Better Than the Real Thing: Daniel Nelis

We profile the young Donegal artist whose work earned him last year's Royal Ulster Academy Portrait Prize

Some of the most difficult questions can be very short. 'What’s your favourite band?' or 'Will there ever be world peace?' Luckily for artist Daniel Nelis, neither of these questions are put to him by me. I do, however, have one query that often gets people of his talent in a muddle: 'What type of artist are you?'

'To be an artist can often come with an expectation of how one should be as a person,' he replies, with the same thoughtful and earnest tone that's eminent in his artwork. 'Yet for me the only concern is to bear witness and to create work in as honest a way where the results do not ask what is said of me as an artist, but what it facilitates to say for the viewer.'

But what does Nelis facilitate to us through his art? Perhaps a little background of the artist will help first. The 26-year-old grew up in a rural area of Donegal, not too far from the picturesque Glenveagh National Park. He still lives with his family in this part of the world. Desolate bogland surrounds his home and the landscapes seep into his paintings.

Just have a look at ‘The Tree’ or ‘Dark Turned the Field’ and you are thrown into that barren terrain. But not just to see a vivid depiction of countryside – we are looking at an environ that triggers contemplation, the 'heightened awareness of our own mortality' as Nelis describes it.

'The marks that have been incurred upon that landscape are a wonderful thing, because they register a presence that has been and in effect makes you more aware of your own,' he says. 'The tradition of dealing with mortality is one that stems back to the earliest hieroglyphs that decorated burial tombs.'

The Tree

The Tree

'My work doesn’t aim to see death as an issue, but instead to turn towards it as a wholly connecting event we all must face.'

The contemplation of our own mortality is something we all encounter. Fortunately there is art to help us and with Nelis we have a skilled draughtsman to face the questions of our existence. His artwork is akin to the Irish artist Martin Gale. They both use their paintbrushes with details precise enough to be photographs. Yet their paintings are much more than simple snapshots of reality.

'Realism can be a bit of a loaded word,' says Nelis. 'For me, if I were to think of myself as a ‘realist painter’, it would be in the process of receptive and critical observation, not unlike the existential figures of Lucian Freud or Andrew Wyeth. I believe that if one is in the business of realism, likeness should only be an accident of intense and honest looking, not an end in itself.'

Still in his mid-20s, Nelis's paintings have already earned him numerous awards. Last year, ‘Dark Turned the Field’ won him the Royal Ulster Academy’s Portrait Prize and the portrait of his mother will be the subject of a talk at the Ulster Museum this Friday (November 4). How does he feel?

'Obviously it’s a great honour to have the opportunity to do this, and with that comes some nerves to make sure I properly communicate my intentions to those present,' he admits.

Dark Turned Field

Dark Turned the Field

While the prize-winning piece is a well-earned achievement, another painting by the Irish artist remains one of his proudest. Entitled ‘Room with a Window’, the work marked a new identity, a 'departure' he says from the work he had been making previously.

'This portrait embodied my intention to create work that registers the incursions of time upon the figure, without insisting on these incursions as issues but rather as realities of existence.'

Figures in Nelis's paintings stare either into the distance or at the viewer. The subjects posing have the same quiet contemplation of his desolate Donegal landscapes. 

'The most inspiring thing to me is just being present and baring witness to the places and people that surround me,' he says. 'This kind of looking lends itself to a potential for finding images anywhere, which can be super exciting as you consider images in relation to each other, and the opportunities this provides to the viewer.'

In the quiet lands of Donegal, Nelis finds the people and places to compose his artwork. Artists such as Freud, Wyeth and Gale have also played a role influencing him, though he dismisses the notion of being part of a trend or belonging to one singular category. Many craftsmen have said the same thing, but Nelis’s viewpoint is as serious and solid as the paint dried on his canvases.

Room with a Window

Room with a Window

'The most uninspiring thing to me is the thought of subscribing to a style of image, or to become too aware of how I think my work should look in order to satisfy a business model of what sells,' he adds.

'To treat myself like a commodity would stand counter to my reason for creating work. I don’t believe that the process of making art should be a linear thing where you sequentially arrive at the ‘right’ kind of work, as the discovery that this career affords is something incompatible with that mind-set.'

After the easel is set down in the art studio of his family’s household, what else does Nelis get up to that might feed into his craft? He reads the books of Cormac McCarthy, watches the films of Terrence Malick and listens to the albums of American lo-fi rockers Low.

He has also recently taken up the calling to be a teacher, and is currently studying the Art and Design PGCE course at Ulster University with the pursuit of career in guiding fellow artists.

'It was the conversations with tutors that have allowed me to consider how images function conceptually in relation to technique that has been the most valuable element,' he says. 'Having the opportunity to try and have the same kinds of conversations that proved so valuable for my own development with students was a major contributor in deciding to enter the course.'

Let’s hope those conversations in Daniel’s (sorry, Mr. Nelis’s) classroom help to produce artwork for both teacher and student.