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On display at last... Northern Ireland artist Paul Bell's Biblical painting which he began 25 years ago

Ballymena artist Paul Bell tells Ivan Little why his copy of the famous Supper at Emmaus took so long to finish and how he is still happy to be known as a painter of cows, which has won him worldwide fame

Finishing touches in 2019: Paul touches up his rendering of Caravaggio’s masterpiece
Finishing touches in 2019: Paul touches up his rendering of Caravaggio’s masterpiece
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It famously took Michelangelo four years of painstaking and back-breaking work to paint the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, but a Ballymena artist has made the Italian master's most celebrated achievement look like a rushed job.

Paul Bell has just completed a painting that he started an astonishing 25 years ago.

This week his six-and-a-half feet by four-and-a-half feet interpretation of Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus - one of the world's most famous paintings - went on show in the Braid centre in Ballymena.

Even now the artist, who's renowned internationally for his paintings of cows and whose customers include the lead singer of one of the world's top thrash metal groups, reckons he could have done it better.

Starting out on his rendering of Caravaggio’s masterpiece in 1994
Starting out on his rendering of Caravaggio’s masterpiece in 1994

"After I called a halt to the work in the summer, I saw a few improvements I thought I could make, but my wife stopped me in my tracks. She said, 'It's finished, leave it alone'. But I still touched it up a bit more," says Paul, who began the painting as a learning tool when he was an art student in Wales.

"I've admired Caravaggio for years. When I was at the University of Wales in Newport, I used to go down to London where the Supper at Emmaus hangs in the National Gallery. I went home and started to paint it.

"It was an old, formal way of training as an artist in that you would look and copy old masters to develop an understanding of their painting. After all, they came before all of us."

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Caravaggio's 1601 masterpiece shows a scene from the Gospel of Luke, with the resurrected Christ appearing to two disciples who initially don't recognise him because he has no beard and his flowing robes cover the wounds from his crucifixion.

Paul, who grew up in Ballymena, had always been keen on painting, but it was on a field trip to Paris during his foundation year in art and design in Limavady that his eyes were opened to a whole new world of styles and skills in the Louvre.

He isn't sure why Caravaggio, a murderer who painted many of his finest works while he was on the run from the authorities, had such an impact on him, but he found Supper at Emmaus transfixing.

"It's a religious painting and I'm not religious. Maybe it was the light and the shadowing that attracted me to it. It's a dramatic painting that transformed art history quite radically. I spotted it first in a book, but seeing it in reality was totally inspiring," Paul says.

"I knew that I wanted to try to do my own interpretation of it.

"My father helped me to make a frame and my mother stretched the canvas for it.

Paul with Slayer in New York
Paul with Slayer in New York

"I knew I was being ambitious, but I thought I could complete my Supper at Emmaus in two weeks."

That proved to be a seismic under-estimation on Paul's part.

"Yes, I suppose you could say that," he says, though he hasn't spent every waking moment of the last quarter of a century slaving over the task.

"At the start it was quite relentless, then it was put to one side for a while when my paintings of the cows took over - they're the paintings that earn me a living," Paul says.

"From time to time, the Caravaggio project would come back to life again, and in the last five years it has been quite persistently re-worked. However, I resolved that I would finish the painting this year.

"During the summer, I worked on it for two months non-stop.

"The painting has taught me an awful lot, from mixing colours to techniques, and it has helped me immensely with developing my artwork generally and especially my painting of the cows."

From the age of 14, Paul served an apprenticeship as a butcher, so he knows his bovine subject matter from every possible angle. He has painted hundreds of cows and his work is now in huge demand locally and globally.

Singer Tom Araya, who fronts the well-known American thrash metal group Slayer, has just taken delivery of one of Paul's paintings in New York.

"Tom isn't just into his music; he has also raised a herd of Aberdeen Angus. I was thrilled that he got one of my paintings. I love thrash metal and I love Slayer," says Paul.

James Hetfield of American heavy metal band Metallica, who played in front of 75,000 fans at Slane Castle earlier this year, also has one of Paul's paintings, as does actor James Nesbitt and rugby star Paddy Wallace, whose portrait he did for a testimonial dinner.

At the minute, Paul is also working on a commission for a client in Sacramento in California, a testimony to how far his reputation has spread in the 18 years since the former graphic designer for Randox Laboratories started painting cows.

Artist Paul Bell in his studio surrounded by his paintings of cows
Artist Paul Bell in his studio surrounded by his paintings of cows

"For me, it began as an act of defiance, really. I was a portrait painter and I was asked by a gallery to produce a landscape, but I wasn't interested," he explains.

"I said I would paint cows in a field because that was a landscape but it was also portraiture. I decided to add very colourful backgrounds and the cow paintings just took off. I'm not from a farming background, but in Ballymena you are surrounded by fields and everything anyway."

Paul also paints portraits of humans. "I do like to diversify. I have recently been commissioned to work on portraits for three people, some of whom have also bought my cow paintings," he says.

Getting people to sit for portraits is one thing. Capturing a cow for one of his studies is a tad more challenging - and he still has the bruises to show for it.

"I go all Rambo. I head out into the fields to look at the cows and take photographs and I get covered in all sorts," Paul says. "I've been chased by bulls and I have been head-butted. I've also had to dive through hedges to get away. That's part and parcel of what I do."

For many city dwellers, cows are just cows, but Paul insists: "There are lots of differences between them and it's a great accolade for me that so many farmers and veterinarians own my paintings.

"I was terrified when I held my first major solo show in Belfast in 2004. UTV did a feature on it, but they brought along a dairy farmer to give his opinions on my work and I feared what would happen if he didn't like my paintings. Luckily, he loved them."

Paul doesn't know what will happen to his Summer at Emmaus after its showing in Ballymena, but he says: "If someone makes me an offer I can't refuse, they can have it. I have no idea what money to ask for, but I would be more than happy to keep it and hang it in the living room. After all, it corresponds to half my life."

Paul says he has no plans for any more representations of revered paintings, but he is adamant that if he is moved to repeat the venture he will concentrate on works that don't take him another 25 years to finish.

Paul doesn't mind the good-natured banter that comes his way over the length of time he spent on his Supper at Emmaus.

"I heard the other day about a joiner who put up a door in Ballymena in 1973 but only added the trim to it two days ago, so maybe I'm not so bad," he says.

It doesn't take Paul quite so long to complete a painting of a cow, but he pays great attention to detail in everything he undertakes.

And though he has painted zebras, donkeys and giraffes, he has no plans to abandon cattle.

"I am proud of my work," he says. "And I can't imagine that I would ever stop painting cows."

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