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Colin Davidson: I've had brushes with my heroes

Colin Davidson in his Bangor studio
Colin Davidson in his Bangor studio

By Audrey Watson

Belfast-born artist Colin Davidson reveals what it like to paint portraits of famous faces and why he travelled to Jerusalem.

There was never any chance Colin Davidson would be anything other than an artist. Aged only seven, the son of Rowland Davidson, one of Ireland's best-known figurative painters, shocked himself with a drawing he had done and from that moment on, knew he would follow in his father's footsteps.

“I didn't know where that drawing came from, or the ability to produce it, and I suppose in a funny way I've been trying to experience that feeling again ever since,” says Colin (45).

Born in south Belfast in 1968, and educated at Methodist College and the University of Ulster College of Art — where he graduated in 1991 with a first class honours degree in graphic design — Bangor-based Davidson, first came to the wider public's attention with a stunning collection of Belfast cityscapes, a theme he then pursued in Dublin, London and Chicago.

Since 2010, he has been drawing and painting large-scale head portraits of well-known people from the Irish and UK arts community, including a series of paintings that currently hang in the foyer of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.

His latest collection however, has taken him much further afield.

“I like to work in themes,” he explains, “but had got to a point where I felt I hadn't reached the end of the head paintings, but didn't want to do another exhibition of people who were well-known.

“I talked to Oliver Sears, who owns a gallery in Dublin and who I have exhibited with for almost three years.

“Oliver is the son of a Holocaust survivor and through chatting to him, the idea of Jerusalem came about — the idea of a city that has an ancient issue with conflict and division fascinated me. And also, the idea of looking at people without the labels they are

born with — Christian, Muslim, Jew, Palestinian, Israeli — just as fellow humans.”

The exhibition is running at the Oliver Sears Gallery on Dublin's Molesworth Street, until June 26, and features new paintings of 12 individuals from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions, who live or work in Jerusalem.

In January, Colin spent five days in the city, sketching and photographing the subjects chosen for him by Oliver, who joined him on the trip.

“I quite liked the fact that the choice of subject was taken out of my hands,” he says. “Most of the people in the exhibition aren't known at all. Some of them are known only in the context of the city — such as the Mayor, Nir Barkat, Robert Aumann (an Israeli-American mathematician, who received the Nobel prize in 2005 for his work on conflict and co-operation), Amiram Goldblum, who founded the Peace Now movement in the 1980s and Uri Orlev, a Belsen survivor.

“The 12 are a cross-section of people who live together with conflict, prejudice and separation.”

The large scale of the portraits situated together in the same gallery

space heightens the reality that, in spite of their differences, the subjects all inhabit the same space.

Colin admits that what also attracted him to the theme was the similarity between Jerusalem and Belfast.

“That fed into it in a big way,” he says. “I'm currently working on paintings for an exhibition in 2015 that comment and reflect on my experiences growing up in Northern Ireland and the situation post-conflict.

“This certainly added to the interest of travelling to Jerusalem and seeing an ancient city where division has been evident from the very start.

“I grew up knowing nothing else but the Troubles and it became normality.

“I was very aware of what was happening at the time and although none of my family lost their lives, I did have friends whose parents were killed.”

After university, Colin worked for graphic design and advertising company GCAS, before leaving and starting his own company.

He was also painting constantly and in 1999, decided to give up the day job and become a full-time artist.

“It can be hard to make a living painting,” he says. “Working in graph

ic design allowed me to gradually build a reputation for my work.

“But when I was running my own business, all my time was taken up with admin and managerial things, not anything creative.

“Stepping away from something that I had set-up and put a lot of time and effort into was very hard.

“There was also a big element of risk, especially because at that point I was married, had a young daughter and another child on the way.

“But I felt that if I was ever going to do something truly original, I had to just take a chance and do it.”

Taking that chance paid off. His acclaimed cityscape collection was followed by Windows, a series of fluid street scenes reflected in glass.

Numerous awards have followed and he has exhibited throughout Ireland, the UK and New York. He is currently president of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.

It was a portrait of his friend, the musician and songwriter Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special, that was the catalyst for the large-scale head paintings.

Finished in 2010, the work entitled, Just Sharp Reminding, won the US Council and Irish Arts Review Award at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin in June that year.

Since then, Colin has painted almost 40 well-known faces from all areas of the arts in Ireland and the UK, including, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Mark Knopfler, Glen Hansard, Brian Friel, Simon Callow, James Nesbitt, Gary Lightbody, Paul Brady, Neil Hannon, Bronagh Gallagher, Lisa Hannigan, Terri Hooley and many others.

In 2012, he was awarded the BP Portrait Visitor's Choice Award for a portrait of poet, Michael Longley.

Most of his paintings have originated through introductions from past subjects and not approaches from the artist himself.

“The way that it often works is that a sitter will introduce me to somebody else,” Colin reveals. “I'm very reluctant to ask people.

“For instance, when I painted Paul Brady, he introduced me to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

“Back when I painted my first head — Duke Special — he introduced me to Glen Hansard, who used my painting of him as the cover for one of his albums. He then introduced me to Roddy Doyle.

“That's the way it works most of the time. I tend not to approach too many people.”

Davidson's ongoing collaboration with the Lyric has afforded him the opportunity to capture on canvas some of the Northern Ireland's most accomplished arts personalities.

He recalls: “At the end of 2010, I met theatre chairman, Mark Carruthers. I was looking for direction in my work with the ‘head' paintings and Mark was looking for a way in which the visual arts could fit in with the theatre and its surroundings.

