Portraits of the artists


The artist Colin Davidson is best known for his urban paintings; now his first solo show, a collection of portraits, uncovers his subjects’ interior worlds

WHEN COLIN DAVIDSON painted the singer Duke Special, he had no idea the portrait was the first cog in an all-consuming, ongoing project. Over the past two years, the artist has created an impressive portrait collection of many well-known faces, which form the basis of Transmission, a solo exhibition at the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin.

“I’d always painted portraits,” says Davidson in the upstairs room of the gallery, “even though much of my work has an urban theme. Duke Special was the first portrait, begun early in 2010. I was looking for a new project, a new direction, and I had asked him to sit for me years ago. The painting hung in an exhibition at the RHA and won an award, but I got more comments about that than anything I’d painted before.”

Davidson didn’t have specific sitters in mind; he found subjects through a process of introductions and mutual friendships. “Duke introduced me to Glen Hansard, who in turn introduced me to Markéta [Irglová, Hansard’s Swell Season bandmate], and also to Roddy Doyle. I also painted Paul Brady, who introduced me to Mark Knopfler, who I’m currently painting . . . I love the six degrees of separation.”

Thematically there is no link between his subjects, but several are well known and are themselves creative practitioners. Given the artistic crossover, trying to capture these subjects’ individuality as well as their creative nuances must pose challenges. “It definitely does. Painting anyone, and the intimacy that comes with that, is daunting whether I know them well or not. A lot of the sitters I assumed would be daunting are the ones who put me at ease, and admitted at the end that they were as daunted as I was. That was even the case with people who are used to being in front of a camera.”

The “urban theme” Davidson talks about refers to his extensive work Cityscapes, painted from Belfast to Dublin and beyond, always from an elevated viewpoint. They share a Cubist sensibility with his Windows series, which documented shop windows using reflective techniques and bold colours. Davidson’s often searing use of colour and his interest in light combined to make a statement about brand culture and consumerism. He ran his own design company for 10 years, and is very familiar with the way famous faces are represented in media and popular culture.

“Perfection is applied to everything; every image is [enhanced]. That is definitely something that interested me as I developed this series. But it wasn’t there at the start; I didn’t start out to make that kind of commentary. My only motivation was about wanting to create a painting. If this work helps us to look at how celebrity culture portrays the person, the human, that’s a good thing.”

Davidson made numerous sketches of his subjects and took photographs to reference skin tone, lighting and three-dimensional elements. Davidson’s studio is a converted coach house in Bangor, and when it came to painting Michael Longley, Davidson collected the poet from his Belfast home for several sittings. He says no single process leads to a more authentic outcome. The work was made over a period of months, and he generally works on several paintings simultaneously.

In the gallery, Longley’s portrait is one of the most imposing. His skin, hair and distinctive beard are rendered in blues and greens, and with unusually broad brushstrokes. “People have commented that the way I treat eyes in these paintings reminds them of my urban paintings. I recognise that there is a landscape quality to these faces. Michael’s beard could be a rock formation or a ravine; it can be abstract in its own right. It’s a face but it’s not a face. De Kooning famously said that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented. The trigger in each painting is the aesthetic, and the desire to make a painting. It’s not about wanting to portray a face.”

WHAT IS MOST striking about the work is the sheer scale. They are imposing close-ups, more than a metre square, in which each subject is exposed and unadorned. “These are not flattering paintings,” says Davidson. “They are not about the engagement of the viewer – or the artist – with the subject. These are paintings about the moment, when the sitter is lost in their thoughts. They are not about interaction or a relationship but about how every person deals with themselves. Each person is lost in their own interior world.”

Central to Davidson’s process is a willingness to incorporate what he calls the discipline of destroying. “All of these paintings have aspects [in which] something is nearly brought to completion, but I stop and strip it back. That’s something that also has analogies with faces in their own right. The best paintings I have had the experience of looking at are ones that – like Matisse’s lines – when stripped back, are intangible, and more than the sum of their parts.”

Much of Davidson’s previous work was still life or landscape. Does a painter have a bigger obligation to living, breathing subjects? “After I painted Duke and Glen, people realised that this work would show their vulnerability and represent them in a way they hadn’t been portrayed before. Some people have had very emotional experiences about how I’ve painted them. Others had real trouble dealing with how I saw them but later admitted that they recognised something of themselves in what I had done.”

One of the most intriguing portraits is one of the only unknown faces in the exhibition; the subject is Alexandra Hall, a Belfast teenager with a timeless look. It’s one of Davidson’s favourite pieces. “Portrait is a funny word. It doesn’t sit comfortably. It has the connotation of being an end in itself. I want the face to be the start: the face is your way into the painting.”

Transmission by Colin Davidson is at the Oliver Sears Gallery, Dublin, until April 20th. See colindavidson.com