Former Fabric Designer Paints Belfast in a New Light

Watch an online exhibition of paintings by Kevin Collins - a man after Van Gogh's heart

If Van Gogh were alive today, and living in Belfast, he would paint City Hall like this. Above the towering monolith the night sky sparkles, resonating with the orange glow of nearby streetlights, whilst, in the foreground, the rain-soaked pavement shimmers.

It’s a barren urban context – not a pedestrian in sight, no-one for the parked bus driver to accommodate – but ‘Royal Avenue at Night’ still manages to buzz with an urgent, life-affirming energy reminiscent of Van Gogh's 'The Cafe Terrace'. It is compiled of quick, essential brush strokes – hundreds of them – and draws from an impressive pallet of many colours.

Any of the Impressionist masters would have downed tools, sat back and admired such a work with unconcealed self-satisfaction. But ‘Royal Avenue at Night’ is not Impressionist at all. Artist Kevin Collins blushes at the comparison – ‘other people have said that, too’ – yet the likeness in style was not intentional.

Having spent 12 years designing award-winning fabrics for Ulster Weavers textile manufacturers, Collins remains fixated with ‘warp and weft, horizontal and vertical lines’. Only now the handloom has been replaced by the paintbrush, the linen by oils.

Collins builds his cityscape paintings layer upon layer, crossed-hatched stroke upon stroke, in an attempt to emulate the consistency and feel of material. His tiny brushstrokes are not frenzied and instinctive, rather they are applied with a clinical, aesthetic precision.

Compositionally speaking, 'Royal Avenue at Night' is Collins' favourite work to date, and is sure to be a stand-out piece at his debut solo show, Belfast at Night, at the Emer Gallery on Belfast's Antrim Road this month.

As the title suggests, all of the paintings are derived from well-known Belfast buildings and landmarks. These include Belfast Castle - 'it evokes good memories for people' -, The Ring of Thanksgiving, St George's Bridge, Custom House and John Kindess' The Big Fish (pictured above).

Born in Dublin, but brought up in Newcastle, County Down, Collins has evidently developed a love for Belfast since moving there some years ago. 'It's not somewhere you would want to be alone at 3 o'clock in the morning,' he jokes. 'But I love the light in Belfast at night and at dawn. That's when I like to photograph the buildings. I paint from photographs. I keep people out of my paintings - it's all about the city and the light.'

Perhaps the most impressive of his works is 'Custom House at Night'. It is larger than most of the other pieces featured in Belfast at Night, and heralded a breakthrough in Collins' weave painting style. By using a nozzle rather than a paintbrush, he was able to apply paint to canvas 'like an icing on a cake'. He found the technique much more exact and effective in creating depth and texture.

Aspirational works such as these were made to hang in civic foyers and corporate board rooms - they are a tourist board's dream. And yet, even before the first glass of celebratory champagne has been poured at his debut exhibition, Collins is already considering future projects.

Having developed an individual - and, one would presume, highly commercial - style that will surely mark him out as an upcoming artist to watch, Collins intends on shifting the focus for his next collection.

'City Hall has so much history, and I would like to continue to use it as a subject,' he admits. 'Maybe add text to my paintings. But I might start to look at other cities for inspiration.' Their gain would certainly be Belfast's loss.

Belfast at Night runs at the Emer Gallery from April 14-23.