Dermot Cavanagh

Painter, teacher and star of Awash with Colour

‘I’m 45 years old and still playing with paint,’ Dermot Cavanagh tells me wryly as he sits in his County Tyrone studio, drinking coffee.
I had turned off the main road between Dungannon and Moy and followed a winding narrow road to Cavanagh’s native townland of Seyloran (Gaelic for the townland of the fresh water spring), where the artist has his home and studio. It is here that a gallery of his works for sale can be found and here that he holds one, two or three day watercolour workshops. The route is well signposted.
Cavanagh’s name is, of course, synonymous with the 90s hit television programme Awash with Colour. Each week, Cavanagh patiently schooled a celebrity guest in painting a watercolour scene, breaking down the landscape before them into manageable chunks and building up a picture that anyone would have been proud to take home.
In his time, Cavanagh has taught sports personalities Suzanne Dando and Barry McGuigan and TV presenters such as Charlie Dimmock, Valerie Singleton, John Craven and our own Gloria Hunniford.
The setting for the masterclass was almost always outdoors and the scene was usually idyllic – wonderful green rolling hills or a mansion set in magnificent summer gardens. Slowly, against the backdrop of birdsong and sunshine, a surprisingly good work of art took shape beneath the brush of the guest.
Part of the fascination of the programme was seeing the TV personality in a different guise to their familiar role – ‘fish out of water’ springs to mind. But it also seemed that a great camaraderie emerged between teacher and student. Cavanagh seemed to have a way of making his guest feel relaxed and comfortable even though they were doing something which was new to them.
Awash with Colour was a lovely gentle programme, the concept of which was the artist’s own idea. In 1993, with a little help, Cavanagh succeeded in bringing the idea to the attention of the BBC, who commissioned the format in 1996. The programme ran to four series and made Dermot Cavanagh a household name. The public loved it. The programmes are still running in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Today, the studio where Cavanagh paints and where he tutors small groups of aspiring painters throughout the year is light and airy, with full-length windows on almost all sides overlooking dramatic views of Co Tyrone. The amber painted walls inside remind me of the houses you might find in Italy and when I mention this, Cavanagh smiles and tells me about his love affair with Istra, the westernmost county of Croatia where the landscape has been compared to Tuscany or Provence.
He visits Istra five times a year to provide painting holidays for anyone who fancies a holiday with a difference. Cavanagh organises everything for the holidays – flights, transfer, accommodation, meals, entertainment and painting.
‘I decorated this studio to make me feel as close as I could get to a favourite restaurant in Croatia,’ he says.
Upstairs in the gallery, his landscapes reflect the combination of Irish and Croatian scenery which inspire him. The gold and browns of Donegal peat bogs, and the greens and greys of Tyrone vistas line the walls, alongside the red-roofed houses and coppery tones of Croatian scenes and townscapes.
Cavanagh has over 35 years of painting experience. He is self-taught and admits that many of the techniques and tricks of the trade, which he is so adept at passing on in his workshops, were actually born through trial and error or ‘mistakes, which worked’.
He has always lived in Seyloran, walking over the fields as a boy to Laghey Primary School and later attending St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon. At school, he only ever wanted to paint but reality dictated that he had to get a job. After ten years as an electrician, he took the huge step of leaving work and starting to earn his living from his painting. He had been teaching in his spare time for a number of years and had already conceived the idea for a TV programme, which would eventually emerge as Awash with Colour, but he admits now that it was still a bit of a gamble.
If there is something you really want to do you should have a go,’ he says, and applied this motto to his own life more than ten years ago, despite a mortgage, wife and two children. He only ever wanted to paint and he decided that he was going to have a go at making it pay.
Cavanagh believes that anyone with an interest can be taught to paint, that the building bricks of his craft can be learned. A modicum of talent combined with hard work and perseverance are his recipe for success. He admires anyone who is skilled in their craft rather than those whose talent is superficial and who have no knowledge of the individual pieces which have to come together to make a whole.
A self-effacing man, Cavanagh also believes that there are more talented painters than him but they may not have any ability to teach. Indeed, those who are lucky enough to be born with a natural talent may not be the best teachers in the world, because they haven’t had to work at building up the tools of their trade. Cavanagh’s strengths are that he is a good communicator and can impart his techniques simply and easily.
He thinks an artist is first and foremost an observer who sees the important bits of what is in front of them rather than the bits that don’t make any sense. He teaches people to look at things differently so that they can break down the scene before them and tackle each component simply, building each section up again to complete the painting.
I was glad to hear that he believes there is no such thing as a bad student – only a bad teacher. Could I use this as an excuse for my failure in Art at school? In his workshop, even bad artists leave with a good painting, or so he says.
In a workshop he takes everybody through the process of doing the same painting, showing them how to paint the sky, then the trees, then the roof of the house etc. And if they make a mistake? Cavanagh assures me that there is no mistake made in his workshops, which he could not make good.
All the materials for the workshops are supplied, so the paper is of a quality that allows correction. He sees making mistakes as a positive, where the beginner can learn the correction process. He describes his working methods as a catalogue of mistakes which he has made and which have worked for him.
Artistic influences? He mentions Russian, French and English painters, particularly the watercolours of Edward Sago and Ted Weston.
This Tyrone artist feels an appropriate epitaph for his life would be: ‘He always tried his best.’
My feeling is that here is a man who makes the effort seem effortless because ‘playing with paint’ is what he enjoys most.
By Gwen Tener