"First and foremost, I'm a painter a painter before anything else, not just a portrait painter. I love the texture and feel of paint." Despite this self-assertion and his professed love of abstraction, Diarmuid Kelley has become best known for his portraits. His work hangs in London's National Portrait Gallery and his commissions have included the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke of Devonshire. His paintings, fetching five-figure sums, have been bought by the likes of Steven Spielberg and collectors such as Lord Allen of Kensington and Michael Fisher. Since graduating in fine art from Newcastle University in 1995, his work has appeared in galleries and museums throughout the world. His latest solo exhibition, All Cats Are Grey, has just opened at London's Offer Waterman Gallery and consists of still life paintings in addition to portraits.
What appeals is the classical feel about Diarmuid Kelley's work with its square brush technique reminiscent of great painters such as Julien Bastien-Lepage. Kelley's obsession with the use of light in European painting most notably all those ethereal candlelit Dutch interiors exemplified by such as Vermeer, adds to the old masters feel. His studio is a light chamber with a window on one side allowing in strong light, with the other sides covered in drapes that can be adjusted to regulate the lighting. "Rather than adding light," he tells me, "You take away light and just leave it in the area where you want it."
The work entitled Winterreise (above) exemplifies another signature quality in Kelley's work, that of the unfinished picture. The dribbles of paint on the floorboards, the plainness of the walls and the impressionistic quality of the shirt all focus the eye on the soldier in the chair. Here the sitter is dressed in a uniform that is elaborate and ornate with bold stripes on the trousers and the sword in hand. This contrasts with the chair that is falling apart. One gains a sense of faded glory. The facial expression is one of serenity yet the clenched fist suggests tension. These competing forces within the picture are given more energy and spontaneity by the unfinished nature of the hinterland. "Those parts of the picture that are more elaborately drawn are more interesting because they are surrounded by chaos," says Kelley.
Kelley has used mainly friends as his models. "It's important you get on with your subjects since you have to spend time painting from life, for if you don't, the painting will often fail." Among his muses is the actress Olivia Williams who, while famously sitting for him for the first time, found it therapeutic enough to persuade her to dump her fiance. Kelley sees a portrait as a measure of the relationship between artist and sitter. In 2010, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Dame Anne Owers, the HM Inspector of Prisons. She invited him to accompany her on a visit to Chelmsford Prison. This had a huge impact on the resulting portrait which exudes a mixture of authority and compassion. "I saw her as authoritative, intelligent and articulate in a way I would not have done perhaps socially where she is modest and sweet."
One of the works I found most arresting is Indian Red (above). Within the portrait is a sophisticated narrative with the woman lying to the left of the picture with the swirl of her hair parallel to her resting arm. This lies across the ornate rug that is the focus of the piece. The softness of the silk and the ribbons echo the drape of the hair. There's a zig-zag of the arm and the rug. Once again, the antique props and ageing studio furniture convey a classical atmosphere but with the element of mystery that is contemporary. "I loved the colours and the faded texture of the rug - to diligently draw the pattern and look at the tiny, subtle differences in colour and tone was exhausting but very satisfying."
All Cats Are Grey can be seen at the Offer Waterman Gallery, 11 Langton Street, London SW10 0JL until 28 February. The pictures used here are courtesy of Offer Waterman.