Born in Dublin, Gerard Byrne is one of Ireland’s leading contemporary artists. His expansive collection is representative of a versatility unparalleled in the contemporary Irish art scene. His artwork can be seen in collections across Ireland and the world. He recently released Turning Corners, a tabletop collection of 150 of his most renowned works
What are your own roots?
I was born on Dublin city’s northside, in the suburb of Finglas. We were, I suppose, a typical working-class family. There were six children – I have one brother and four sisters. My mother was a homemaker, and my father was self-employed for most of his life as a customs agent.
Where do you currently reside, and what age are you now?
I’m 65 this year. I’ve lived in many places – both in Ireland and abroad – since I left Finglas as a young man. Currently, I live in Ranelagh village on Dublin’s southside in a former storage premises which I converted into a space that acts as my home, studio and gallery. Prior to settling here in 2018, myself and my wife, Agata, lived in London and Brighton for four years. Ranelagh is a lovely neighbourhood close to the city centre with good shops, cafés and restaurants, and leafy streets of mainly 19th and early 20th century houses. It’s busy, but still retains its village feel. Within walking distance are nice parks as well as the Grand Canal and the streets and squares of Georgian Dublin.
When and why did you first become interested in the visual arts?
My great-grandfather was a painter and decorator. I remember going to visit him when I was a child of about six, or maybe even younger, and being fascinated by what he could do. House painting was his profession, but he also decorated the ceilings of his own house with landscapes and Dutch scenes of windmills and figures. I vividly recall being in his studio – the smell of the paints, the wonder of it all. I didn’t have much interaction with the man himself but what he did – and his surroundings – resonated with me. It used to play in my head that it was in the genes, that this desire I had to draw, and paint had been passed down from him, only to discover in later life that he was my step great-grandfather, not a blood relative as such. But, saying that, visiting him definitely inspired me as a young boy and made me realise that being an artist was achievable. Later in life, in my late teens, early twenties, Davy Byrne’s pub in Dublin, also regularly visited by James Joyce in his days, was one of my favourite haunts. I’d sit with a drink and marvel at the paintings that hung on the walls – big, figurative pieces among them – and say to myself: I’d love to be able to do that. It’s nice to think now, that some of my work actually hangs in Davy Byrne’s today alongside the paintings that once inspired me many years ago. When I was working as an electrician, I lived in New York for a time, and I used to visit the galleries there very often. I found the art both calmed and inspired me and made me feel less homesick somehow. I also received great encouragement from people out there. If ever I mentioned that I’d like to paint, the response would be: ‘Why don’t you?’ Whereas I might have been putting obstacles in my own way, New Yorkers saw no reason that I couldn’t do it. So, I feel I was always being pushed in a certain direction.
Are they the same reasons that you continue to be involved today?
In many ways, yes. I am always striving. There is still that desire to improve, to achieve, to perfect my technique. I suppose I haven’t lost the sense of wonder that I can actually do this. I think it might be because I’m self-taught. I am always learning. The challenge is still there. In the same way that I looked at my great-grandfather and at the paintings in Davy Byrne’s, I look at other artists’ work – the tones, colour mixes, details – and I learn from that and see if and how I can incorporate it into my own painting. I’ve looked at a lot of Van Gogh’s work in galleries all over the world and I see how he struggled to improve his skillset and find a way to be acknowledged and appreciated. I recognize and identify with the idea that many of the Impressionists were all the time trying to progress to another level and create an individual style.
How has your work evolved over the years?
The work I’m doing today is more detailed. The many thousands of hours that I’ve put in over the years have seen it naturally progress as opposed to it being forced in any way. For example, my early figurative work from twenty-five years ago is typically less subtle, more naïve than it is today. Not to detract from my early work but I have a different skillset now. Living in the UK for four years, I was able to go to a lot of exhibitions, the kind that wouldn’t have made their way to Dublin: Australian Impressionists, David Hockney and many more. I think being so exposed, so immersed, had an effect on my work and after that period it definitely changed. Now, my colour palette is more nuanced, as are light and shade in my paintings. During that time in the UK, I was fortunate to be able to concentrate solely on my work, confining myself to my studio without the distractions of sales or commissions. So, all of my experiences over the years have had an influence on my work. Travel, personal circumstances and so on. My subject matter has remained unchanged, but my technique has evolved and is more, I would say, polished now.
What are the challenges of the vocation?
The uncertainty is definitely challenging. Trying to make a living as an artist is not easy. There’s always that worry that people will stop liking your work, that it will go out of vogue or become dated. So, you have to stay fresh and keep evolving. Motivation is also a factor – it was for me at the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve also seen many artists come and go, artists who were producing really good work but who stopped because they find the whole process too difficult which is understandable. You never know when you’ll make your next sale, it’s not a salaried job. You go to the bank asking for a loan, but you don’t fit their criteria. Technology is another challenge, as it is in lots of areas. Machines can produce work that, to the untrained eye, can appear hand painted. Some artists use a projector, which can be a challenge in itself, but a very different one to freehand execution. My ambition is to remain faithful to the skills of draughtsmanship, to always use my hand and my eye only. I don’t use anything else – no rulers or any instruments to measure scale or perspective. I paint on the spot, with no preparatory work or sketches. That’s how I’ve always worked and it’s how I wish to continue, however challenging it may be to paint en plein air in all kinds of conditions.
What are the rewards?
There can be many. The financial rewards give me the freedom to keep painting, to live, to pay my bills. And the more I sell, the more I can invest in my art, my studio, my gallery. There are also emotional and spiritual rewards, which I consider to be an important aspect. It’s hugely satisfying when people say to me that they are inspired, moved, or encouraged by my work. To receive that kind of feedback is a reward in itself.