“It was kind of a meeting of minds and something just clicked.

“Mark introduced me to people such as Brian Friel, Ciaran Hinds, Adrian Dunbar, Marie Jones, Stella McCusker and Conleth Hill.

“There are seven of my paintings hanging there at any one time which I rotate and from time-to-time,|replace with new ones.”

In 2012, when the Queen visited the theatre, Colin presented her with five portraits. Also that year, he painted what turned out to be the last portrait of Seamus Heaney.

“I travelled to his Dublin home for the sitting and he was one of the warmest, most generous and humble people that I have ever met,” recalls Colin.

“Whenever you are in the presence of someone who is a real great, and Seamus Heaney was, in the truest sense of the word, there is a nervousness on my side, but Seamus immediately cut through that and made me feel very much at home.

“Likewise with Jimmy Ellis. Again, that came about through an introduction, this time from Adrian Dunbar.

“Jimmy came out to my studio during a visit to Northern Ireland in 2012, and we spent a few hours together.

“More often than not, my conversations with subjects are about normal things — family, childhood, what's important to them — and not their careers and achievements. Sometimes there will be periods when there is no conversation at all and just music in the background.

“I let people just be, while all the time, I am watching their face.

“It's important to me that they are not posing and feel very, very relaxed and at home. I'm not interested in getting their best side.

“I'm looking for that moment when they are lost in their own thoughts and have forgotten I'm there.

“That's what I want to capture. The spirit and essence of the person.

“I had the privilege of showing the finished paintings to both Jimmy and Seamus. Jimmy was really proud of the painting. Seamus as well.”

Scrutinising so many famous faces, I wonder if he is ever nervous or starstruck?

“I was at the very start, with my very first painting — Duke Special,” he admits.

“Even though I knew Peter and he was a friend, there was something about that engagement which was nerve-wracking.

“It's a very unique set of circumstances where you have someone sitting in front of you and you are studying them intently — but I'm sure it's even worse for the sitter.

“I remember when I travelled to London to do the preliminary sketches and photos of Mark Knopfler in his studio.

“Paul Brady had suggested to Mark that I paint his portrait and he immediately agreed.

“I've been a huge fan of his and Dire of Straits since my schooldays and have been to lots of his concerts.

“There was a split second, whenever he walked into the room, that I couldn't quite believe I was one-to-one with Mark Knopfler.

“But as soon as we sat down to chat it disappeared.

“When the painting was finished and I took it over to show him, we ended up spending the day together.

“A lovely thing about the large head paintings is that good friendships have been forged with a number of people and we have kept in touch.”

Although it hasn't been shown to the public yet, Colin has painted what is probably one of the most distinctive faces in Northern Ireland — Ian Paisley.

“The sitting took place about a year ago,” he says. “We had a brilliant day and got on very well. But the painting hasn't been unveiled yet, so I can't reveal any details,” he laughs.

“I am also hoping to do a painting of Martin McGuinness at some time this year.

“It will be interesting to have painted two men who have had important roles in the peace process here.”

Away from canvasses, Colin lives with Pauline, his wife of 20 years and their two daughters, Emma (16) and Sophie (13).

“Pauline is also a graphic designer,” he explains. “We met when we were both working for GCAS.

“Both my daughters are very interested in art. Emma is doing ‘A' level art and Sophie is doing GCSE art.

“Just like I did with my father, the girls come in after school to chat and watch me work.

“That's one of the huge advantages of having a studio at home.”

Has his father's work influenced his work?

“At the start of my career, I was very, very influenced by him, but now, I've developed my own style,” he says.

“But he does give me lots of feedback and advice. It's good to have someone you completely trust to do that.”

  • Jerusalem is at the Oliver Sears Gallery, 29 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, until June 26, 2014. Tel: 00 353 (1) 644 94 59.

For information about Colin Davidson go to:

Why Davidson decided to think big with large heads

One of the most striking things about Colin Davidson’s ‘large heads' are their sheer size. At almost 4ft by 4ft, they are imposing and startling, but working on such a massive scale wasn’t his intention at the start.

“When I painted Duke Special, I literally just happened to have that size of canvas in the studio,” reveals Colin.

“I knew that I wanted to paint him larger-than-life and just grabbed that canvas and it felt right. All the others followed suit.

“Working on this scale allows me to bring everything that I’ve learnt about painting to bear in each piece,” he adds.

“There are elements of landscape and cityscape in each one.

“I usually begin by marking the broad outlines on the canvas with a paint brush and liquid paint, but in the case of Seamus Heaney, I used a palette knife.

“It felt as though the painting was already there and I was digging to find it. Some of the yellow background bleeds into Seamus’s right cheek, perhaps because he and his work are part of the landscape.

“Most of my work features large amounts of paint applied with a palette knife, at some point — to build up texture — but the eyes are painted with a paintbrush and therefore are more realistic.

“Pronounced features and aged, expressive faces are a gift to any artist.

“Mark Knopfler is a great-looking guy, but I really enjoyed painting his nose,” he laughs.

Have any of his famous subjects disliked the way he has portrayed them?

“I wouldn't say disliked,” he says. “I don't think he will mind me saying this, but Brian Kennedy was slightly uncomfortable with his portrait at the very start, until he lived with it for a while and realised that it was him.

“He then started to use the image on his Twitter page.

“I choose to focus on the person when they are lost in thought and with that, there is often a vulnerability that comes through and I think I caught that with Brian.”

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