Colin Davidson

President of the Royal Ulster Academy on painting portraits of Seamus Heaney and other cultural stars

In the last of this year’s talks entitled ‘Artists in Conversation’ at the Ulster Museum, broadcaster Marie-Louise Muir speaks with Colin Davidson, the current president of the Royal Ulster Academy and a painter whose work many will recognise.

Born in Belfast in 1968, and educated at Methodist College and the University of Ulster – where he gained a first class degree in fine art – Davidson established his reputation with an acclaimed series of Belfast cityscapes, a theme he then pursued in Dublin, London and Chicago.

For the past four years, however, he has been drawing and painting portraits of noted figures in the arts community. These works are the topic of this particular conversation.

Well attended, the lunchtime event takes place in the museum’s lecture room where, projected above the artist and his interlocutor is Davidson’s imposing drawing of Sir Kenneth Branagh. At four times its original 4 x 4 foot size, it gains added impact from the enlargement.

Following a recommendation by Mark Carruthers, broadcaster and chairman of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, Davidson travelled to Pinewood Studios, where Branagh was directing the Disney film Cinderella. Here he made his usual preparatory drawings using his pencils in a painterly way.

Muirs inquires of Davidson how he gets beyond the public persona of a trained actor like Kenneth Branagh. 'We were pushed for time,' he answers, 'and I didn’t feel I really got to know him, but I always look for that moment when the subject is at ease, usually lost in thought and most naturally themselves.'

The template for the series described by Muir as a 'who’s who of Irish culture' is a head and shoulders portrait of the musician Duke Special, who subsequently introduced Davidson to fellow musician Neil Hannon. Connections continued in this way and, as the project gained momentum – there have been 40 portraits to date – so too did the artist’s confidence. 'At first I was more scared than my subjects,' Davidson jokes. 'But soon it began to feel like a meeting of equals.'

So expressive are the eyes of actor James Ellis that, even in close up, they are instantly recognisable. Their liquidity, the dark pupils, the detail in the irises, the critical highlight and the sculpted skin tones and shadows around the eyes add vibrancy and realism to the painting. 'I regard myself as a painter who happens to paint heads, and I paint them rather as I would a landscape,' Davidson explains.

In Windows, his series of fluid city street scenes reflected in glass, Davidson mastered the blending techniques and the subtle range of colours which he now employs in his oil paintings. When an unusually serious portrait of the actress Bronagh Gallagher appears on screen, Muir wonders what the normally bright and bubbly Gallagher made of the finished work.


'I saw that expression during a little pocket of introspection. Bronagh did not see the painting until it was shown at the Naughton Gallery in Queen’s University alongside [portrait of] James Nesbitt, Simon Callow, Lisa Hannigan, Gary Lightbody and the others in the exhibition Between the Words. As we walked over to the gallery, she revealed how on the day of the sitting she was going through quite a lot and was actually fighting back tears.'

Davidson sketched the musician Paul Brady in his recording studio, where they talked about Brady’s background, about music, and about people they had worked with. Afterwards, Brady said that the process of sitting for Davidson was like seeing to a shrink. When both the original drawing and the final oil painting are screened, Davidson notes a certain vulnerability in Brady’s eyes.

A photograph of Davidson sketching the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney in the front room of his Dublin home in December 2012 reveals the absence of an easel and the artist sitting close to his subject. 'He was letting me do my own thing,' recalls Davidson. 'More than anybody else, I was aware at the time what a privilege it was, for he was a great man in the truest sense, yet he was so humble.

'I usually begin my oil paintings by marking the broad outlines with a paint brush and liquid paint, but in the case of Heaney I used a palette knife. It felt as though the painting was already there and I was digging to find it. Some of the yellow background – yellow like whins – bleeds into Seamus’s right cheek, perhaps because he and his work are part of the landscape.'

On those subjects with particularly expressive or aged faces, Davidson admits that 'pronounced features are a gift to a painter. I have issues with my chins, but to paint people with more than one chin is actually great. Mark Knopfler is a brilliant looking guy, but I especially enjoyed painting his nose.'

And on if he is ever truly happy with the end results: 'I’m not sure a picture is ever finished. I stop when the spirit of the person seems to be there. I leave room for that to happen, and when it does I am really reluctant to do anything more, for you can paint the life out of a picture.'

The poet Michael Longley, who is in the audience, is the subject of not one but two portraits, one of which is currently on view in the foyer of the Lyric Theatre along with portraits of actors Ciaran Hinds, Adrian Dunbar, playwright Brian Friel, actress Stella McCusker, playwright Marie Jones and Seamus Heaney.

Davidson’s drawings and portraits also feature in Mark Carruthers’ recent publication, Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity, while his portrait of the English boxer Tyson Fury is featured in the 2013 Royal Ulster Academy exhibition, which runs in the Ulster Museum until January 5.