Is your creative process more ‘inspirational’ or ‘perspirational’?
Inspirational, I would say. I love to paint; it brings me so much joy and fulfilment. If I’m not painting, I’m not really happy. I’m very lucky that I can say I love what I do, and I can make a living from it. But it’s not without its struggles. It can be tiring to stand in one place all day at an easel. Especially abroad, in the heat. And when I was painting in Singapore, before I even got started there was the huge effort of getting all my paints and canvases over. So, there is an element of the ‘perspirational’ too. But I’m not complaining. It’s not like working in the coal mines or anything like that. Overall, it’s far more pleasure than pain.
What makes your work unique?
My subject matter is very diverse. A lot of artists find one theme and stick to it, and that works for them. I tackle many: landscapes, streetscapes, figurative pieces, botanical works, seascapes. I think I might get bored if I didn’t mix things up like that. Also, though I work in oils most of the time, I use charcoal too. Strong colours, light and shade, and unique perspectives characterise my work. I paint outdoors – en plein air – I don’t make sketches or spend time ‘planning’ paintings. I think this makes my work uniquely individual. I use my studio to paint figurative works and still life studies, but the first choice is always to take my paints and easel outside. Some of the canvases I use outdoors can be quite large – a metre by a metre and a half – which is unusual. A lot of painters, when they’re working en plein air, tend to make sketches on smaller, more manageable surfaces and work up to larger, finished paintings in their studio. I also have an ability to manipulate perspective. I might stand in front of a street corner, a building, whatever, and paint a scene, then, standing in the same spot, paint another which looks very different but is still recognisable as that place. I’m sometimes asked if I stand on ladders when I’m painting! I think my approach makes my work very accessible. The viewer is drawn into a scene and can see it as I saw it when I was directly in front of it. It’s as though they only need to take one more step and they are there. Composition is not something I consciously think about when I’m working. It’s intuitive, it comes naturally to me. A particular scene will attract me, I’ll set up my easel and just start painting. Everything contributes to it – the atmosphere, the sounds, passers-by – I think people can sense this when they look at my work. There’s an immediacy which wouldn’t be possible to achieve if I was working exclusively in my studio.
What makes a good painting?
A good painting has a certain energy about it, a kind of magic that can’t be seen but can be felt. It has a presence. The subject will draw you in, then the magic happens. It settles in your soul. It’s mystical in some ways. When I visit galleries, I move through the rooms fairly quickly, just enjoying the experience. Or maybe I’m searching for that one painting that will speak to me. And usually it finds me, stopping me in my tracks. I can marvel at technical skill etc…but that appreciation doesn’t always translate to an emotional response. Sometimes it’s about the artist’s own personal struggle, the immense effort that has gone into the work, the dedication to their art. Van Gogh, Monet – I can feel some kind of hidden element when I look at their work. It’s not something I can put into words. Some paintings emanate a certain energy. It’s not quantifiable. I suppose it’s all about what touches you.
What inspired the new book, and why now?
For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about putting a book together. 2019 marked thirty years since my first solo exhibition at the George Gallery in Dublin in 1989 so I felt that maybe a book to celebrate the three decades of my professional career would be a good idea. But then I was invited to be artist-in-residence in Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2019 and that took up a lot of time and energy. When the pandemic happened, things changed – as they did for everyone – and I found that while I was still painting, I wasn’t selling as much or as quickly because the gallery was closed. I built up a larger collection of work than I would normally have and the idea of recording it, and my own pandemic journey, seemed like an interesting theme for a book. Agata, my wife, was the driving force behind it. It was a huge amount of work, but because it was quieter business-wise, there was a lot more time to devote to it. The book features the 150 paintings that I produced during the three lockdowns in Ireland when restrictions forced me to work within certain limits, starting with views from my gallery’s rooftop and finishing with a collection from our staycation on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.
What is it about Dublin and Ireland that is so inspiring?
Ireland being an island, no matter where you are in the country, you’re never too far from the sea. I like that feeling. Dublin is a small city, it’s very manageable. Living here, whatever I might decide to paint on any given day – the mountains, the sea, the city – I can be there in twenty minutes. In other parts of the world where I have lived – Australia, America, even in England – you could travel for hours to get to the coast or to the open countryside, so finding places to paint is a lot more difficult than it is in Ireland. Here, I can go out in the morning to paint and come back to my own home in the evening. So, the convenience of the place, the ease with which I can access suitable places to paint means that I can get straight to work, and I like that. The landscape, of course – the West of Ireland especially – is breath-taking. Being a plein air painter, the weather can be challenging – there’s almost always a breeze. But the people are warm and helpful, and I’m welcomed here wherever I go. I find that aspect of life in Ireland inspirational. Feeling at ease when I’m out painting is very important to me. There’s never any dread or trepidation. In the National Botanic Gardens, for example, the staff go out of their way to make me feel at home, opening doors for me, closing off sections where I want to paint. I rarely, if ever, feel threatened here. The period architecture in Dublin is unique and I love painting it – the Georgian and Victorian squares, the redbrick terraces, the world-famous doorways. The city’s building, its construction is quite eclectic, There’s great variety in the tones and shades. In places like Italy and Croatia, while they are very attractive to paint – and the weather is a plus – there’s a sameness to the architecture. The roof tiles can all be a similar terracotta colour for example, and the buildings are usually grey or white. For me, Dublin provides a great choice in terms of subject.