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'Digital is my happy medium'

Keith's computer-generated genius is taking the art world by storm

Hard at work: Keith Drury
Posed picture: Keith Drury

By Laurence White

When Co Down artist Keith Drury first showed an art gallery owner his digitally-created urban landscapes he was advised to return to his traditional oil paintings. The new medium, he was told, would never work.

Later, as demand for his work reached the level where he could command £7,000 for a one-off picture, that same gallery owner told him to forget about the oil paintings - this was the future.

Those were prophetic words, as now his business has grown to such an extent that his wife Deborah is leaving her teaching post as head of English at Down High School to work full-time looking after the company management.

Keith (51), who was born in the Newtownbreda area of Belfast - "although I have lived in a few different places since then" - says he cannot remember a time when he was not interested in art.

"As a child I used to draw every cartoon character I could think of and when I had exhausted that avenue then I would just draw anything else I saw," he recalls.

He has no idea where his art gene came from, as neither of his parents had any interest in it and his father even advised him to get a 'real job'.

Yet he and his sister, Karen Nickell, who lectures in art at Ulster University in Belfast, have both ended up making their living from the medium.

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Following his father's advice Keith went to Queen's University and graduated with a degree in accountancy and business. He then worked at Shorts (later Bombardier) aircraft factory and in the health service, but art was always calling him in the background.

He recalls how as a 21-year-old he called into Magee's, then a well-known gallery in Belfast but now closed, with one of his works.

"For some reason the owner seemed to like me and he took a real gamble on me. I was just someone who had walked in off the street, but he gave me a painting by a well-known artist, told me to go home and copy it and bring back the two paintings.

"He would then evaluate my work, give me another painting to copy and do the same again. It was unorthodox, but a great way of learning how to paint. I had to study these works by established artists, find out how they created their images and then try to replicate it.

"Of course my paintings were destroyed, but I used to tell people that myself and the owner went on to copy a few Picassos and made a pretty penny. I think some people sort of believed me."

But art is not Keith's only skill. He also loves cabinet making and his home, set in woodland outside Crossgar, has several pieces of occasional furniture crafted by him.

His studio and a small gallery are also attached to the property, which provides the ideal rural retreat for his work. In fact, he finds mowing the extensive lawns an ideal way to relax, along with watching films and listening to music.

However, he has little time for relaxation, frequently working from 9am to 3am creating new images.

He likens the process of creating one of his landscapes to that employed by Pixar in movie making.

"Every image you see in one of my paintings - from a signpost to a vehicle to a building, even a cloud - is modelled by me freehand on a computer. I then employ the traditional art skills of picture composition and colouring."

Keith's breakthrough to public recognition came in 2010 when he won an open competition to produce a portrait of images of Belfast for the City Council.

"Artists from all over the world were able to enter and I ended up as the last man standing. My picture - a six foot image containing five portraits - is on permanent display in the City Hall."

His work also got national exposure, even if many people may not have noticed it. One of his pictures featured in the crime drama The Fall starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan.

"It was just hanging on the wall behind Gillian. I had no idea that it was going to be a prop and certainly the production company didn't buy it from me.

"I was hoping that Gillian would turn around at some stage, point to the picture and say 'what a marvellous portrait and only £275', but sadly she didn't."

Keith certainly has little of the pretension so often associated with the art world, frequently punctuating his conversation with humorous asides. It is a trait that he also brings to his art.

Given that a picture can take three or four months to create - and that is working at least 12-hour days - the level of detail in each is astonishing.

"You might need a magnifying glass or the eyes of a young child to see some of the details I include. There is always a courting couple in the picture and people know to look for them. But in one picture there is a telephone box with the door open. There is a number written inside apparently for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but if you were to ring it you would get through to Belfast Zoo."

In a Glasgow cityscape there is a piece of graffiti on the wall of the School of Art - 'Renee was here' - a homage to Renee Mackintosh, the great artist, architect and designer from the city.

A website address, which can also be found in the painting, will bring anyone who uses it directly to Keith's business.

But he is also not afraid to put a little social commentary into his art. A work entitled Stormont Circus contains a sign which reads: 'We are sorry the government you elected is currently unavailable.'

"There are other little secrets in the paintings that only I am aware of. It is a reflection of the complexity and mystery of art. In life we don't know everything about a city that we visit, so it is the same with my paintings.

"Art should be more than just a pretty picture on the wall. It should say something. It should have a narrative in it that will allow future generations to look at it and know that it was a commentary on the time when it was created".

The medium he uses means that clients can easily obtain specially customised versions.

"Maybe they would want their home put into the picture or a signpost denoting places where they previously lived or where their children now live. Businesses might want me to put their corporate logo in the image.

"I have created a number of pieces for a bar in Belfast - they took existing portraits of the city, got me to remove another building and replace it with their bar. That makes it a piece unique to them."

His paintings can end up in unusual places. A London company reproduces them in jigsaws and they have also appeared on the lids of luxury chocolate boxes. A Lisburn company which was celebrating 70 years in business put his work on a number of corporate gifts.

He was also commissioned to do a portrait of the world's best-known footballer, the Brazilian Pele.

"I was asked to do it by a Dublin company. I don't know much about football, but I found him a very nice man to speak to when I presented him with the portrait."

Another work, called Peace, hangs in the church at Messines in Flanders.

But what about his first medium, oil painting?

He still has a number of those which he says he will never sell, or a least unless the price was really right. Some are quite satirical in content - he declines to elaborate - while others are straightforward portraits.

But Keith has no intention of resting on his laurels. He is currently exploring new ideas and mediums with a view to introducing them to the world next year. As we wrap up, he cannot resist one final joke.

"I always like to keep an eye on what is happening in the world of art and see who is doing great new work - and then trying to work out how to stop them".

To view Keith's work go to or you can buy some pieces through the Belfast Telegraph studio site

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