It's Colin Davidson's Time

Having designed the year's most widely circulated magazine cover, the Belfast-born artist's instantly recognisable work has found a bigger audience than ever before

The award-winning Northern Irish painter Colin Davidson recently joined the impressive list of famous artists including Marc Chagall and Andy Warhol who have created art work for the cover of Time magazine.

Following the announcement on December 9 that the magazine had named Angela Merkel as Person of the Year for 2015, Davidson’s portrait of the German Chancellor, which had been commissioned just six weeks earlier, was duplicated on millions of copies and is now on display on news stands around the world.

The artist was contacted by D.W. Pine, the magazine’s creative director, who was particularly impressed by the way he paints eyes. 'The realistic detail of his subjects’ eyes draws the viewer in closer to fully appreciate the sculptural use of his bold brushstrokes,' he said.

Davidson was at first hesitant to take on the commission, for he normally spends up to six months on an oil portrait. He has always insisted on sittings which allow him to get to know the person, to make preliminary sketches and search for that key moment, a certain look or defining expression that helps create a true likeness.

Time

In the end he could not turn down such a prestigious magazine or the prospect of painting one of the most influential women in the world. Davidson recognises that all world leaders divide opinion but his view of Mrs Merkel was determined by the bold statement she made about welcoming immigrants to Germany.

'I felt I wanted to focus on her compassion and humanitarian values and I admired the fact that she did not shirk the responsibility and took her decision based on her own conviction, with no consideration of the political fall-out.'

So how exactly did he set about reproducing those smokey blue eyes and that candid face? 'I studied photographs and viewed film footage and I looked back through my own archive to remind myself of how light works on people’s faces.' Davidson submitted his completed portrait of Merkel on time in the form of a high resolution digital image.

Born in South Belfast in 1968, Davidson gained a first-class Honours degree in Art and Design at the University of Ulster (now Ulster University). Known initially for his contemporary birds-eye views of Belfast and an impressionistic series of reflections in the city’s shop windows, his larger than life 4 foot square portrait of his friend, the Belfast musician Duke Special, which was shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin in 2010, made an immediate impact and won him instant critical acclaim.

Brad

It also set a template for an ongoing series of detailed drawings and instantly recognisable oil paintings of well-known figures, among them Brad Pitt, Mark Knopfler, Sir Kenneth Brannagh, the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, current world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and Northern Ireland’s former first minister, the late Lord Bannside.

Yet the artist says his main aim is to convey a common humanity. 'I’m not really interested in celebrity or achievement,' affirms Davidson. 'The challenge for me is to get past that public face.'

The chain of personal introductions and recommendations that eventually led to the Angela Merkel portrait began for Davidson when Duke Special introduced him to the Dublin-based musician Glen Hansard, who in turn introduced him to novelist and screen writer Roddy Doyle.

In 2012 the Lyric Theatre in Belfast commissioned portraits of actors and playwrights including Adrian Dunbar, Marie Jones and Ciaran Hinds. The artist showed them to the Queen and Martin McGuinness on the day they shook hands at the venue. The theatre’s chairman Mark Carruthers introduced Davidson to Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. 

While still a schoolboy at Belfast’s Methodist College, Davidson would pop across to the Ulster Museum where his favourite painting was Edward McGuire’s early portrait of Heaney and now he found himself in the poet’s Dublin home, chatting over a cup of tea and sketching him in his front room.

Colin Davidson Seamus Heaney

'Meeting him was a real pleasure and I brought all my experience to his painting using a palette knife more than a brush, but it was poignant too, for at the time I didn’t know it would be his last portrait. Brian Friel was a world renowned playwright but, like Heaney, I found him to be a most unassuming man, grounded and deeply attached to the land and the landscape.'

By the time Davidson mounted his 2013 exhibition Between the Words at the Naughton Gallery in Queen’s University, his collection included the musicians Neil Hannon, Barry Douglas, Gary Lightbody, Paul Brady, Bronagh Gallagher and Lisa Hannigan, the actor James Nesbitt and the poets Michael Longely and Paul Muldoon.

Longley, whose portrait appears on Davidson’s personal calling card, has sat for the painter several times. Muldoon, a restless person who found it difficult to sit still for three hours, spent some of the time listening to music by the Arctic Monkeys. When he closed his eyes in concentration Davidson captured the moment.

Out of the blue, Davidson received a call from Brad Pitt’s agent who had seen his portrait of the singer Brian Kennedy at the Royal Academy in London. Davidson agreed to teach the actor to paint and he painted his portrait which now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

Tyson Fury’s agent arranged for the boxer to spend an afternoon in Davidson’s studio in Bangor. The dusky pink background of the final portrait, completed in 2012, softens the image of the champion in contrast to the furore that has raged around him recently because of his alleged homophobic and sexist remarks.

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Davidson reflects that when they met he was interested in Fury the man and his background in the Irish traveller community but he was not interested in his views. 'I met a father and a husband whose faith was important to him. We didn’t talk much about art or boxing.'

Davidson’s Dublin gallerist, Oliver Sears, whose grandfather and family members died in the Holocaust, suggested they travel to Jerusalem to prepare a series of twelve portraits which would include Muslims, Christians and Jews living and working in the city. They were exhibited together in Dublin in 2014, though no mention was made of their religious affiliation.

Silent Testimony, a collection of 18 portraits of people who lost loved ones or were directly affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is currently on show at the Ulster Museum and will transfer to the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris in late January 2016. 

Davidson recalls that when he read the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 he thought, 'This is pretty good for most of us but there is nothing for that section of the community who are now paying for the peace; furthermore it closed the door on their hope for justice and even now solutions for dealing with past are proving illusive.'

Colin Davidson

The overall mood is understandably sad and Davidson admits he found it harrowing to listen to some of the stories. He depicts Flo O'Riordan, whose son Sean was killed 43 years ago in West Belfast aged 13, as a typical Belfast woman of a certain age, determinedly elegant, dressed in fur collared coat, her silver hair impeccably coiffed, her eyes cast down.

Walter Simon’s son Eugene, a father of three disappeared on January 1 1981 aged 26. Eugene had recently re-married and his new wife was pregnant. When his body was discovered in a bog in County Louth in 1984, he was identified by the rose gold celtic cross which had belonged to his deceased first wife and which he wore round his neck.

'It is impossible to contrive emotion,' says Davidson, 'you hope you can convey it and then it is up to the viewer to interpret the painting. I painted what I saw and what I felt and these works are my comment as an artist on the many thousands of people who are dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

Angela Merkel might be a hard act to follow, but Davidson has already resumed work on a portrait of the actor Liam Neeson.

Silent Testimony runs at the Ulster Museum until January 17. Colin's issue of Time magazine can be purchased at select newsagents throughout Northern Ireland or in print or digital formats at www.time.com.