumped back from the easel in surprise. In the end it was difficult to get the paintbrush off him."

Gerry kept in contact with Dermot, a very affable, down-to-earth chap, as have other screen students including former gymnast Suzanne Dando and the art teacher and ex-Miss Northern Ireland Joanne Salley, a considerable talent in her own right.

"Charlie Dimmock was very interested, too - she was delighted when she was able to get the reflections of the trees in a lake," says Dermot, a father-of-three from Moy. "Barry McGuigan found it difficult at the start. He said that he was to painting what an ashtray was to a motorbike!

"He was very tight - and you have to be loose and free to do watercolours. He surprised himself in the end though. Packie Bonner was the same."

Currently in talks for a new TV series, Dermot is leading short courses in watercolour painting, both at home and abroad, throughout the summer and autumn, including Belfast next month. It is his life's passion and he likes nothing more than to see his students blossom under his relaxed style of tuition.

Yet, if he hadn't been a sickly child, Dermot might never have taken up painting. Confined to the house for long periods of time, he passed the time by painting what he could see from the windows of his home in the Moy countryside, with a set of watercolours given to him by his mother.

"My parents weren't artistic - painting to them was giving the hay-shed a lick of paint, although I had a granny who wrote poetry," Dermot recalls.

"I became hooked on landscape painting. Initially, I'd get frustrated trying to find the right techniques to capture the scene properly, but the problems only spurred me on. I developed skills through trial and error, and with practice my confidence began to grow."

The young Dermot spent his pocket money on materials and all his spare time in front of an easel. But in the summer of 1976, aged 16, he left school to became an apprentice electrician. He continued to work as a spark for the next 20 years.

"My parents didn't see painting as a proper career and were very dubious about it," he remembers. "I had to get a job, but I continued painting in my spare time, and when my training course took me to live in Belfast for two years, I started visiting art galleries and first saw original paintings up close."

"For the first time, I could feel the texture, smell the paint and marvel at the exquisite techniques used. That inspired me to continue painting and I soon became an accomplished amateur."

Dermot married his wife Maria in June 1985 and they spent their honeymoon touring the scenic south west of Ireland. Maria later admitted that during that time she wondered "just what" she'd married: "All this man seemed interested in was the scenery, the mountains and what would lie in store around the next bend in the road," she says.

Over time, Dermot became known less as the local electrician and more as the local artist in Moy. In 1989, he was approached by the vice-principal of the local technical college and asked if he'd be interested in teaching evening art classes.

"At first I was reluctant to get involved because I had no teaching experience, but Maria persuaded me to give it a go, and it proved to be a major turning point in my life and career," he says. "I soon discovered I had a simple, straightforward talent for communicating my techniques to others."

Within two years, he was running painting courses from home, providing tuition while Maria provided lunch. The courses became so popular the couple had to find more space, so they started up a studio and started running courses at a local National Trust property, The Argory.

Given our climate, watercolour course holidays abroad were a natural progression. From a self-taught painter, Dermot had become a self-trained tutor leading groups of enthusiasts in the most scenic terrains of Britain, Ireland and Europe.

"With no art tutors to show me what to do and limited access to how-to books, I started to study and decipher the techniques used by the Old Masters and other famous artists from prints on tea trays, biscuit tins and place mats we had at home," he admits. "John Constable was my favourite. I tried to ensure my learn-to-paint sessions were entertaining, informative and inspirational, and tried to lace them with local interest and anecdotal stories. And the holidays and weekend courses often included guided tours and special evening excursions."

When the BBC got wind of the popularity of Dermot's courses, they offered him his own series. The producer liked his entertaining approach to lessons so much he commissioned a run of 74 episodes over a five-year period for BBC2.

Awash With Colour quickly captured the imagination of the public. During the series, Dermot taught a host of national and international celebrities to paint the Irish landscape, including Valerie Singleton, John Craven and Gloria Hunniford.

His success enabled him to build a studio at home. It's a large roof conversion, an airy open-plan space with views over a landscape of rolling hills and a polo pitch to the back. Prospective buyers are welcome to come in and browse the many framed paintings displayed on the walls.

One end of the studio has been turned into an office and a collectors' corner, with Dermot's favourite painting equipment and cameras from past years on display.

"It's been 44 years since I took up painting and I have dabbled in almost every medium, tried out almost every piece of painting kit ever invented and taken thousands of photos for painting references, with different cameras, over many years," he explains.

"I am generally a pretty tidy person, but if it wasn't for the fact that I hold regular workshops in my studio, it would probably be in a constant state of chaos. I do love to get outdoors and paint in the local area as much as possible, and for that reason there are lots of half-finished paintings awaiting completion - this being Ireland, it's not entirely unknown for one to get caught in a shower!"

He works on commissions during the year and is particularly busy in the run-up to Christmas. He admits that painting-to-order is not always enjoyable.

"But it is challenging and years of experience has taught me to work quickly, so when put under pressure with a commission, I can always deliver," he concludes.

"Today I work mainly in watercolour and use a very limited pallet of colours, only a few brushes and a couple of types of watercolour paper, although it was not always like that."

And Dermot adds: "After more than 20 years as an art tutor, I still get a buzz from it; I find teaching a great way of learning. At my workshops, I apply the belief that anyone with an interest can be taught to paint.

"People always say 'practice makes perfect' but at my classes and demos, I simply show people what they need to practise to make their progress easier."

In constant demand for demonstrations at art clubs and societies, Dermot Cavanagh has produced many teaching art films and art books, and has won many awards and favourable reviews for his work and courses.

"If you have the interest and desire, anyone can learn to paint," he says. "People can be shy to express themselves at first - some tell me they haven't slept the night before coming on the course, but they sleep a lot better after it.

"People want to try, but they don't want to fail. I instil confidence by the method of tuition I use, from the traditional school of watercolours.

"There are a number of basic principles to be covered with landscape painting - procedures to follow. Most people gain confidence in their ability in a couple of days and many come back to the courses on a regular basis."

For full details of Dermot's next watercolour courses - including Moy, Donegal, Dublin, Clare, Croatia, Italy and France, go to Painting days are 10am-4.30pm and all materials are provided.

Hotel, guesthouse or B&B accommodation can be organised on request. A two-day course costs £165; four days: £299. To book a course, tel: 028 8778 4166 or email:

Belfast Telegraph

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