Artist’s work celebrates what unites rather than divides us

Artist Colin Davidson pictured in his studio in  Crawfordsburn PIC: Arthur Allison
Artist Colin Davidson pictured in his studio in Crawfordsburn PIC: Arthur Allison

Colin Davidson’s body of work is a silent testimony to the commonality of the human condition. Whether he is painting celebrities like Brad Pitt, Her Majesty the Queen, the late Seamus Heaney and playwright Brian Friel, singers Duke Special and Gary Lightbody, actors Jamie Dornan and Kenneth Branagh or subjects who lost relatives during the Troubles, Davidson uses the same style of abstract realism. Each image holds such eloquent tension between stillness and motion, catching a particular look, gesture or vulnerability of expression that seems to eloquently distill the reality of the person in front of him. Davidson uses thickly applied oil paint on canvas in a style that is impressionistic, bold and singular.

The Belfast artist’s large scale portraits have become world famous and deservingly so.

The Queen sat for Colin at Buckingham Palace just after her 90th birthday in May 2016 and unveiled the portrait at a London reception organised by the peace-building charity Co-operation Ireland last November.

He has given Brad Pitt tips on painting before completing a unique portrait of the Hollywood heart-throb. All the greats of the local art scene have sat for him. A painting of Ed Sheeran was recently unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The former president of the Royal Ulster Academy has a lot of star power after completing a glittering portfolio of famous faces.

“It was a huge honour and a privilege to be asked to paint the Queen,” says Colin from his studio. “It was hard to not feel intimidated but the Queen very much set out to put me at my ease and was very generous with her time. When she unveiled the painting I was asked to talk to her so I said ‘Are you still talking to me ma’am?’ And she laughed and said ‘Of course I am,’ and then she told me she felt the painting was splendid.

“I’m aware of the importance of the symbolism of me as an Irish artist having painted the Queen. Even several years ago I’m not sure if this would have been possible.”

June 2012 saw an attorney calling from the United States to ask if Colin would be able to teach his client how to paint, his client being none other than Brad Pitt. Colin’s portrait of Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard had caught Pitt’s eye when he saw it reproduced on an album cover. On several occasions the actor and artist met in London, Surrey and Buckinghamshire where Colin tutored Brad. This led to Colin completing a portrait of the actor that is now owned by the Smithsonian in New York.

Brad appears lost in thought and with distant, glassy eyes; as ever Colin has captured what he calls a “certain vulnerable quality” which he looks for in all of his sitters.

In December 2015 the call came from Time Magazine commissioning Colin to paint German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Davidson almost declined the commission because he had to work from photographs rather than being able to meet his subject but in the end he couldn’t decline such a prestigious magazine. The image made the cover and catapulted Davidson’s star power yet further. He had no idea his painting of Ms Merkel would end up on the cover until he saw it pop up on Facebook. It was a tremendous achievement for any artist.

“It was a massive surprise when I got the call to meet with Brad Pitt and teach him how to paint,” he confides. “He honestly had a very natural automatic ability and if he ever did an exhibition I would be very interested to see what he would produce. It was brilliant being able to paint him. I did several sessions giving him tips on painting.

“With the Time cover I was gobsmacked. I’d spent a lot of time studying photographs and reading about Angela Merkel imagining what she would be like if she were sitting in front of me before I completed the piece. I was amazed when I saw the picture on the cover.”

Colin, who was born and raised in Belfast, completed his art degree at the University of Ulster in 1991 and gave up his job in graphic design to paint full time in 1999. Cityscapes and abstract work would preoccupy him for the next decade. He produced colourful bird’s eye views of the city, reflections in shopfronts and cafes, lonely vistas without people that might be said to owe something to Edward Hopper in their preoccupation with light and dark and sparse interiors.

He grew up in an artistic household and recalls watching his father Roland, a painter, at work. “One of my earliest creative memories is being in a primary three class when I was about six or seven and I painted a little country farmhouse with trees in the background and I just remember being very surprised by the result.

“We didn’t have a TV growing up so it came very naturally to me to spend hours painting or drawing or making things.”

For more information on Colin’s work visit www.colindavidson.com.