This won’t come as a surprise to people who are familiar with his warm and textured portraits — and that makes it all the more surprising to hear that, for him, the most important element in his portraits is in fact the parts he leaves out.
“If somebody says when looking at a painting of mine they sense the spirit of the person in it, I can’t lay claim to that,” says Davidson. “It’s the bits I leave, those unfinished bits or parts that are less than perfect which allow people in to fill the gaps.”
The Belfast-born painter is in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin today to deliver a masterclass called Working from a life-model. But can you teach people to draw?
“I think it’s possible to teach drawing in the sense that we encourage people to study and record what they see,” says the 47-year-old. “You can certainly teach the fundamentals.”
For some people that would be more than enough. A basic ability to sketch a face or draw a body would be pleasing but for the artist there is the eternal search for more.
“If you look at Modigliaini or the Van Gogh portraits or even DeKoening, here were artists who had learnt to look at the world, dissect it, and then encapsulate it in as realistic and as accurate a way as possible,” says Davidson. “All of those people had the technique. They could draw like the greats but what they realised was that just recording wasn’t enough. Picasso said that it took him until the age of 16 to draw like Raphael but the rest of his life to learn to draw like a child. So in other words there’s something that we unlearn once we’ve learnt and what I have learnt in particular is to leave room in the painting for something else to occur.”
Davidson has painted many of the great and good of the modern cultural world. His portraits include homegrown talent such as Glen Hansard and actor Ciaran Hinds to figures like Brad Pitt and Ed Sheeran.
He explains that his sittings don’t involve sitting still for hours holding an apple. Instead, he encourages movement and interaction. He talks to the sitter and while all that is happening he hopes to find a moment that he can focus on. Often he will do 10 to 20 sketches, he will take photos, and then take it all away to his studio where the portrait is painted.
“I’m looking at how they work,” he explains. “How the face works but actually more important for me, I’m looking for the moment when they are seemingly unaware of me being there, if that makes sense, the moment they are totally at home in their own thoughts, and that’s the moment I’m striving to paint. With people who are well-known who we see in movies and the like, it somehow makes them very human and I hope it’s the most honest view of them, I suppose. It’s them as an equal.”
Most recently, Time magazine commissioned a portrait of Angela Merkel for the cover of its annual Person of the Year issue.
“Merkel was different,” says Davidson. “All the other people I’ve painted have sat for me. When Time approached me about doing the portrait, I knew I wasn’t going to meet her so I had to look at film and study photographs, read quite a bit about her, and look at her movements, and I pieced the portrait together from all of those things. It’s not something I’m sure I’d do again but I have to be honest, you don’t turn Time down.”
An artist as honest as his art.
Jonathan deBurca Butler