Artist Colin Davidson: 'I cringe at the term portrait painter'
Belfast artist Colin Davidson is best known for his paintings of famous people, but a new exhibition focuses on intimate portraits of those who suffered loss during the Troubles
'I got a call from an attorney, saying that they had an American client who was in London for a few months and they wanted me to teach them to paint," explains Colin Davidson from his home in the outskirts of Belfast. "I said no, because I don't really teach and felt there would be someone better suited in London.
"But then they called me again and said they wanted it to be me. And then I got word back that it was Brad Pitt. So I spent a few months in 2013 flying to London to spend a few days with Brad, just us painting.
"There's definitely an Irish aspect to his blood because he has this wicked sense of humour; we had a laugh. During that time we discussed the idea of me doing a painting of him, and he sat for me twice; once with long hair, once with short."
Welcome to the world of Colin Davidson, a Belfast-born artist whose well-received portraits have meant that turning down Brad Pitt is just one of his many encounters with the most significant faces of our time.
Since 2010, Davidson has specialised in oversized realist portraits that, with heavy brush strokes and imprecise application, appear to capture the essence of its subject as if by accident. Look long enough, and you'd swear they blink.
His niche was the result of a fortuitous butterfly effect. Originally depicting urban life in Belfast, he was first drawn to paint his musician friend Duke Special ("there was something about his look that had a great mystery," he explains). That led to him painting Oscar-winning musician Glen Hansard for his 2012 solo album cover. Then, while kept busy with Ireland's notables like Ciarán Hinds, Brian Friel and Kenneth Branagh, this album cover found its way into Brad Pitt's hands. The resulting painting, still in the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, caught the attention of Time magazine, who asked Davidson to paint German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the cover of their Person of the Year 2015 issue.
Two years later, the latest addition to his collection is Ed Sheeran, whose Van Gogh-esque image is now on display at London's National Portrait Gallery in London, a move that will surely attract a younger audience to its extensive exhibitions.
"The only person I sought to paint was Duke Special - I never hunted for any of these," Davidson says, keen to point out that the celebrity aspect of his work is by-the-by. "I didn't have in my mind that I wanted to paint Ed, but I met his dad, an art curator. We talked about the potential of me painting Ed, so I met him and he loved the idea.
"I went to his place in 2015, and he sat with me. People talk about Ed as being an ordinary guy with an extraordinary life, and it's true. We talked about art, his house, the TV series that we were into. In that way, it was no different from any other sitting."
Despite the reverence from the world of celebrities, the projects he's actively pursued follow another theme: that of "common humanity".
"Whether it's the queen or a person on the street, I make each of these paintings the same size, to show that we're all equal, that there's a shared humanity. So they're all around 50 inches by 50 inches each, and I care equally about capturing their likeness."
That's suggested in his Jerusalem collection, which brings together paintings of those in divided Israel, be they Muslim, Christian or Jew, a doctor or a hotel worker.
We can also view this theme with Silent Testimony, a collection of 18 portraits of victims and survivors of the Troubles that will be shown in Dublin Castle throughout July and August.
Each portrait is accompanied by a short paragraph explaining, with as much simplicity as possible, their experience of the turbulent time. Some have lost parents, some children. One sitter lost their sight.
"The exhibition isn't me dragging everyone back in time," Colin explains. "This exhibition deals with their daily life. I was born in 1968 and grew up in Belfast through those dark times. And when it came to 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I was struck that while it was the start of hope for most of us, it was an end of hope for those who'd suffered loss. They had to put aside their need for justice and answers of any sort.
"That was a plight which I was passionate about for many years, and when I started making the large-scale paintings, I realised I may have found the vehicle with which I could express how I felt."
While, he explains, most of his sittings are punctuated with chit-chat, the nature of these experiences was heavier and more harrowing. He was offered counselling to help deal with the weight of what he was told, but declined.
"Instead, I took the energy and put it back into the work," he explains. "Something of the spirit of the loss needed to be transferred to the canvas."
Of course, the resurrection of terrorism in Europe gives these images an added potency, but Davidson is keen to stress that these connections are external to creation of the works. "I've been keen not to broaden it out beyond the 18 people, but if the viewer draw parallels, that's something I'm content with.
"What I would say in looking at conflict around the world is that the legacy of conflict is exactly the same. Sooner or later, each side need to sit down and talk, and after that occurs, the people who've suffered loss are left to pick up the pieces. That's the universal aspect I see."
While Silent Testimony continues his portraiture, also seen with newer paintings of Jamie Dornan, Sinéad Morrissey and Liam Neeson, he's reluctant to describe himself as a portrait painter, given its long-standing purpose.
"I cringe at the term portrait painter," he says. "In galleries across the world, the sitter is looking out at us, aware that we are in the room. That factors into our engagement with the painting.
"But I wanted to turn that on its head, and wait for the moment in the encounter when the sitter was seemingly unaware of me being in the room, or of the viewer looking at the painting, so we're almost intruding on a private moment. That's the polar opposite of what classical portraits were about."
As if to steer away before being typecast, Davidson suggests that he is likely to broaden his exhibition work in the future.
"I'm trying to get to the other side of the head paintings, which I've made for eight years now," he says. "I probably won't want to make a new exhibition of head paintings. But what it might be next, I've yet to discover."
Silent Testimony exhibits at the Coach House Gallery, Dublin Castle, until September 1