‘I ask people to sit in three directions’: Mick O'Dea on painting portraits of famous Irish people

Mick O’Dea’s Kilkenny Festival Portraits 2015-17 exhibition will run at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery in Dublin until Saturday, 30 June.

Mick O’Dea is one of Ireland’s finest portrait painters, and he spent three seasons as the artist- in-residence at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, creating portraits of various participants.

He tells Richard Fitzpatrick about those sessions, the fruits of which feature in a new exhibition

Simon Callow, actor and writer

I had him morning and afternoon. A lot of people came in because of who he is.

He launched the festival that year – 2017.

He struck me as being almost like an out-half in rugby. He’s strong, stocky, well built and when he sat down there I was just aware of his physicality and his hands particularly.

The wonderful thing about painting actors is that once they find their position, what they are comfortable with, what they think you’re looking for, they just occupy that space.

He has a great face. He was a wonderful man to paint, and a great conversationalist.

Stephen Rea, actor

Stephen came [for the sitting] rather reluctantly because I think he had been acting late into the night.

To come down afterwards, performers need to relax a little bit. So he wasn’t the best for wear when he came in.

He kind of hesitantly came across the threshold. So he was coaxed into the space, found a chair.

We had the coffee. He sat down, regarded me, took in the environment and didn’t hide the fact that he was the worse for wear.

Being an actor, he kind of occupied that feeling and I think it’s one of the best portraits that I did.

He got into it. I think it’s fresh and revealing.

Barry McGovern, actor

That first year – 2015 – I was playing around with different colours in the background and I found a beautiful, slightly pinky colour at the back.

I think it was the first or second portrait I did and it was a gift to have him to crack the nut open.

He’s very giving. Actors are great because they also don’t take things too personally. They understand it’s how you portray them. It’s not who they are.

At the same time, you’re trying to say this is who they are. It’s always a case of: this is how I see you.

Hopefully if I’m sensitive enough and in tune enough, how I see someone reveals to others how they’re seen as well.

Garry Hynes, theatre director

She’s such a force of nature, diminutive but powerful. She’s determined and has such an amazing track record.

She’s sitting on a chair, which is not visible. I decided to remove any signs of the back of the chair or even the legs, and she’s just there in space consequently.

In that particular portrait I’ve a lot of space around her.

It’s one of the things I was playing around with – dropping the head lower than usual so there was more space between the top of the head and the top of the frame and that just gives the feeling of someone occupying space.

It gives it a psychological quality.

Martin Hayes, fiddler

Martin is a cousin of mine; his mother and my mother were first cousins.

He’s already composed a reel for me called ‘Mick O’Dea’s Reel’.

Don’t mind these sculptures or paintings. They’re like rock. They can fade away.

I’ve now been immortalised — I have a reel named after me by Martin Hayes.

I had long threatened to paint him, and he had already made his contribution by doing the reel so it was good to do him.

I think I got Martin there in that one.

Olwen Fouéré, actor and writer/director

I did four portraits of her previously in Paris.

When she came to the space – which was the squash court of James Stephens Army Barracks in Kilkenny, which is also known as the home of ‘The Bloods’; The Bloods is the nickname for the infantry battalion that stays there — I showed her two chairs.

She had an option of two chairs to sit on, and Olwen being Olwen, she lay on the ground.

She just stretched out and she had this amazing shirt on with a skeleton on it.

She’s one of our greatest actors, interpreters and performers.

It’s always an absolute pleasure to paint Olwen.

Iarla Ó Lionáird, singer

I usually ask people to sit in three directions — in front of me; then shift the chair to the left and look that direction, shift the chair to the right and look that direction.

Then maybe I get them to stand up and look at me, look to the left, look to the right, turn their body to the left, turn their body to the right and in the case of Iarla he faced right, three-quarter.

I thought that was a good way to paint him particularly as he’s got fine features and a fine nose.

Robert Pinsky, US poet

It’s very tiring standing. He stood for six hours.

He stood in the morning and he stood in the afternoon.

He recited poetry. He talked to the audience.

He fielded questions. He answered questions.

The audience was absolutely enthralled with him.

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