Belfast painter Colin Davidson (b. 1968) was always artistically inclined but it wasn’t until 1999 when he finally gave into his calling to focus on painting full-time. Davidson first began painting urban life, however, he is most famous for his unique portraits of world leaders and famous people.
In 2016 Davidson was commissioned by the non-profit group Co-Operation Ireland to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Davidson began this enormous feat shortly after the Queen’s 90th birthday with sittings at the palace. The painting was unveiled in November 2016 by the Queen herself at Crosby Hall. As Irish News noted this informal portrait is considered the first Irish painting of a British monarch.
With portraits in the collections of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Ulster Museum in Belfast, the National Gallery of Ireland, and works on view at the National Portrait Gallery of London, Davidson is enjoying a successful and notable career.
Although he loathes to be called a portrait painter, his unique approach to painting portraits is what sets him apart and makes his work so unique. Instead Davidson thinks of his portraits as landscapes of the face, or “headscapes” as The Sunday Times referred to them in 2015.
The first time Davidson painted a portrait he began with his friend, musician Duke Special. The canvas Davidson had on hand in his studio was about 50″ H X 50″ W. He thought the large canvas would allow the portrait to become something else and be larger than life. During his interview with Irish newspaper Independent.ie, Davidson explained he uses roughly the same canvas size for each of his subjects as a way to make all his sitters equal.
Davidson takes the unconventional approach of painting portraits as if he were painting a landscape. He views his work as a landscape of the face with many layers. As he explained to Irish News he waits for quiet moments when subjects reveal a glimpse of their true selves, not animated during conversation but moments in between during periods of reflections. In these quiet moments he feels he best captures the essence of the person.
Davidson’s portraits took on a life of their own and it wasn’t long before he had a list of individuals wanting to sit for a portrait by Davidson. Davidson gratefully acknowledges he only ever sought out his friend Duke Special as subject, the rest found him. In a twist of fate, Brad Pitt contacted the artist requesting Davidson teach him to paint. Initially Davidson declined but eventually acquiesced. Davidson then painted a portrait of the actor which now hangs in Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Although Davidson has enjoyed great success with his portraits of leaders and celebrities, he has explored new meanings behind his portraits. His recent series “Silent Testimony” and “Jerusalem” addresses those affected by religious and political plights.
In these series Davidson painted portraits of the subjects and labeled them only using their first names and no other details that might indicate their background. What is common throughout the series is the concept of loss, struggle, and complexity.
By taking a break from his usual cityscape paintings and asking his friend Duke Special to sit for a portrait, Davidson opened the door to his future. Davidson has successfully used his portraits as a method to convey deeper meaning and dialogue surrounding intricate subjects. Whatever the future holds for Davidson, we’re sure to keep watching what will no doubt continue to be a successful career.