Why Colin’s famous faces are larger than life

Detail from portrait of Bronagh Gallagher (oil on linen) by Colin Davidson
Detail from portrait of Bronagh Gallagher (oil on linen) by Colin Davidson

Local artist Colin Davidson tells JOANNE SAVAGE about the challenges of painting some of Northern Ireland’s best known faces

COLIN Davidson’s large-scale portraits of such Ulster luminaries as Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Terri Hooley, Neil Hannon and Bronagh Gallagher retain a poetry in their execution, the energetic brushwork of layered oil paint suggesting a painstaking labour to render the lines and contours of each famous face with intimate attention.

What he produces aren’t designed to prettify the reality, to smooth out wrinkles or hide broken capillaries and strange gradations of colour - rather Davidson attempts to capture the true form of the face in front of him - famous or not, the artist wants to find beauty in truth - all the quirks and eccentricities of the faces he paints are a source of wonder, important moments in his depiction of flesh, features, skin-tone.

Belfast-born Colin, 45, studied at Methodist College before receiving a First Class degree in art at the University of Ulster; he was elected president of the Royal Ulster Academy in 2012. He has exhibited widely, both locally and internationally, moving through a preoccupation with cityscapes, windows, the interactions of light and shadow in urban spaces, to focus on large-scale portraits that draw on an abstract-expressionist technique.

Today Davidson’s paintings adorn the Lyric Theatre - where paintings of Ciaran Hinds, Adrian Dunbar, Marie Jones and numerous others - together form a kind of pantheon or who’s who of the Northen Irish arts scene.

The artist’s ongoing exhibiton - the culmination of three years’ work - at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University, entitled Between the Words, provides another opportunity for local audiences to come face-to-face with his immense realisations of familiar profiles in oil on linen and crayon on paper. Here the faces of Seamus Heaney and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon sit near paintings of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and Londonderry actress and singer Bronagh Gallagher. Then, too, punk godfather Terri Hooley stares out of the heavily layered oil paint, as do actors Simon Callow, James Ellis and playwright Brian Friel. Some 16 giant heads loom in paint here, an almost impasto effect on the rough terrain of skin contrasting with the pin-point, needle-sharp delineation of eyes that seem fixed on some faraway reality.

As Davidson describes, he is interested in getting something of the person behind the public image down in paint, encouraging the viewer, perhaps, to evaluate the subject on a more basic, human level.

“We’re used to seeing these people and engaging with them on a television screen or with their music, through their work,” says Davidson. “We all have a facade, the way we want to be seen. Over the period of a sitting, whether we’re listening to music or chatting, and in the silences in between, the sitter will relax and start to become absorbed in their own thoughts and I get the feeling that they forget that I’m there, and those are the moments that interest me as an artist.”

Davidson builds up each portrait over months, adding layer on layer of paint on linen to achieve the sense of movement and vibration. Interestingly, Colin, who for years painted landscapes, sees his portraiture as an attempt to capture the subtleties and vagaries of the ‘landscape’ of the face - he approaches land and subject with the same painterly sensibility.

“The paintings are usually made over a period of months and I’m usually working on a few of them at a time,” confides the artist. “It takes a long time for the layers of paint to dry and I like to build up a thickly painted look.

“I didn’t set out to paint famous people initially - I painted Duke Special and then the author Roddy Doyle and it seemed to snowball from there.

“I’ve been introduced to people who are well known here in Northern Ireland through circumstance and then I asked them to sit for me - people like Brian Friel, Adrian Dunbar and Seamus Heaney.

“Then too, I suppose when people are well known and there are particular public perceptions of them then I like to maybe challenge or interrogate some of that in my work. In my paintings I want to break through the person to see what’s behind it.”

Davidson works to a large-scale, zooming in to discover the multitude of colours and textures that make up a face.

“This subject of the head at this scale allows me to bring everything that I’ve learnt about painting to bear in one piece,” he adds. “There are elements of landscape and cityscape in the structure of the face.

“It’s about boldly applied, sculptural paint and the eyes are usually done with a different technique. I always aim to achieve a very glass-like stare.”

The Belfast artist is inspired by the work of painters such as Rembrandt, Lucian Freud and Willem de Kooning.

“You draw inspiration from so many places and can be inspired by so many things that it can be difficult to pinpoint.

“I don’t think you’re even always conscious of what it is that causes that spark or that excitement in the brain that drives you to paint.

“I find classical portraiture quite inert, there to depict the person and to celebrate them in some way - I’m not interested in doing that. Here the human head for me is very much a vehicle through which to apply paint - that’s my primary interest with these works.”

Davidson sees his portaits as being about capturing a certain tension between movement and stillness.

“There are passages in my paintings that are very still and then elsewhere there is a real sense of movement - it’s the whole idea that parts of us are in flux, moving, and then other parts can be very still.

“Painting to this scale and building up layers of thick paint to portray this tension as well as making sure you have a credible likeness to your subject - it can be difficult. But I’ve never wanted to make life too easy for myself,” he laughs.

Colin Davidson’s Between the Words continues at the Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast until October 6.